Friday, May 7, 2010


We played Call of Cthulhu the other day--in the default '20s, and in London and a cruise to London--so that means I had to do a lot of voices. Luckily, I have a lot of voices.

You've probably heard the Goblin--which is just a slightly-lower-pitched munchkin, really--it's achieved by making the tongue as wide as possible and pulling it to the back of the top teeth. The words have to be articulated mostly by the lips.

The Gollum, in contrast, is accomplished by compacting the tongue, laying it on the bottom of the mouth, and pulling it as far back as possible.

Widening the tongue, flattening it on the bottom of your mouth, and pulling it as far back as possible gives you a sort of Orc, or at least a grumbly sort of monster.

(All of this is accompanied by some mysterious movements back in the larynx which are harder to describe. The best I can say is that high voices seem to involve pulling things in your neck higher up and lower voices involves pushing them lower down.)

With most accents, I'm a decent mimic just after I've heard the voice--which is a cruel thing to be good at, since it means you're best at copying someone while they're standing right in front of you. (With a non-foreign voice it's much harder--I'm not really imitating the voice--that's very hard--I'm imitating the accent, which is enough for those who don't share the accent. Imitating a voice well enough that people with the same accent like it is rare freakshow talent.)

The trick isn't really getting the accent, it's remembering the accent. This is easy with people you've heard talk a lot--I was taught for a semester by the Indian photographer Raghubir Singh
and, after he died, one of his (American) friends (another photography teacher) kept insisting I do his voice whenever we talked because, she insisted, it made her miss him less--which was strange because Raghubir and I despised each other and most of my Ragubhir routine consisted of making fun of how he discussed photography using tennis analogies.

Another one I've got fairly down is whatever kind of British accent the writer Martin Amis has--I've heard him a lot in interviews and readings--and I can do a decent rip of one of my close friends' Spanish accent--though if you've never heard him it just sort of sounds like an unplaceably generic Eurovoice with lisps and extra e's before any s-word.

For most others, I need a "trigger" phrase--something I can say that tells me where all the parts of the mouth go. Examples:

For the Irish, I use the phrase "Ian Alistair McKenzie" from the name of an addressee in an old UPS or FedEx ad commercial. One "Ian Alistair McKenzie" and I can be convincingly Irish to the non-Irish for days at a time.

For the Cockney, I use the phrase "This is King's Cross"--an actual quote from an actual cabbie in actual London that I actually had said to me.

For the West Indian I use "'Dere no a creme for dat" another actual quote from an actual Londoner said to me in a cosmetics shop. It still needs some work, as my Jamaican tends to slide (bizarrely) into my Irish if I talk long enough. It doesn't come up much in D&D though.

My Liverpool is just Ringo saying "I'm just a chap from Liverpool" in an old commercial from the '80s for credit cards or some shit. (The other Beatles are easy once you've got that--John is that with your eyes half-closed and longer O's, Paul is that but moving your head back and forth and more excitable, George is that but lower and bored.)

Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, or anybody from Python is cake, but they're so extreme that it ends up just sounding like the NPC is Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, or The Minister of Silly Walks, so for a more generic British voice I use whoever it is that says "The Tale of Sir Robin".

I find a softened Johnny Rotten works ok for Melniboneans and White Elves, despite the fact that, classwise, it makes no sense.

For the Japanese, I just need to remember hearing a kid in Tokyo say his favorite band was "Arrannashid" and then having him write it down and so seeing he was saying "Rancid." Though I fear that on bad days I just sound like the Trade Guild.

For the German (the non-funny German, for the funny German I just do Colonel Klink like everyone else) I use my friend Werner saying "It's kind of weird." But I drift out of it very fast if I'm not in Germany. And when I am in Germany it insults the Germans, so it's tough. I can do Schwarzeneggar, Hans and Franz and Rainier Wolfcastle well enough to tell them apart, but I kind of hate that voice so I avoid it.

For French, I use the name "Lemme Caution" as pronounced in Alphaville.

Russian is Yakoff Smirnov saying "Een Sovyet Yoonion," but Russian tough-guys are harder, and my Russian-tough-guy tends to slide right into my Henry Kissinger unless I remember someone my friend Dave once got in a fight in a bar saying "I am not afraid off you, it was not for your police, I would hit you." but then that actually slides into a soup of Eastern European accents I heard when I made a movie in Spain.

