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Real Dialects in a Fantasy World

Raife Baker Voice Teacher NYCLike many people, I am obsessed with Game of Thrones. So much so, that this entire blog entry will be about a specific aspect of HBO’s show. I watch it every week and have read all the books. As a teacher of dialects, I am particularly fascinated with the ways in which the show uses speech to flesh out its imaginary universe. This shows how useful speech and dialects can be for actors.

The author of the books, George R.R. Martin has spoken extensively about the fact that his story loosely parallels and was inspired by the factual Wars of the Roses, an internecine struggle from 15th Century Europe. Many of the historical figures and houses found in the record of the Wars of the Roses find analogous depictions in Martin’s novels. From Cersei drawing inspiration from Margaret of Anjou (the She-Wolf of France), to Tyrion, the misshapen, intelligent mastermind who is reminiscent of Richard of Gloucester (later King Richard III). Even the names of two of the historical warring houses, “Yorks and Lancasters”, bear similarity to the fictional “Starks and Lannisters. “

One thing Martin didn’t address in his novels is the audible sound of the characters’ speech. As a written medium, his novels don’t necessitate the use of dialects to distinguish between characters and their regions of origin. In adapting the novels for television, however, the creators made the brilliant decision to use real-world dialects that suggest some fun and interesting correspondences with Martin’s imaginary universe. It’s not difficult to imagine the version of Game of Thrones, created by Americans for American television that uses no specific European dialects, and instead has characters speaking with general American dialects. There are already plenty of barriers to following the complicated plot and storylines of the show, so I could understand producers making the argument that they didn’t want to complicate things further by adding numerous foreign dialects. Thankfully, however, the creators believed that adding all of these real world dialects would only serve to heighten and enrich the experience, and in some cases clarify it.

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The iron throne of this fantasy kingdom is located in Kings Landing, which for dialect purposes, has now become analogous to London. The actors portraying characters from this region therefore use varying versions of a London dialect. The Lannisters, the Tyrells, and the Baratheons are all using speech and pronunciation patterns from London and its surrounding regions. The creators have even gone out of their way in some cases to have actors from very diverse places (e.g. Copenhagen and New Jersey) speak with this London dialect.

Moving north to the Starks, the actors portraying Ned and Jon Snow use a “North Country” or Yorkshire dialect. Not only does this line up geographically to represent a region north of London, but it also tells us through the dialect that when Ned travels to Kings Landing, he is very much an outsider to the culture and politics that prove to be so challenging for him. This show makes another compelling choice with dialect in having Catelyn Stark (Ned’s wife) speak with a Southern English dialect to show that she doesn’t come from the same place as her husband, but rather was born further south. This more southern dialect also takes root in the speech of Catelyn’s eldest daughter, Sansa, who emulates her mother’s ladylike qualities and cultural beliefs, as well as her speech patterns.

Looking at the show in an even broader scope, the real dialects expand with the fantasy world map to show how different imaginary cultures may correspond to real peoples from our own planet and history. In this way, the creators use dialects to help the viewers orient themselves and build some geopolitical parallels due to our associations with these different dialects. The actors whose characters come from the southernmost tip of this continent use Spanish accents (the Martells), which complement the Moorish architecture of the set. Some characters from the distant north (Tormund) use Norwegian accents. Moving further east, Dany communes with many cultures who use various Middle-Eastern dialects, letting us begin to identify these regions as being roughly analogous to our own Iran and Syria.

The use of dialect in this show is something that continues to keep my interest piqued. Every week I’m excited to see how a new character or location might be portrayed with specific speech choices. I mean, I also tune in to see Sansa get her ultimate revenge, but it definitely helps that the creators have chosen to put so much thought into their dialect/accent choices!

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