Book Club The mighty Ziff-Davis publishing empire has chalked up many triumphs over the years, but one masterpiece from 1943 has been sadly neglected.
It's the Manual of Foreign Dialects for Radio, Stage and Screen, by Lewis Herman and Maguerite Shalett Herman, published in Chicago.
As the title suggests, it's a manual for speaking English in a foreign accent. Think Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. He clearly hadn't take notice of Herman and Herman, and cinema history would have been different, and we'd have been spared if a generation of bit-part actors playing to national stereotypes, while they gurn away in comedy accents, if this fine manual had been heeded.
"When all of the elements have been learned progressively, the result should be finished and authentic dialect," write the authors.
But the guide also schools the thesp with a broad and balanced view of the world, too. Many of the dialects have heart-warming descriptions of the national character, to better give the student a feel for the nation's rich heritage and temperament. We offer a selection below, with a simple pronunciation test taken directly from the manual:-
"The widely acceptable prototype Britisher has a stolidity, for instance, that makes for heavy almost humorless, humor"
Humorless humor? How true. "He cannot appreciate the humor in others, nor the humor in himself".
Your Brit is honourable, but basically useless: "he has an eye for business, but will not debase his honor to achieve it." However the British display great fortitude in times of crisis, which Herman and Herman attribute to "the tradition of dressing for dinner no matter what".
"A great many Englishmen suffer from stammering," the authors observe, and helpfully include a section on how to stammer correctly in British.
And remember: to attract an Englishman's attention, the equivalent of the American "Hey" is "I say!", pronounced AHi-sEH-EE!.
"The word 'Italian' brings to many minds the picture of an olive-skinned person with flashing black eyes, a dramatic talent for gesticulation, a fiery temper and warm, full lips that are always open in song - Verdi's songs," say the Hermans.
Is the picture true?
"Generally speaking," the authors tell us. But in the North, they observe, Italians are fairer-haired and "observe more self control." Fortunately, though, like the Southern Italians, the Northerners' lips also are "always open in song - Verdi's songs".
Pronounce this: Signorelli has a fine bambino
Like this: Eezuh fILnuh bAH:mbEEnAW sEEnyAWrAYlEE gAW:duh
Generously, the stereotypical meanness attributed to the Scots is much maligned and false, reckon the Hermans.
On the other hand, "to satisfy the Scotsman: give him a pipeful of plug cut, a bottle of Scotch whisky, a bowl of oatmeal porridge in the morning, a haggis pudding at Christmas, the skirling of the bagpipes on all occasions - and he's a contented man."
Nothing wrong with that at all, agrees Reg editor John Lettice.
Pronounce: Taskmaster; Oatmeal; Stomach Ache
Like this: tOs'mOSthuhr, AW/mi:l, stoomah/EHi/
"To synthesize the German character," note our heroic authors, "it can be said that he approximates the Russian or Polish peasant except that he has been damned with a brain."
"He reveres, almost to idolatory, the use of honorary titles: 'Herr Dockor Direktor General Schultz', where we would say simply, 'Mr Shultz'". But underneath though, he's a softy. Or as they put it: "he is actually a sentimental weakling and will weep tears into his wurtzburger brau at the strains of a waltz." Unlike most (but as we'll see, not all) of their quick-witted European neighbours, or Americans, the German is "slow to thought, slow to action and slow to speech." The authors blame "an inbred inferiority complex".
Hegel causes the authors a dilemma, but they conclude that this "abstruse thinker" is a representative German after all. It's logic, but logic that's "practically unintelligible".
Pronounce: (No.10 [p.183]): They were going to the concentration camp
Like this: dtOO dtUH gkAWnsEHndtrAY:shUHn gkEHmbp dtAY: vfAWs gkOH:ingk
The 'Pert and Nimble' Cockney
Never confuse a Cockney with a Britisher. But who or what is a Cockney?
"Technically, anyone living in London," they advise. "He's a brash little fellow ... an inveterate heckler." You can spot a Cockney by his nasalized speech, "possibly because of the adenoid trouble which is quite prevalent in the British Isles." The plucky chap is "a funny little fellow", cheery in adversity, but when he's bad, "he's a rat".
Sample phrase: Take the blooming horse home
Pronounced: tI:k Thuh bliOOminAW sAOWm
Being allies in 1943, when this masterpiece was published, doesn't help the Poles much.
In fact, the Pole is "slow to thought, slow to speech and slow to action". Sound familiar? His speech is "heavy, slow and hesitant... it oozes out heavily, stolidly - like viscous oil instead of bubbling spring water."
Poles are "stolid and unimaginative", and the women "bovine", so the speech must reflect the character and appearance, they wisely tell us.
Rather rashly however, the test phrases they offer include one that could cause a food riot:-
Sample phrase: There are four sandwiches in your box
Pronounced: is fAWr sOnvwitch in bAWks
Awaiting inflexion: A Glottal
On the whole the French are likeable.
But beware: the French hate the high-life and luxury, warn the authors. Life in France is "frugal to the nth degree" and the typical Frenchman so mean, that his "penny-penching would shame even the proverbially 'tight' Scotsman." But the literature is witty and frivolous, he's a frank Franc, and even the French criminal "is more intelligent than the average".
Sample Phrase: Is my hat fashionable?
Pronounced: mI'AHT, EE zEEt shEEk?
Wouldn't you know it? It's the place of "Smorgasbord and the Midnight Sun"!
But the Swedes have the authors in a giddy swoon. Maybe it's their "gay spirit"? Their "light heartedness"? Or their "bubbling sense of humour"? Who knows, but "they're very likeable", exhibiting none of their neighbours' "dour Norwegian moodiness". Maybe it's because that's why the Swedes are neat, industrious, and the most intelligent and progressive people in Europe.
Sample Phrase: John is as cross as a bear
Pronounced: yAW:n A:r sOH: krO: s Il:k AH bA:
Now Talk Proper
And so it goes through, Yiddish, Beche le Mar and Pidgin and a dozen other dialects. But there's no place for the Welsh - because as every American knows it's part of England. (It must be, because we're always being told Alan Cox "lives in England", see). And the Finns and Hungarians get half a page each.
As Charles Laughton's voice coach Garson Kanin writes in the foreword to the Manual: "Superficial theatrical clichés must be abruptly discarded - too often they tend to ridicule than represent."
Indeed, and there's no danger of that here. We'd like to post more excerpts, but with the international political situation so delicate right now, it could tip us over the brink.®
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