This week I have the absolute pleasure of asking Sammi Grant 20 questions. Sammi is an accent coach that I became aware of due to a Buzzfeed video wherein she rapidly and distinctly demonstrates 12 different accents in English.
Language, especially spoken language and how it is spoken, has always been an interest of mine. That is one of the reasons that I listen to the History of English podcast and seek out dialect coaches. Sammi is quite facile with sliding between dialects and accents. She is able to describe the differences in how she produces the accents even in a few minute video. Other than her accent abilities and the information I was able to find on her website, I know next to nothing about Sammi. She seems delightful in her video, so without further ado, let's get into 20 Questions with Sammi Grant.
In a previous professional life I was a map-maker. I absolutely love hearing people's stories of place and what their specific geographic footprint is. For example, I was born just outside of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. My family moved to Montgomery, Alabama when I was 3 and then up to the Birmingham, Alabama area soon after. I basically grew up in a suburban community called Center Point to the northeast of Birmingham. I went to college at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio where I met the woman I was soon to marry. I followed her to gradschool at Ohio State University, and she and I have made our lives in the Columbus, Ohio area since grad school. Question 1: What is your geographic story?
There really is not much of a story here. I was born and raised in a northwest suburb of Chicago called Buffalo Grove. I moved about 2 ½ hours south of there to attend college at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL. After college, I moved to Chicago proper and have lived there ever since. My geographic adventures are still to come. Iam hoping to go to grad school next year, and my dream school is in London. After that, I don’t know where I will end up. Perhaps I will stay in London or move to New York.
Question 2: Have you traveled a bunch? How did you become interested in accents if you haven't lived in many places?
I have traveled some but not much. As a child, my family took road trips all over the country, but I don’t remember most of them. When I was twelve, we went to England, Ireland, and France. However, I don’t remember being particularly fascinated by accents on that trip. My most significant amount of travel has been to Disneyworld, which I have been to at least fifteen times.
I was first struck by accents when a couple of British relatives camet o visit my extended family in the Chicagoland area when I was young. I remember writing down British phrases, like “jumper” means “sweater,” told to me by my great cousin Helen. We were at a restaurant, and I wrote these phrases on the back of a paper placemat.
I became interested in accent work as a potential career while I was in college. I went to school for Acting, and in my junior year I had to take a class on the International Phonetic Alphabet and dialects. I was really taken with the work and ended up continuing with independent studies and later was the TA for that original class I took. I am legally blind, which seemed to enhance my abilities with voice work as opposed to some of my other acting classes where it was sometimes an obstacle.
I have always loved accents as well. I noticed from a very young age that here are many different southern accents as a kid. The sounds of southern aristocracy vs dirt farmer accent in Alabama, vs a straight up Texas drawl. I am sure I will circle back around for some questions on accents in just a little bit, but it is time for my usual question 3 for these interviews.
So let's go with Question 3: Cake or pie? Which kind specifically and why?
I generally prefer pie over cake. I am not a big fan of frosting, so cake has never really struck my fancy. My favorite pie is French Silk. I love the combination of the crunchy, creamy, and chocolate flakes. This is the first kind of pie I ever had, and it has been my favorite ever since.
I love French silk pie as well; it was the first "sophisticated" pie I ever tried. That being said though, lemon meringue is my favorite pie ever. I love how you go through slightly different textures in you bite, but it is all informed by the tartness of the lemon. I like it better than key-lime because key lime is way more homogeneous. My mom decorated cakes as a side job when I was a kid, so I think I might have over-caked myself... pushing me towards pie.
So, let's get back to accents. You accent work fascinates me because of how easily you shift from one to another in the video from Buzzfeed. I would imagine that you started out with a typical Chicago/Northwestern Illinois area accent, having grown up there, so... Question 3: Do you typically talk with a that accent, you grew up with or is there an accent that you have gravitated towards since studying accents?
I did grow up with a Midwestern accent with those nasal, flat vowels like I demonstrate in my BuzzFeed video. As I went through voice training in college and developed my work as a dialect coach I made efforts to shift my accent more towards General American. This is what you hear from most newscasters and TV/film actors. IT is a standard, non-regional American sound. I think of this as my professional voice. When I am with friends and family, I don’t care if my natural accent comes out as many of those close to me also have Midwestern accents.
