Tuesday, May 21, 2013

the Five Schools of Scottish-accent impersonation

Americans, yours truly included, have no damn clue about the different varieties of Scottish accents out there. Can you, fellow American, tell the difference between Highland versus Lowland, or South West versus Central/Tay? Most of the time, the people we think of as famous for Scottish accents aren't Scottish at all: Mike Myers, for example, is a Canuck who has created an entire career from his inconsistent and woefully fake Scottish accent. More recently, Englishman Simon Pegg has said he went for a "Glaswegian" accent in playing Montgomery Scott (or as Pegg calls him, "Monty") in the JJ Abrams Star Trek films (some Scots have called Pegg out, too, for lack of consistency). So our American notion of a true Scottish accent is warped, and when actual Scottish actors make an appearance, our attempts to imitate them sound, well... like Mike Myers and Simon Pegg's.

I think I've identified five major schools of Scottish-accent imitation.

1. The Billy Boyd School. Billy Boyd, a bona fide Scot, is perhaps most famous in America for his role as Peregrin "Pippin" Took, derisively referred to as "the one Scottish hobbit" by Scottish-American late-night show host Craig Ferguson. Peter Jackson made up for the Scotsman deficit when he rolled out "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." That film is stocked to the gills with Scottish dwarves, except for the lone Oyrish dwaahrf: Bofur (Irish actor/comedian James Nesbitt). Boyd's accent has something of a lilting, lyrical feel to it. He tap-dances gingerly over his consonants and flaps his "r"s without rolling them. People attempting to imitate Simon Pegg's Scotty (or Craig Ferguson, for that matter) usually end up aping Billy Boyd.

2. The Billy Connolly School. Connolly, who's getting on in years now, has the classic, stereotypically gritty, gravelly Scots-warrior voice. Anyone trying to tell a grandiose tale of high adventure in a Scottish accent usually ends up sounding a bit like Billy Connolly. Listen to his voiceover narration in the preview trailer for Pixar's "Brave" to understand what I mean: the man steamrollers his phonemes like a drunken Zen monk wreaking havoc in the rock garden. People trying to imitate burly Scottish actor James Cosmo usually end up sounding like Billy Connolly.

3. The Sean Connery School. Only Sean Connery sounds like Sean Connery. He's not the first person I think of when you say "classic Scottish accent." Imitators of Sean Connery aren't trying to sound generically Scottish; they're trying to shound ash much ash posshible like Sean Fucking Connery.

4. The James Doohan School. Doohan, a Canuck like Mike Myers, put his stamp on the original "Star Trek" TV series as the first (and, for some fans, the only) Montgomery Scott. Scottish opinions of Doohan's accent vary from an "Aw, isn't that cute?" condescension to a horrified "Is this what Americans think we sound like?" reaction. Personally, I find Doohan's accent more palatable than Myers's. It's rougher and occasionally guttural without straying into Billy Connolly territory. For that reason, Simon Pegg's Scotty is a bit jarring to me, since Pegg's musical Scottish burr is well within the girlish, high-voiced bounds of the Billy Boyd School.

5. The Infamous Mike Myers School. Mike Myers has somehow parlayed his faux-Scots accent into a multi-film career. He used that gooey, goopy pronunciation in the latter two Austin Powers movies, in which he played Fat Bastard; he used the accent in the Shrek films as Shrek the Scottish ogre; he used it to play the unassimilated Scots father of another Mike Myers character in "So I Married an Axe Murderer." Finally, he affected Scottishness numerous times, to varying effect, as a player on "Saturday Night Live" ("If it's nawt Scottish, it's crap!"). Myers pretty much ruined the Scottish accent for me; his camp is, unfortunately, where most Americans attempting a Scottish accent find themselves. It's the most American-sounding of the Five Schools, and Myers isn't even American.

These Five Schools of Scottish-accent impersonation cover most, if not all, of the gamut of possible vocal interpretations. I'm sure there are elements on the spectrum that I'm missing (write in if you know of any—especially when it comes to the female schools, of which I know nothing), but I feel the above list is pretty comprehensive. Next time you find yourself with an unbearable urge to do a Scottish accent, ask yourself first which type it is you think you're doing.


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