Here’s a tech tool to put in your dialect skills box.
Voiced vs.Voiceless (aka Unvoiced) sounds.
Plain Fact: Some sounds of human speech involve the vocal folds while others do not. Being able to recognize which sounds involve the vocal folds and which sounds don’t can (with a bit of practice) provide you with effective ways of enhancing the characters you play.
Look into a mirror, relax your face, and slide the tip of your tongue out so that it rests between your upper and lower teeth. You should be able to see the tip peeking out at you in the mirror. Let your face and tongue remain in this position throughout the rest of this experiment. (Keep your attention on the mirror to monitor this.)
Now (remaining in position) exhale some air through your mouth. You will hear a sound somewhat like a leaky tire… Try this a few times (always watching in the mirror).
Now (remaining in position and still watching in the mirror) gently bring the palm of one of your hands to rest on the front of your neck (lightly wrap your fingers around the contour of your neck for a nice fit), and exhale a few more times. (Did you remain in position? If not, try again!)
Watching in the mirror with your hand still resting on the front of your neck, and your face, jaw and tongue remaining in position, exhale again, only this time activate your vocal folds (Any single note will do. You can think of this as touching sound, humming with your tongue, singing, speaking, voicing— whatever term will get your vocal folds to start vibrating for you…).
The sound changes from a leaky tire to a droning air conditioning unit!
Try voicing this physical position (tongue tip resting between your upper and lower teeth) a few more times. Remember to remain in position, or you won’t end up creating the sound I’m describing here. Notice that with your hand you can feel vibrations in your neck as you voice this sound.
Now (remaining in position, still observing in the mirror) experiment back and forth between not activating the vocal folds and activating the vocal folds.
Leaky tire. Air conditioner. Leaky tire. Air conditioner. (Repeat to your satisfaction)
OK, so now you can say that today you have successfully transformed from a leaky tire to an air conditioner and back again…
….Or if you can read written English and happen to speak with a General American accent, you might say that you isolated and observed yourself changing from a voiceless ‘TH’ sound to a voiced ‘TH’ sound…
…Or if you can read the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) you might say you examined and practiced the difference between uttering the sound [ θ ] and the sound [ ð ].
…No matter what, you can clearly feel with your hand that the second sound involves your vocal folds vibrating, and you can clearly hear (and see in the mirror) that you were able to make two distinctly different sounds using only one physical position (your tongue tip resting between your upper and lower teeth), merely by alternating between activating your vocal folds and not activating your vocal folds. One position. Two sounds. (Call the two sounds ‘cognates’ if you want to be fancy.)
Wrapping up– Voiced vs. Unvoiced Sounds
***When your vocal folds are vibrating as you articulate a single sound, you can refer to that sound as a ‘voiced’ sound.***
***When your vocal folds are at rest as you articulate a single sound, that sound is either referred to as a ‘voiceless’ or an ‘unvoiced’ sound.***
If you ever have a question about whether a particular (single) sound is voiced or unvoiced, just run that (single) sound through the exercise above. If you can feel vibrations in your neck through the palm of your hand, you can say with confidence that the sound is voiced.
So, why as an actor is it useful to really know (at a personal, physical level) the difference between a voiced sound and an unvoiced sound? And why all the mirror work?
One reason is that the more familiar you are with these terms and the more adept you are at being able to isolate sounds, the quicker you will be able to learn any new accent. My favorite reason though, is this –Within an accent group (let’s say ‘General American’) there are accepted variances that while still recognized as the dialect in question, actually transmit additional information about a person’s status and authority. You can learn to make very subtle changes in your speech (such as voicing and un-voicing certain sounds) that will dramatically improve your ability to embody the character you are playing. Your character won’t be perceived as ‘having an accent’ but your performance will be kicked up a notch. It’s pretty remarkable stuff.
As always, please send me your comments, questions and suggestions.
If you’d rather not post a question publicly, feel free to write to me directly at dialect411(at)gmail(dot)com.
I’m here to help.