I grew up watching the news all the time. In fact, I find myself doing those weird Tom Brokaw slurred vowel shifts and diphthongs from time to time. Since my parents are both from Northeast Ohio and I spent so much time watching newscasts I do not have a southern/Alabama accent. However, if I have had too much to drink I find a bit of Alabama peeking out from behind my de-accented midwest. I don't drink much anymore, so that doesn't happen very often now.
Question 4: Is there an accent that you enjoy dropping into and find yourself unconsciously speaking with?
Oh there are many. I slip in and out of accents all of the time. I most often drop into London, Brooklyn, and transatlantic. When I am coaching an accent for a show, I tend to speak in the accent a lot even when I am not working. IT helps me keep the accent fresh.
That transatlantic accent seems like it would be a fun one to drop into for almost any occasion. The bright staccato delivery is so wonderful. The way it became the accent of choice for 1930's and 40's movies.
I promise I will not ask all 20 questions about accents, but I find them so insanely interesting. Question 5: What was the most difficult accent for you to learn and why?
The most difficult accent for me to personally learn and master was a general Spanish. IT shares many similar phonetic sounds with Eastern European accents. My whole heritage is Eastern European, so my Spanish would often lean towards Russian in the beginning. I am happy with my Spanish accent now, and I have coached many different specific Spanish accents. However, I cannot as easily slip into that sound as some of my other accents.
That makes perfect sense. I have played roleplaying games in the past wherein it was necessary for the character to have an accent. I often found myself sliding between a Scottish burr and a Russian accent, mainly because the Scots Burr took less concentration.
So you stated previously that your dream school is in London and that New York is a possibility for you as well. Question 6: Aside from locations associated with pursuing your advanced degrees and education, is there a place that you would like to live or travel?
I would really like to go to South Africa. I did a one woman show in college called The Syringa Tree that mostly took place in South Africa. I feel a strong draw to the country and culture and would really love to experience it in person.
That sounds super interesting. I have a friend in Joburg who draws comic books for a living. He really loves it there, but seems to have issues with the power grid there browning out fairly often. It sounds like it could be a very nice place to visit and experience. I hope you can make it there soon then.
Question 7: Do you have a day job or is being an accent coach your primary job?
I do not have a “day job”. I am a full-time freelance dialect/vocal coach. I also do a little bit of voiceover work, but my main focus is the coaching.
This is absolutely great. I was not sure of the Chicago area would support an accent coach. I would have guessed that New York City or LA would support an accent coach but was unsure of Chicago. I think, sometimes, I forget just how big Chicago is.
Question 8: Do you enjoy linguistics as well as accents, or do you place yourself firmly into only accents?
I have never really had the opportunity for in-depth study of purely linguistics. I found accent coaching through the avenue of theatre as I went to school for acting. I would love to be able to study linguistics, but I just have not found the time yet. Perhaps in the future.
Concerning linguistics... during my senior year of high school my family hosted an exchange student from Germany. He clearly had a knack for language. He spoke (at the time) fluent French, English, and (of course) German. I think he could passably speak some Spanish and Italian at the time as well. We went our separate ways and I lost touch with him for many years. When I did get in contact with him again he was teaching linguistics at the University of Texas and had specialized in the Jamaican patois. So a northern German teaching Jamaican patois in the Texas south. That is an accent I would love to hear. (Hey, Lars!)
Question 9: Please fill in the blanks. Others find that I am mostly _______. I find that I am mostly ______.
Others find that I am mostly ambitious and witty.
I find that I am mostly stressed out goofy
Stressed and goofy is a good combination. There are worse ways to perceive oneself... way better than enigmatic and spooky.
There is a little bit of a disconnect between how you feel others perceive you and how you feel you perceive you. Question 10: Why do you think people consider you to be ambitious and what can you do to help yourself feel less stressed out?
Others find me ambitious, because I am. I have always had big dreams for my life. While they have not always stayed the same, I always have a plan for my future. I would use that word to describe myself as well; stressed out is just a stronger feature from my point of view.
I am stressed out, because I have a lot going on. My job is not traditional, so I often work long hours and sometimes have work every single day of the week. Being stressed out is not necessarily a bad thing. I would rather be busy than not have work.
One of the problems associated with working for yourself is that you can always be working. It is difficult to set aside and protect the time you have to not work. I have found that only ambitious people tend to work for themselves, because that level of ambition is necessary to motivate one to work for themselves. I work in a nice corporate gig that allows me to go home at night and not fret about it. My wife, she works for herself and is significantly more ambitious than I am... and stressed because work/life balance is difficult.
