Once upon a time on planet earth, there lived a little girl who was fascinated with sounds. Sounds of voices, sounds of instruments, sounds of machines, sounds of birds and frogs and birch leaves in the Minnesota wind. Sounds of the big Ojibwa drum beaten by 5 men at once, chanting under their cowboy hats and glasses, with feathers hanging from their braids. To four-year-old Eliza Jane, those drums were as tall as her chin and wide enough to swim in.
That was me. I don’t remember much from the reservation, but I remember the three giant Ojibwe women who ran the daycare where I was learning to be a person, while my mom was busy working as a reservation legal aid attorney, fighting to protect the Ojibwe tribe from the federal government. According to her, I talked more than everyone else at my daycare put together. I wonder if that was annoying or entertaining to the people around me. If my six-year old son is any indication, it was probably a little of both.
My best friend’s name was Raina Littlewolf. We used to play her mini piano and make up songs. I remember how she sounded. I remember how the teenage boys at my dad’s school – named for chief Bug-O-Nay-Gee-Shig – (photo of Bug jacket) – sounded. “Owah, man!”
And I remember how my dad sounded when he used to read me a story about a little native girl who sang to the Gunne Wolf,
“Kum quah kee wah, kum quah kee wah”
My daddy was a math and drama teacher at the time, and he played the clarinet and tenor sax. He always spoke with different dialects as an extension of his self-expression, for color and emphasis, the way other people use volume, lilt, and pitch. Dialects, accents, and different character voices came as naturally to me as vocabulary. One day I would have to deal with boyfriends disdainfully telling me “use your real voice.” I would also have to deal with record labels rejecting my demo for lack of a “signature sound.” But I was free from that kind of arbitrary judgment at age four. In my little world, I could be a shape-shifter if I wanted to be.
My mom and dad met at Northwestern University’s School of Speech. My mom was directing my dad in a play, and she was looking for the French translation. He had it in his back pocket. I think he asked to borrow her car. And the rest is, as they say, history. They both were studying to be actors, but were turned off by the vanity and politics of the industry. So they joined the Peace Corps and headed to Sarawak to teach English.
My understanding is that it kept my father out of the Vietnam war. Their contribution to the war effort years later was to adopt an adorable 7 year old Vietnamese war orphan, my brother Yo Binh Jacob Schneider, who turned out to be a certifiable sociopath. (But that’s a story for a later blog. Stay tuned.) My parents became disillusioned with the Peace Corps, feeling that they were taking jobs from locals, and came back early. One of my favorite Peace Corps stories my mom tells is about asking for a dozen eggs at the grocery store in Malay, and, misplacing the emphasis, instead announcing in an entirely inappropriate way that she was pregnant.
“We al-WAYZ put zee em-PHAS-sis on zee wrong sil-LAB-ble,” Robert Easton would say, whenever he taught French dialects to a room full of voice actors.
When I finally got myself to Hollywood to join my fellow shape-shifters (aka “actors”), after a short summer stint at Northwestern University’s National High School Institute, (where got to take my first “dialects” elective) I looked up the man who would become my mentor, Robert Easton, “The Henry Higgins of Hollywood.” I had already started a company called “Eliza Doolittle Dialects,” teaching other actors at UCLA to speak with different accents, so it was a match made in heaven. (Until Bob eventually went nuts and decided I was trying to kill him. Again, a blog for later – stay tuned.) In the meantime, in order to get him to teach me what he knew, I would organize and promote classes for him to teach to other actors. As much as (I later learned) he wanted to keep me in the dark as to the secrets of his genius, the man couldn’t resist a captive audience.
In my first dialect class at Northwestern’s NHSI, I was dismayed at the lack of authentic primary source material when it came to studying dialects (as was Bob, which was probably why he agreed to meet with me in the first place). Even at the Samuel French bookshop in Hollywood, all I could find was a Dr. David Allen Stern imitating dialects, but no recordings of native speakers to speak of. And so, at age 19, I determined that I would personally record all of the dialects of spoken English in the world, as a resource for actors like me. And here we are, over two decades later, and I’m headed to Singapore to collect the dialects of the last remaining country in the world, where English is a first language, that I have yet to record!
Of course, the advent of the internet has made videos of native speakers and local radio shows easily accessibly to the savvy actor in the years since I first set out on my quest, but I wouldn’t trade the journey of the last 20 years for anything. And the self-imposed parameters of beginning my mission to archive the world’s accents with the countries and regions where English is spoken as a first language, I realize, is probably as arbitrary as the idea that one woman could possibly ever collect all of the variants of spoken English in the world in her lifetime is ridiculous. But I just don’t care! Ya gotta start somewhere! And really it’s all probably just an excuse to get out of my own skin and feel what it’s like to be one with ALL of humanity.
This little shape-shifter has absorbed so many people, so many souls, so many heartfelt perspectives and philosophies in rapid succession, I am simply bursting to share them with you. Enter: this blog. I have to tell you before we begin our journey around the world together, that you are in for far more than phonemes on this wild ride. Your belief systems may be challenged. Your world-view turned on its head, your prejudices exposed, and your love for humanity expanded. I know mine was.
Are you ready? Let’s go!!!