đź‘‚ [Listen to the Preface]

I wanted to create a resource for actors and actors-in-training, for accent/dialect coaches as well as speech and accent teachers, that would help to clarify and deepen what the Lexical Sets were and how they could be used to further increase the specificity of an accent. It seemed to me that much had been done in recent years—thanks to Knight-Thompson Speechwork, its founders, and its team of teachers—to increase opportunities for actors to playfully learn about speech sounds and oral posture/articulatory setting. These days, much of the speech training that most actors get is based in Phonetics for Actors, the art and science of the sounds of speech. However, I also felt that opportunities to experiment with the Phonology of English, the systematic organization of sounds, were sorely lacking. In particular, I wanted to dive deep into the Lexical Sets,  word groups that share a common vowel or diphthong. Could I adapt and modernize traditional methods, of applying sound change to words, phrases and sentences designed to target each of the lexical sets, as an opportunity for learners to identify their own vowels and diphthongs, and experiment with every option for those words in accents of English from around the world?

Most (if not all) of the traditional speech books whose frameworks I’ve explored in developing the structure of this book were written with the goal of helping learners to adopt a specific mainstream accent, invariably associated with the dominant, white culture of the United States or the United Kingdom. While those books’ structure and contents (especially works like Skinner’s Speak With Distinction, and its helpful word lists, phrases, and sentences) can be highly useful, their limited framing and dated point-of-view makes them unusable today. In focusing on the Lexical Sets, and on the current pronunciation of the learner as our starting place, and then expanding to include as many of the other possible variations on the pronunciation of each set, I hope to leave such prescriptive, colonial practice behind. It is my hope that this text will be of use to English speakers from any part of the world, with any background. Of course, those who want to learn any accent may use the materials in this text to experiment with the sounds of each lexical set as they see fit.

The analysis of J.C. Wells in his essential, 3-volume Accents of English has—of course—been at the heart of this creation process, and anyone who is preparing for a career as an accent/dialect coach for theatre, film or television production would do well to study that important book well. But that series of books was published in 1982, and much has changed in the world, and in the world of accent study, dialectology, and linguistics since. Wells frames his text through two references accents, British Received Pronunciation (of the 80s), and General American. These two accents—and the meeting points where they intersect, match and differ—serve as the framework for Wells’ approach. In adopting the lexical sets as the framework for this book (and for accent coaching generally), we must remember that there are times when the overlap of those two accents is not at the heart of how an accent might work. I have tried, especially as I introduce each lexical set, to move away from the centrality of traditional accent pedagogy, where one must learn a standard accent first, as the hub of one’s learning, and then relate all future accents one investigates in relation to that “standard”. If all accents are equal—equally valid, important, beautiful—then we must be able to start from anywhere.

I don’t pretend to be a linguist, though I have read a fair bit (at least for an accent coach); much of what is presented here is merely a reframing of Wells’ work, with a little hint of other research added in here and there, along with what I’ve learned from nearly 3 decades of teaching and coaching. Of great help was Bernd Kortmann’s Varieties of English, Vol 1-4, as was Raymond Hickey’s A Dictionary of Varieties of English. The word lists at the heart of each chapter were made thanks to the tireless efforts of Geoff Lindsey and Péter Szigetvari on the Current Usage British English Pronouncing Dictionary. Though the word lists are primarily based around web-based work frequency stats, the top words seem to me to be valuable words to experiment with.

About midway through my writing process, I had an opportunity to apply for a fairly significant grant to turn my “book” into an Open Educational Resource (OER). The Ontario Government was making a push to develop its eCampus learning initiative, the possibility of some support to develop my work into an OER that might reach a larger audience inspired me to explore what my “book” could become if I adapted a different publishing model. Having published online and worked as a web designer in the early years of my teaching career, I was excited about the possibilities. Though I did not receive the grant in the end, the month I spent preparing my application transformed my thinking about this text, and I hope that its open model will allow more teachers, coaches and learners to adopt the text for their courses, and that we can create a community together to further expand the scope of the work.




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Lexical Sets for Actors Copyright © 2022 by Eric Armstrong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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