Audiobook listeners inevitably bring their own perception to interpreting accent and pronunciation. It’s an aspect of audiobook production that is often overlooked.

Audiobook producers have to make definitive choices about things which remain ambiguous in printed versions. Pronunciation and accent are such strong markers of class, place, ethnicity, education—even of political leaning—that the choices you make inevitably carry an inherent indicator of how you see a character. But how you see it doesn’t guarantee that listeners will hear it the same way.

Some listeners think readings that give strong indications are a good thing, and want the characterizations done for them. Others abhor the fact that the authors’ words are being “interpreted” by a third party. “Let the author establish character,” they argue. But whatever the reader/producer decides, even making it deliberately neutral, different listeners will react differently. If the choice made matches their expectation, they will feel comfortable; if not, not. But their interpretation might be uninformed or erroneous. So how far should producers go to be “correct”, and how far should they encourage or restrain characterization? What does your audience expect?

Authenticity vs. clarity

What is “correct” changes with time. Linguistics expert David Crystal told me once when recording with us that what we would now call a “BAL-coney” (a platform outside a window) would have been said as “bal-CONE-y” until about 1820, when pronunciation suddenly switched. If recording a book written before 1820 (any Austen, for example) then for authenticity we should pronounce it the old way, but that would puzzle listeners unless explained, and interrupt their enjoyment of the story. Do we choose authenticity or clarity? And what should we do with a book written today but set then? We’ve just recorded a Bridgerton-style novel. We said it the modern way. To do otherwise would have been distracting to modern listeners. But it isn’t “correct.”

When we created the audio version of a book set in northern India in the 1890s, we did decide to refer to the mountains as the “him-AH-lee-ahs”, which is both how it was said by English speakers at the time and far closer to how the modern inhabitants of the area still say the name. We thought it strengthened the sense of place and period. But listeners (and one erroneous but apoplectic reviewer who castigated “astonishing affectation”) expected “him-ah-LAY-ahs”.

“To-may-toe” or “to-maah-toe” nearly scuppered Fred Astaire’s on-screen relationship with Ginger Rogers in the film Shall We Dance. This is now seen as a distinction between American and British English, but at the time (1937) it was much more about class than modern viewers of the film will realize. It was fashionable in New York society to adopt the long vowels of upper-class English speakers.

You say ‘scohne’

Nowadays in Britain, how you say “scone” (the small tea bread) is still assumed by some pretentious people to mark your class. But it’s not as simple as that: as you move around the country, so the class indicator can reverse. Broadly speaking, in the London area, “scohne”, dominates, and speakers scorn “scon”. But in my experience the reverse is true in the North of England and Scotland. So the choice you make as reader/producer will inevitably carry different overtones for different listeners.

Lest you think that discussing how you say “scone” is just displaying my own social background, consider the sportswear brand “Nike”. The company itself, pointing out that it is named after the Classical Greek Goddess of Victory, says it is “Nigh-key.” But a survey in which JD Sports asked their customers how they said it reported a more-or-less 50:50 split, once again with marked regional differences. Wales, the North-East of England, and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly say “Nighck” (one syllable, rhyming with “spike”). The rest of the country says “Nigh-key”, except London, which is split 50:50. If we choose “Nigh-key,” which would seem logical on the grounds that the company itself says it that way, we will immediately disrupt the listening of anyone who would naturally say it the other way.

Which is the more important—being “correct”, or matching listeners’ expectations so we don’t disrupt the continuity of their listening pleasure? Whichever way we go, we try to make the decision based on research, and don’t leave it for the reader to decide on the fly in the studio.

Nicholas Jones established Strathmore Publishing in 1995 as an editorial and production service for both printed and audio books, and the Strathmore Studios have recorded more than two thousand audiobooks for clients all over the world.