So, I picture you sitting and intently listening to high quality audio of various dialects and pouring over the diction to determine how to Instruct others in how to properly enunciate an "r" sound for a South Carolinian aristocratic accent. You nod, make a note, take your headphones off, and close your laptop. Now I am certain that this mental recreation is clearly flawed and wholly inaccurate, but that is not why I am setting up this theatre of the mind. I want people to think about you working and then deciding it is time to take a break. Question 11: What do you do in your downtime? Do you have any downtime? What do you do when you are not working?
I definitely have down time. I am a big fan of napping during down time. I also enjoy watching TV and reading, though I tend to rewatch the same shows and reread the same books. I also enjoy going out with my friends to shows or bars on the weekends. I love going out dancing, even though I am not a very good dancer!
Napping I a great past-time. More people need to look into it as a hobby. Most people do not consider it a past-time as much as they consider it being lazy. Those people are wrong.
Question 12: Multi-part question... What is your favorite TV show? What is your favorite book? Do you have a guilty pleasure TV show or book genre?
My favorite TV show is Gilmore Girls. My favorite book is the Harry Potter series. My guilty pleasure book genre is YA fiction.
There are boatloads of great YA titles out there. One of my favorite YA authors is Tamora Pierce. I love her Tortall series.
So here we are at 13. So, Question 13: do you have any superstitions or rituals in your day-to-day life?
The Tortall series is my second favorite book series after Harry Potter. I love those books and re-read them often.
I don’t really have any personal day-to-day superstitions or related rituals. It is a big superstition in the theatre world that it is unlucky to say Macbeth in a theatre, and I do respect that tradition.
The theatre has some odd traditions... from the "Scottish King" to "Break a Leg."
So I did a 20 Questions with a very lovely tech podcaster (Patrick Beja) a while ago, wherein he asked me a very simple yet profound question. After that point I tried to make sure I asked it in all of my 20 Questions interviews. Then Mikey Neumann (another 20 Questions Tuesday interviewee) pointed out the fallacy of the structure of the question. So I have modified Patrick Beja's simple question to include Mikey's nuance. A bunch of preamble to this question. Question 14: Overall, do you feel that you are happy?
This is a difficult question for me to answer as I do not feel there is a simple response. At my core, I tend towards anger rather than joy. A lot of this has to do with being blind. While I do not let my blindness hold me back from the things I want to do, there is still an underlying anger that I am blind in general. I think you will find this with a lot with people who have disabilities or chronic diseases. This is why my humor tends towards sarcasm and my neutral face always looks slightly angry or judgmental. All that being said, I try hard to put out positive rather than negative energy into the world. I truly believe that if you put out positivity into the universe, the universe will send you positivity back. So I strive to bring joy to others and myself. Happiness doesn’t come naturally for me, but I work to bring it into my life.
So to give you a simple answer- It depends on the day.
This is a very heartfelt and unexpectedly affecting answer. I can only imagine how there would be an underlying layer of anger at the universe for having to deal with a disability or chronic illness. It makes sense that the anger exists, it is just not something I had thought of. That really sucks, and it sucks that you have to deal with it. That being said, I am glad that there are at least some days that you are happy often enough to say "So to give you a simple answer - It depends on the day."
So... Not to put you on the spot and speak for an entire group, but... Question 15: How can I, as a sighted person, be a better ally for people with visual impairments?
The biggest way you can be an ally to the blind community is to assume a blind person is capable of everything until they tell you they are not. We might do things in slightly different ways than sighted people, but we have methods to deal with most situations. For example, I am able to walk around and cross busy streets by myself. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been preparing to cross a street when someone comes up and grabs me by the arm, without even asking, because they assume I can’t cross the street by myself. I am standing at the street corner alone. Obviously, I planned to cross the street alone. This leads me to my other point- always ask before you try to help a blind person. Never touch them without talking and getting permission first. How would you feel if a random stranger just came up and grabbed you without a word? Now, imagine not being able to see the person.
Another great way to be an ally is to advocate for blind people in the workplace. The unemployment rate in the blind community is at 70%. As I said before, blind people can do most anything a sighted person can do, just maybe in a different way. Years ago, when I was trying to get a day job, I had so many potential employers express surprise when I said I could use a computer. It is this kind of prejudice of helplessness that keeps so many blind people from even being considered for jobs.
It never surprises me the arrogance and presumption of well-meaning ignorant people. It alarms me and disturbs me, but does not surprise. Again, thank you for a very well crafted and honest answer.
Question 16: Is there a question you were expecting from me that I have not asked?
NO, not that I can think of.
