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.
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.