Voice as choice

A while back, I attended a Creative Mornings talk at The Market Theatre in Joburg.

Creative Mornings hosts free educational lectures on a wide variety of subjects - they're all over the world, from Tel Aviv to Chicago.

Creative Mornings

See if you can find one near you. Each month, all across the globe, the topic is the same.

When I attended, the topic was "Language," and our speaker was Fiona Ramsay.

Ramsay is a very accomplished and experienced South African actress who now does voice/accent coaching for top names in Hollywood. She's busy, mostly because nobody can imitate the South African accent, myself included!

Fiona was hilarious. She can switch in and out of any accent at will, so she had us in stitches.  But she also made us think about our own prejudices regarding language, especially accent as well as usage.

She told us to turn to the person next to us and just introduce ourselves by name.

Fiona Ramsey

The young man next to me introduced himself to me by name. I replied, "I'm Shannon Walbran." And we followed Ramsay's rules; that's all we said.

Ramsay then asked the audience 3 quick questions:

  1. Where is your neighbor from?
  2. How old are they?
  3. What do they do for a living?

Ramsay told us to keep our guesses to ourselves until the end of the session.

One of her main points was that voice is a choice. We speak differently depending on who we are talking to.

We can maximize our impact, she said, if we speak clearly and authentically using our own accent, in a way that other people can understand.

She also made some interesting political points about language, race, and oppression.

She noticed that the people from the white American South and South Africa, and some Australians, hold their faces very still when speaking.

She implied that although these places have histories of oppression, in fact of being the oppressors, the speakers want to be liked and accepted and so they speak through a smile, which is sometimes forced. She did an imitation and we cracked up, it was so accurate. Gritted teeth and all.

It was fascinating to contemplate her theories.

When people try to adopt foreign accents, Fiona says, they often make the mistake of bobbing their heads up and down (as if simulating Italian), but the real trick is to move the voice, in the mouth, from the throat to the lips or vice versa.

A Russian accent is a gargle in the throat, she said.

An American accent jumps off the lips, it's all in the front.  Which is why Americans are often perceived as "loud." (I replied in my mind, "We Americans are loud, too, but we are heard as extra-loud!")

At the end, I turned to my neighbor and asked, "Are you a poet? Are you from another country in Africa, rather than South Africa? Are you about 35?"

He said he was a writer, from Harare, Zimbabwe, and that he was 32.

He asked, "Are you English? Are you a counselor? Are you 40?" I said yes, a spiritual counselor / isithunywa / psychic. And I explained the rest, complimenting him on getting close to the facts.

We both grinned with pleasure that we could guess a few things about each other from just a one-sentence introduction.

Have you thought about your accent lately?

How does your voice reflect who you are, on the inside?

If you wanted to, could you shift into an even more authentic version of yourself with your voice and accent?

Which aspects of yourself do you believe your Guides wish you to show to the world?

Always remember, you are guided!

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