Good, I did not want to disappoint by not asking something you were expecting.
Question 17: What is one thing that you would like me to know about you that we haven't chatted about yet?
I honestly feel we have covered all of the bases from my work to my interests/hobbies to my blindness. An interesting fact I can share is that I went skydiving two summers ago.
I bet that was quite the experience. I have always been mildly interested in skydiving. I cannot say that it has ever been a strong interest, or I think I would have made it happen by now, but I have been pleasantly curious about skydiving since I was a kid. You are right though, this 20 Questions has gone all over the place.
It is time for the tables to be turned... Question 18: Are there any questions that you have for me?
How long have you been doing this "20 questions" blog?
Well, the initial version of the blog started in 2004 during the heyday of blogging. A few years of simple daddy blogging led to massive writer's block and I asked some friends to send in some questions to answer. I decided on 20 Questions because of the name of the word game people play, and I chose Tuesday because it is my wife's name and therefore my favorite day of the week. So in addition to my usual posts I would do a 20 Questions Tuesday post every Tuesday. Eventually the other posts dropped off and the only posts I was doing were these 20 Questions posts. The first official 20 Questions Tuesday was on April 18th, 2005. So I have been doing this relatively consistently for 12 years. I did not start interviewing people until a few years after that. I started by interviewing other bloggers and then that radiated out to comedians and comic book artists. Since then I have been circling more outward and asking people I find interesting, such as yourself.
So here we are at the penultimate question. Question 19: What are you taking from these 20 Questions that you did not bring in with you?
I am not necessarily taking anything brand new away with me. However, this process has reaffirmed my dislike of writing. This is nothing against you and this specific exchange. I just so much more prefer to converse through talking rather than writing. My entire job is about communicating orally and teaching others how to expand and explore the range of their voice. I find writing boring and less expressive. As I am sure you have noticed, it takes me a while to respond to each of your questions. This is partly because I am very busy. The other part is that I just don’t want to sit down and write. However, writing is a part of life, and something I need to always continue developing, especially since I plan to get a masters degree. That masters thesis is not going to write itself.
I am very grateful that you have stuck with this process then. I completely understand why this is a medium that might not work super well for you, and am impressed by your determination to follow this long and drawn out process to its completion. Please accept my sincere apology for anything in this process that was uncomfortable. That was not my intention, but it still sounds like it was your reality.
I have been toying with the idea of creating a accompanying podcast to this blog, but I have not fleshed out this concept much and really feel like I would need help to make it happen.
Well... here we are at the last question. Question 20: What's next? Be as vague or as specific, as concrete or philosophical, and as near term or long term as you would like.
Here is the short term answer. I am starting rehearsals for three shows here in Chicago: Billy Elliot the Musical, The Invisible Hand, and 1980 or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson. I am starting to make a dent in my waiting list of people who have reached out in response to the BuzzFeed video for dialect coaching or accent modification. This October, I will most likely be applying to grad school. I am also working on developing my stand-up comedy.
Here is my long term response: I would like to get my masters and start teaching at the college level in addition to my dialect coaching for Theatre and TV and possibly film one day. I would eventually like to get married and maybe have children.
I think all of those things you have outlined seem imminently doable, and I wish you luck with each and every one of them.
I want to take this time to thank you for bearing with me through this process. If I ever get the opportunity to meet with you in person, I promise not to ask for tips on getting my Scottish burr more correct.
Sammi is amazing and everyone should learn more about her. Go to her website, SammiGrant.com and see what she can offer, I really enjoyed chatting with her and an very happy she stuck with this process even though it was not the most comfortable process for her to interact. I really need to get my podcast up and running.
Houston is really messed up right now
I have a friend who is getting a brain tumor removed from his noggin today (editors note: Surgery went as well as hoped)
Many of us are pulling for him
I know that I would not be where I am today without his help
Little Man has a cross country meet today at 6
Q has a practice she has to be across town for at 5:30
Wonder Parents Powers! Separate!
Form of someone watching cross country
Shape of someone who remotely cares about horses
Looks like we will need to split up to cover these events
Next week my wife and I will have been married for 20 years
I like hanging out with her, but the family often requires us to watch the dumb kids separately
We switch who does what
But still, could we get some events that we could both go to?
Is that too much to ask?
Other than The UX Podcast, does anyone know of a good User Experience podcast?
I have 2 more interviews ready to publish
Next week is going to be 20 Question about 20 Years of Marriage
So those 2 interviews are going to have to wait
Have a great week everyone