Language News: Sam Chwat, Dialect Coach To The Stars (And To Us) | WBUR & NPR

Sam Chwat, a dialect coach to actors like Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Danny Glover, and Julia Roberts, was interviewed by Terry Gross in 1994.  He passed away this week, and they are replaying his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air today.

Sam Chwat, Dialect Coach To The Stars (And To Us) | WBUR & NPR.

Parts of this interview raise some eyebrows, namely the claims that he is able to eliminate accents.  This is impossible.  You can only speak with an accent.  He is also wrong about his discussion of what linguists call /ai/-monopthongization:

“We worked very hard and long on that one, and [De Niro] did beautifully,” Chwat said. “What you’re hearing [in Cape Fear] is mostly vowels that are changed. For example, instead of family, you’re hearing a more nasal sound in the ‘a.’ Instead of the vowel ‘i,’ which never exists in any part of the South, you have [the sound] ‘ah.'” These are some of the changes that we went through, word for word, in the script and all through the shooting.”

Instead, linguists know that there is both regional variation (within the south) and contextual variation that affects whether or not this sound is pronounced as ‘i’ (/ai/ if you know the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA) and when it is pronounced as ‘ah’ (/a/ in the IPA).  

But the discussion offers a perspective on dialect differences that is easy for lay-people to follow.

In addition to regional dialects of English, he also discusses ethnic dialects, including those influenced by Spanish.  As problematic as it is to teach these as “problems” that need to be corrected, it’s worth listening to, if for no other reason than because he has such a cool linguisticky name:  “Chwat” is pronounced the same as “schwa,” the most central, relaxed vowel in the English language.


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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