"You know you have a dialect. You don't think you do, but you do. And I can't understand you."
Recently a critic said that to a cast of mine. It was one of those statements that remains both true and generally lacking benefit. Yes, it is true that everyone speaks with some dialect. If we take dialect to mean the means by which a person forms the sounds that make up language, then all who speak have some dialect. As the Brits have come to use the term, the "dialect-less" speech of a BBC announcer is "Received Pronunciation." In America, we actors tend toward a form of hopefully region-less speech of literal middle-America – shooting for a kind of perfect Iowan speech.
The question then easily moves beyond the issue that all speakers have a dialect. We move to the bigger issue of what that means.
Traditionally dialect in English – meaning in England – had much to do with class, power, and wealth with a little bit of region thrown in. But even that tradition is the result of population shifts, politics, war, education, and the like over the history of English being spoken by the people of England.
When the Romans left England to its own devices toward the beginning of what we call the Middle Ages, England was invaded by northern Europeans. Angols, Saxons, Jutes. These peoples spoke an off-shoot of a "Germanic" tongue. But there were different waves of invasions. The folks who came to England and subjugated the Celts in the 6th and 7th centuries settled down eventually. But they were followed by cousins in Viking raids in the 10th century who also settled down. So the new peoples pronounced "sk" sounds where the older settlers made "sh" sounds. So we have "shirt" and "skirt" in the language. And "ship" and "skip" – the latter of which lasts mainly in the word for the one who runs the ship – the skipper. Likewise after the Norman conquest, Norman pronunciation of French differed from Parisian pronunciation of French. One preferred the soft sound "ch" while the other preferred the hard "c." Thus we have both "chivalry" and "cavalry" both coming from a French root for "horse."
Metathesis is the process by which speakers shift sounds in a word. This is what leads a kid to ask for p-sghetti. So in Old English you would hear a man "aks" a question. [How long has it been since you read Beowulf?] Over time it becomes "ask." And now some dialects are moving back to "aks."
Fine. But what does that have to do with the issue at hand?
Well, over time certain dialects were associated with power and class. For example, in the age of Kind Alfred, his Wessex [West Saxon] dialect held sway due to the fact that Alfred was enormously successful on the battlefield, and he was literate. He had folks make sure that available manuscripts were written in his Wessex dialect. [Imagine President Kennedy in another age asking that Huckleberry Finn be published in an edition in which all of the characters "spoke" in Kennedy's Boston accent.] In later centuries, the speech of the powered elite set the standard for what the upper class should sound like.
American English, though, has had much more to do with region than class. This is not to say that class has no place in how Americans speak. But region and education have much more to do with how Americans speak.
Take as examples American presidents over the past several decades, many of whom had memorable dialects. Kennedy sounded more like other people from Massachusetts than other rich folks. Lyndon Johnson's rough and ready Texan drawl had more to do with region than his rise to power. Jimmy Carter's gentle Southern/Georgian drawl differed completely from Johnson's Texas dialect. Both of whom differed in how they spoke from Bill Clinton from Arkansas (made more genteel with Ivy League education) and George W. Bush's Texan. All of these men were arguably the most powerful men in America, if not the world. But their speech was more about where they came from than their class. Likewise, most Americans didn't alter their speech to make the president's speech a model for class-related dialect.
One of the surprising bits of information over the past few months is the news that parts of Europe have more social mobility today than America has. But it's not entirely surprising in that the British have become much more accepting of a variety of dialects in the various forums in which they hear speech – like television and theatre. So it can be that a Northern accent or a Yorkshire accent can be heard on the Shakespearean stage in Britain. A Liverpudlian lilt or a Welsh dialect can be heard in a television character, and it isn't the huge deal it once was.
Meanwhile in America, we haven't quite found a way to embrace the various dialects of American English. We hold out as a model a region-less, dialect-less speech. This kind of speech is very American – "I come from nowhere and will disappear ultimately like the will o' the wisp." We do not use the dialects of our country. And some dialects we actively dislike.
Every now and again I illustrate this point with friends, with actors, with students by doing "To be or not to be . . ." in an American Southern accent. It is a sure piece of comedy gold. Why not have a Southern Hamlet? Is it not possible to imagine Claudius in the form of a Southerner – a politician, perhaps? Listen for a Southern accent on American entertainment television, and you'll generally see a character who's not so bright. The exception is the Southerner who gives the Northerners hell through sly subversion.
So, to our respondent, I'm sorry that you couldn't understand some of the speech because of the dialects of the cast. On the other hand, I also think it will be a good day when we get past the notion that we have to have some standardized, pasteurized dialect for all acting in America.
I don't know that embracing all of America's dialects will resurrect American social mobility. But I'm willing to give it a shot.