In this week's issue, Willamette Week's resident goofy-accents analyst Rusty Feathercap lent his knowledge to deciphering the nearly imperceptible linguistic subtleties hidden within the many silly voices of America's laziest very-rich comic actor, Adam Sandler. In an effort of full disclosure, it should be noted that Feathercap is not a board-certified expert in...well, anything, really. Jeff Conn, however, is. He is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University. We asked him to watch a few film clips and give us his analysis of whatever the hell it is that Adam Sandler is doing, exactly. He provided the following thoughtful response. Considering the subject, it's almost too thoughtful.
First, there is a lot of social info that listeners can interpret when someone speaks. It can come from their accent (pronunciation) or dialect (includes pronunciation but also includes grammatical aspects, how we use language, word choice). When we hear someone, one way to think about it is that we attribute certain linguistic elements to certain social factors. If we hear someone speak English as a native speaker (not as a second language) and they don't pronounce 'r's at the ends of words (like in car, card, guard), then they could be from NYC, Boston, New England, England, Australia, etc. If we also hear them say the word 'dog' with a certain vowel, then we can think of them as being from NYC. New Yorkers also sometimes pronounce 'th' sounds as 't' or 'd'. How much a person does these things can also be tied to gender and social class.
We can also attribute emotions and attitudes of the speaker based on linguistic information. Intonation plays a big role in English in terms of identifying anger, sarcasm, plain statement of facts, etc. It's difficult to tell one's personality exactly from which lingusitic features they are using. Sometimes someone who is sarcastic will adopt a sarcastic tone frequently (although there is no evidence that there is one way to do this).
One way to look at this is that we speak the way we speak because of who we are. The other way is to understand that we can create identities because we assume a listener will attribute certain linguistic features (an accent or multiple negation (double negatives) for example) with certain social features. If we want to sound more New York-like, we can use those features that identify us as New Yorkers at a higher frequency. Most of this is unconscious, but we do make linguistic decisions every day by changnig our speech based on formality of the situation and the people we are speaking with.
This is a critical piece for an actor. They can use these ling features to help create an identity for a role. If someone needs to be from New York City as part of their character (like in Jack and Jill
), then they can use those ling features that ID them as from NYC. For Adam Sandler, portraying a role in a comedic way can be done by adopting features associated with social attributes in a stereotypical way (that is, it doesn't need to be authentic because it isn't a serious role). For Zohan
, he is adopting ling features that ID him as a non native speaker of English. My best guess is that he is trying to sound like someone from the Middle East (maybe a native Arabic speaker), although based on the short clip, I can't give you specific examples nor can I verify the authenticity. What I find interesting is that actors, especially comedic actors, do not need to be linguistically authentic. They just need to get the point across to the audience, which is often done by using stereotypical ling features associated with a particular variety (which means accent/dialect or non native-English version of English). Sometimes these stereotypes are "overdone" in the sense that native speakers of that variety would not produce language to this extreme (like a New Yorker who never produces 'r' at the ends of words is not authentic - it could be more like 65% no 'r').
In some of the clips from the movies (some of which I have not seen so all of this is speculation based on these clips), Sandler produces speech that I'd call child-like. For English speaking children, some English sounds are acquired later than others. Typically, the 'th' sounds and 'r' are acquired later than 'w' or 'm' for example. A child who is 5 or 6 may still be producing 't' or 'd' for 'th' ('dis' for 'this' or 'tin' for 'thin') sounds, or 'w' for 'r' in the beginning of a word (like 'rabbit'). The 'th' substitution is also common in many adult speakrs in certain dialects (like Chicago and NYC). (This does not mean that New Yorkers or Chicagoans sound like children.) Sandler adopts some of these ling features that can be associated with young children in Waterboy
, Little Nicky
, and Billy Madison
. One way to interpret this is that these characters are often grown men who have child-like qualities to them. It could be that he is trying to represent a man-boy character who needs to grow up, or he could be trying to present an adult who in some respects is still naive and young (like we are when we're 6). What's interesting is that not all of his "voices" are exactly the same. There are similarities, but he manages to manipulate his language to some degree for each individual character. Based on certain voice qualities that are beyond vowel or consonant productions, or even the pitch of one's voice, one can tell Adam Sandler regardless of what linguistic guise he's wearing.
Like many actors, Sandler is trying to access identity portrayal via the use of linguistic tools. I would say he does a good job of finding the funny aspects of these tools, but I would not say that he's striving for authenticity. In fact, I would suggest he's striving for an identity that is unique to any other one we've heard before. While there are ling features that we can identify as New York or child-like, he creates a unique voice. I think the comedy comes from this interplay where the listener is hearing a unique voice, and yet trying to connect it to familiar social information. After all, we've probably never heard the voice of the son of Lucifer before.