Nordic accents are hard--I lived in Denmark for a month, and not one of them sounded a bit like the Swedish chef--they all had learned English from the BBC and had what sounds to an American like a merely slightly hesitant and less crisp British newscaster accent. Any attempt to do a more "Nordic" sounding accent just descends into Swedish Chef. How D&D vikings should sound is beyond me--I usually just say Fuck It and go for some sort of Rider of Rohan Melange.

For American children, I remember my little brother used to pronounce "Are you thirsty?" as "Aw you sauce D?"

Many of my American accents are weird, since, arguably, I actually have some of them and it's more a question of getting into the emotional mindset that goes with the accent then remembering a phrase. My native DC-area accent (best exemplified by Omar on The Wire) is a kind of Southern-plus-what-most-people-think-of-as-"black" an it's sometimes how I actually sound when I get angry, and it's actually hard for me to do it unless I'm actually making threats. The key component is a sort of constant oscillation between incredulity at what the other person is saying and confident indifference to whether they believe what you're saying. "I'on'even care, I tell you what, you wanna believe the motherfucker, you believe the motherfucker. I'm'onna sit back and drink mah motherfucka' applejuice. Be right here if you neeme."

Most of the Americans don't come up in RPGs I play, though, so whatever.

Like in "Axe" Episode 2, I don't always like doing female voices--if you do them funny, it's funny, and if you're a guy and manage to nail it and don't do them funny, it can be even funnier--and sometimes there's enough funny business going on that you don't want more funny. Sometimes.

But anyway I have some good ones:

For the female New York Jewish, I use my aunt saying "She went from Poe-lind ta Choina! She was at Hu-RO-shima!" (Long story. Not sure it's true.) and "Theya's no excuse fuh that kyna behaveyuh." and, simply, "For her" pronounced as "Fuh huh."

For the south, I use "hotter'n Georgia asphalt" as pronounced by Laura Dern in Wild at Heart.

For Female Russian (ironically better than my male Russian), I can do my friend Vera saying "I would like some wudka, and a cookie."

For the female French I use the phrase "Je n'aime pas les tunnels" from, I think, the movie "Night On Earth".

For what I assume is upper middle British I use "I'm Catty Kay for the BBC".

For the upper class British I use Margaret Thatcher saying "Let's have a party! Acid party! Rave! Rave! Rave! Murder." as sampled in the song "Maggie's Last Party".


mordicai said...

Wait I'm sorry, I must have dropped some acid, I thought I read that you use a Johnny Rotten impression for Melniboneans. WHICH IS HILARIOUS.

I have a bunch of goblin voices, & generic Slav-ish. The ish being, sort of. Oh & a mean Peter Lorre, I figured out. Which is sort of just another goblin.

squidman said...

Nice entry, but I'd prefer if it was a podcast.

Your goblin is very good AND funny. And you have a very nice NYC accent which is also funny, at least for me.

For me, doing voices is much easier in english than it is in polish, which is quite obvious, since practically all voices to do, are those listed by you (that is english spoken by foreigners). The only voice I imitate well in polish is "the americanized pole from chicago".

Not very useful in RPGs.

Anyway, it would be bitchin' if you provided us with some samples.

Anonymous said...

Cool. I can do just Spanish accent, German (as probably everyone in here can), and Irish, based on Banshee in Gen X movie. Need to educate myself. *nod*

Adam Dickstein said...

I love voices and accents and have become pretty good at them over the years. Oddly I can't do a good German accent for more than a few seconds. It always ends up transforming into one of the other accents I am better at (usually Russian or a faux-Norse sounding Norwegian).

My best voice ever is so difficult to do I hardly use it except for NPCs who are not intended to hang around long. It was first used for an alien in a Star Wars game.

I essentially pay close attention to my breathing and try to breathe in when I would normally breathe out. Add a slightly higher pitch than my normal speaking voice and you get this damn freaky sound that hurts the throat a little if I do more than a few lines of continuous dialog.

Anonymous said...

The only accent I can pull off with any regularity is badly Japanese accented English. Which is really just an impression of a number of elderly Shotokan Karate instructors from the early 90s that taught at a number of seminars and demonstrations I went to. It's fairly grumbly, and now that I think about it, it uses the same tongue positioning you describe for your kind of Orc voice. The main active component is switch Rs for Ls. Such as "Reft reg" for "Left leg". "Reft" actually came up a lot in the seminars, body positioning being important in teaching techniques and whatnot.

Accents are not really my forte. But I do agree with squidman. This would make an excellent podcast.

Vastad said...

Your female Russian quote is side-splitting hilarious. That will be in my repertoire from now on.

Delta said...

