English of subcultures global English


Subcultural English month continues with a guest post by Ben Trawick-Smith from Dialect Blog. Ben began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington, in the USA.


All artistic pursuits have their jargon. Creative writers speak of the backstory and the creative metaphor. Film students debate the mise-en-scene and the merits of the auteur. Genres of dance each have their unique vocabulary, sometimes French-inspired, sometimes not. Yet I can think of few creative disciplines with as rich and all-encompassing a language as the language of theatre.

From where does this strange argot derive? First and foremost, from the physical space of the theatre itself, which has given the subculture an endless list of spatial reference points: the proscenium (the arch that frames a stage), the wings, backstage, stage right, stage left, the flies (the area above the stage where scenery is ‘flown’ in), and the pit. This list expands when you consider the different ways a theatre can be configured: as a thrust (a stage surrounded by the audience on three sides), in the round, or as a black box (a large room with adjustable seating).

Still other theatrical terms derive from the various technologies native to lighting, set, and costume design. Many theatre folks will recognize the words gobo (a template put in front of a lighting instrument to create evocative shadows or shapes), cyc (short for cyclorama; a type of curtain or backdrop), and character shoes (a type of danceable but elegant footwear). They will know to avoid knocking over a flat (a piece of muslin stretched over a wooden frame) or where to locate spikes (small pieces of tape indicating where a set piece needs to go). I would not be surprised, incidentally, if there are different technical theatre terms in different parts of the English-speaking world; if so, I’d be fascinated to know what they are.

Of course, the culture of actors has duly lent its vast trove of concepts and terminology to the theatrical lexicon. A thespian may cite the ‘techniques’ recognizable by mere surnames: Meisner, Adler, Strasberg, Stanislavski, Grotowski, LeCoq and Chekhov (Michael, that is, not Anton). These gurus and others have provided the art with a near-cliched vocabulary, recognizable to many laypeople: motivation, objective, in the moment, sense memory, method acting, beat (i.e. a moment), indication (i.e. faking an emotion), and improv.

My interest being accents, it’s worth noting that theatrical language is unusual in this regard as well. After all, this is the only profession where a large portion of its participants have been required to modify their accent in some way or another. The result is that theatre people often speak in a manner startlingly divorced from the surrounding populace.

This would have been most apparent in British theatre up until the 1960s, when UK drama schools scrubbed their students’ speech clean of any pesky regionalisms. You can find scant linguistic evidence, therefore, that great British Shakepeareans Peter O’Toole and Ian McKellan grew up in Northern England, nor that Ralph Richardson spent his early childhood in Gloucester. Until it became apparent to (some) Britons that dialect prejudice is as bad as any other, Received Pronunciation (aka the Queen’s English) seemed almost de rigeur in English theatre.

One might assume America to be more liberal in this regard, yet actor training on this side of the pond has been arguably even less accepting of ‘non-standard’ dialects. Until very recently, many of the great American drama schools taught students to use a peculiar accent termed American Standard when performing classical works. The creation of voice coach Edith Skinner, this artificial accent might best be described a modified version of British RP with a few Americanisms thrown in for good measure. Until the technique went out of style a decade or so ago, American stage actors often used a ‘British’ broad a in words like pass, can’t, and half, even if they grew up in Ohio.

I would argue, then, that theatre’s language is truly subcultural, no mere jargon left at the door when one gets home. The wicked stage is a lifestyle more than anything else, marked by strange hours and inexplicable passions. Whereas painting, writing, and filmmaking appeal to monastic geniuses, toiling in solitude, theatre is profoundly social in nature. Its native tongue is of a different world entirely.

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Ben Trawick-Smith


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