Code-Switching and Voice-Overs

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Accents, Styles of Speech, and When to Use Them

By Josh Shirt, versatile Voice Over Artist

In my life so far, I’ve lived in the North and South of England and in the Northeast and West of the USA, and sometimes I make changes to the way my voice sounds to fit in or to be better understood.

In my job as a voice over actor I change my voice regularly too. This practice is akin to code-switching and it’s a key part of my job and to a lesser extent, my life, as I’ll go on to explain.

So, what is code-switching?

Code-switching is defined by Britannica as a “process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting.”

Basically, it allows an affinity with a given audience. By code-switching into a shared accent or dialect it’s more possible to be accepted and welcomed, rather than being stereotyped or ‘othered.’

Recently I caught a BBC radio programme about code-switching among young black professionals who work in white-majority spaces:

“The term code-switching was first used to talk about bilingual people and how they switch between two different languages and identities, but then it was later described as African American students who code-switched between how they were expected to speak in the classroom and how they spoke at home.

– BBC radio programme “Seriously…”. You can listen here.

This got me thinking about my own experiences – not with switching language, but with using different accents and dialects – shifting the sound of my voice depending on who’s listening to it. As the program explores, in real life, this isn’t painless as it can cause an identity crisis, but when you’re a voice over artist, switching the sound of your voice can be a useful tool.

My background

I grew up in Derbyshire in the North of England, and I went to school in the neighbouring county of Cheshire.

My native accent is a regional Northern English accent, a kind of hybrid of the Derbyshire accent and Cheshire accent.

I started recording voice overs professionally in 2005 and at this point my voice had a strong Northern English lilt.

The first voice-overs I recorded were for Northern audiences. The use of “real” voices was becoming popular in radio broadcasts and commercials, rather than the conventional “stiff-upper-lip” BBC presenter sound of days gone by.

It was a decade after Brit Pop, and I imagine that this shift in conventions was helped by the rise of Oasis and the proud, gritty Mancunian accents of Noel and Liam Gallagher. Radio commercial producers in the North wanted their adverts to have this proud, bloke-next-door sound (in a country separated by a “North-South divide”, the Northern accent is a symbol of proud working class roots) – and at the time, it’s naturally how I sounded.

Here’s my voice in 2006:

  1. Northern English Voice Over Example Josh Shirt Voice Over 0:50

In 2007 I moved across the Pennines to Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

At this point, I knew that my accent was perfect for edgy commercials airing in the North, but it seemed less desirable in the South of England and beyond (with the exception of commercials that wanted the friendly approachable character many say they perceive in voices with a Northern English accent).

So, as I started to pick up larger projects, I started to change the sound of my voice to suit the audience. For example, I’d start to soften my vowel sounds so that my accent was more generic for commercials airing in the South of England, and as more people heard my bright, neutral Northern English accent, more work followed.

In 2011, I moved to London. During recording sessions I was sometimes asked directly if I could Southernise my vowel sounds, in effect, to speak with a Received Pronunciation (RP) English accent (“the accent traditionally regarded as the standard for British English”- Wikipedia).

Soon I started to do this automatically; because my native accent was already neutral Northern it was a relatively easy transition for me to speak Southern, RP English.

RP English is often referred to as BBC English and it’s highly desirable for professional projects with a universal and/or international appeal.

It’s the sound of Hugh Grant and Roger Moore in the movies.

Here’s an example of me speaking with my RP accent:

  1. Neutral British Accent Example Josh Shirt Voice Over 0:33

Nowadays

Today, I live in the USA, and I find that Americans seem to understand the RP English accent most easily.

Because I have both a regional Northern English accent and an RP British accent in my “toolbox”, most of the time, I speak with something closer to an RP accent here in the USA.

It has its perks when meeting American strangers — most Americans recognise, understand, and are even charmed by the RP accent, and for me it makes my life easier as I’m not asked to repeat what I’ve said when I’m going about my life and doing day-to-day things like buying milk or groceries.

I’m convinced that the movies have trained the American ear to the sound of RP English. Think Colin Firth, or Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard. British icons have permeated American culture for decades, and as such, the accent is understood and enjoyed, or perhaps it’s simply because everyone loves the stirring sound of David Attenborough!

So, in my life in America I speak with something close to RP English a lot of the time. But, put me back in the pub in Derbyshire with old school friends, a pint of Boddie, and some crisps (American: chips) and my Northern accent “ull come rite bak, luv”.

My voiceover recordings

If you need a voiceover artist with an edgy Northern English accent or professional RP accent them I’m here to help.

Please take a listen to my showreels and contact me if I can help with your project.