They’re wrangling on the radio about whether or not there should be subtitles put on regional accents on television programmes. Some apparently find it insulting to do a thing like that . Some assume that the listener or watcher should simply accept the accent as it is and get on with it .That’s a fair enough point , but it hardly leads to greater communication if you , as listener are unable to understand what is being said to you. In televisual terms you may as well be listening to someone spouting gobbledeegook. Accents are a strange thing .Even within the boundaries of a small town you can come across a variety of different ways of speaking the same language.It’ll happen in classrooms and even inside a family home.How weird is that?When the Beatles arrived on the early 1960s scene, the assumption was that they were all little homogenous moptops; all beans poured out of the same tin. It soon became apparent , though, that not only were they all individual characters but each one’s accent could place him from a different part of Liverpool.
I’m all for subtitles on television for regional accents.Some years ago I watched the first episode of the acclaimed television series, “The Wire” on DvD and I hadn’t a clue what was being said by some of the characters.The series was set in Baltimore and what with the accents and the Marlon Brandoesque Method mumbling, I really could not fix on the dialogue. I love to watch a production ,taking in the acting, photography and the music as well as the story , but in this case I was leaning in and playing catch-up…maybe picking out an odd word.. Sometimes these things are so “arty” that it’s impossible to see what’s going on in the shadows, never mind follow the arc of the dialogue and work out the plot ….Then I discovered the subtitles button and all was clear.The fact that I may have sheared off a whole level of my hearing by attending that Who concert at the Oval Cricket Ground , in 1971 ,might have something to do with it, of course, but it’s not the full story . There are many regional accents that are so opaque that without attuning the ear and straining hard, much is lost in translation.Within Northern Ireland we have a tendency to speak very quickly, for example, , especially when excited about a topic, so it can be difficult for an outsider listening in . Most Irish people slow down their speech when they travel further afield , simply to make themselves understood, while buying a drink or ordering a meal in a restaurant.We all end up sounding like drawling Americans;the Liam Neeson syndrome..
Of course, Americans assume that they are understood everywhere in the world anyway, but although most films are made with an English soundtrack, there are many American accents that are impenetrable, especially the Southern States..Some actors have a tendency to mumble for authenticity but render themselves barely audible with their Marlon Brando emoting.
A favourite television show here has been “Rab C. Nesbitt”. It is a Scottish comedy of errors and is a show that could not travel far without subtitling.It is well -written and acted as a broad comedy but much of the fun is beyond the casual ear’s understanding. There is the dense Scottish accent and the slang to deal with , for example.Subtitles are as necessary as they would be in a French art-house film.
Of course, subtitles are a great solution for television and allow the colour that regional accents bring ,but what do we do when it comes to radio? Much as I love radio and believe it is superior to television in many ways, I think there’ll be no improving it, much like the ill-fated experimental “Smellovision” idea of the 1950s cinema that faded away as a momentary gimmick..