"For most others, I need a 'trigger' phrase--something I can say that tells me where all the parts of the mouth go"

Exactly how I do it.

SirAllen said...

Regarding accents, I unfortunately am terrible, much to my players delight. Everyone starts as an angry Irishman and morphs into the doctor from the old Ed Zachary Syndrome joke. My players tell me every voice I do sounds like Jerry Seinfeld crossed with Howard Cosell.

Fun post Zak. I liked your goblin voice.

SirAllen said...

PS. Since I'm drunk, I'd like to cross briefly into the porn part of your blog, and offically say how much I like Kimberly Kane in her non-D&D profession. Very much.

Darth Jodoc said...

Most of my accents & voices have to come from a character. I generally have to visualize the character mentally (to a degree) to get the voice down. Some take a bit of warm-up, if it's been a while. Useful for D&D games, though used out of necessity (to a degree) for Star Wars games. It's not just the sound of the voice, but the speaking pattern of the voice as well (like the harsh, bitter tone of the Emperor/Darth Sidious, which tends to soften to a more "pleasant" tone from time to time, based on the topic).

Currently, Henchman #21 and #24 from The Venture Bros. are the easiest ones for me to do now. So I'm definitely looking for opportunities to use those regularly in-game (perhaps as a pair of regular NPCs, or even hirelings for the PCs).

(Doesn't help matters much that I look much like [a non-fit version of] Henchman #21/Gary.)

Jayson said...

The trigger phrase is often my in as well--or at least a "key word" whose phonemes serve as a hallmark of the class.

Also, my Melnibonean types usually sound like David Bowie in Labyrinth.

Jayson said...

Should say "hallmark of the accent."

erwin said...

The trigger phrase reminded me of this Family Guy skit..

thekelvingreen said...

Hrm, the Danish always sound Generic American to me. Weird.

My Pendragon GM runs his Saxons with WWII movie German accents. We all know it's wrong, but we love it.

Grylock said...

What might work for tough guy russian types is the phrase "Shot fock op!" (for, obviously, Shut the fuck up), as used by William Gibson in, I believe, Virtual Light for a russian-american cop.

Fran Terminiello said...

I would love to hear all of these. Make it a bonus episode of just you as a talking head. A jamaican-irish-NYCjewish-southernUS-cockney-russian spelljamming merchant perhaps, who has seen so many cultures he can't remember which one to stick to.

Dungeondad is crap at accents, everything comes out as Russian, which he is actually pretty good at. When a DM does a woman they always try and make her sound 'sexy' or 'confused' which is funny.

Adam Thornton said...

He do the police in different voices!

Also: "It still needs some work, as my Jamaican tends to slide (bizarrely) into my Irish if I talk long enough. It doesn't come up much in D&D though." -- Ahhh, Black Irish.

AGCIAS said...

Great! I learned the "trigger phrase" concept when I was (briefly) doing the Comedia del Arte in the SCA. My favorites are "My name ‘s Inigo Montoya. You kill my father; prepare to die" and Toshiro Mifune in Red Sun in response to the question "Are you still going to kill me?" "Uum. Co be."

When I was doing Bureau 13 regularly I did a huge number of accents but am horribly out of practice now. Still, the entertainment value of hearing my Japanese, German or Pakistani slip and slide into Scottish cannot be underestimated. Yes, all accents are Scottish now. But who knows what someone from the Yeomanry sounds like vs. a Keolander anyway. So now it is orc, kobold, high-class, peasant, tough merc. and educated (wizard or cleric). With variations for good. evil and "the PCs are still trying to figure it out."

I'd love to hear your Melnibonean on IHIWMA.

d. emerson eddy said...

For Danish, I usually use Lars Ulrich as a template -- provided, of course, I want the character to be completely ulikeable.

Travis said...

I think you are a highly romantic DM putting on foreign accents as you do and telling us all about your travels.

A GM said...

I don't think I've ever met a GM worth their NaCl that wasn't at least a latent theater ham. :)

Any chance we can hear about the CoC game?

BigFella said...

Heh. My trigger phrase for doing a Boris Karloff/Frankenberry accent is the word "antipasto" prounounced with a lisp.

Hey Delta, remember how I nearly killed us all at Gen Con '05 switching from MacGoohen brothers Scottish to James Hong styled Chinese in mid sentence?

John D. Kennedy said...

When it comes to accents I find that I slip out of them really easily if I get distracted. I have a decent English accent I can pull out but it's a bastardization of Northern and Welsh.

I can do southern very well but then again I'm from Indy and my Mom's from Tennessee. :P