PROVIDENCE — We told readers we wanted to hear their classic Rhode Island accents, and they delivered, sending examples via voicemail and email. We shared them with dialect coach Thom Jones and, on this week’s Rhode Island Report podcast, he explains what makes the accent so distinct — and teaches the podcast’s producer, Megan Hall, how to speak like a real Rhode Islander.
Jones served as resident voice and speech coach for The Trinity Repertory Company. He has been a professor of the practice in the master of fine arts program for Brown University and Trinity Rep. And he now works with Hollywood stars, such as Nicole Kidman, and has taught many actors how to speak with a Rhode Island accent.
So he had the expertise needed to explain the Full Rhode Island version of some phrases you might hear up at the State House: “Point of order, Mr. Speaker – I’d like to send that bill back to the Corporations Committee.”
Jones, who was born in Florida but now lives in Rhode Island, explains that the Rhode Island accent represents a melting pot of the cultures that have inhabited the state over the years.
“A great deal of it comes from the Irish,” he said. “There’s also a great deal of it that comes from old British English. There is also in Rhode Island and New York influence specifically relating to Italians from New York. There’s a big cultural blend here.”
The Rhode Island accent also reflects the nature of its residents, Jones said.
“The thing that I always say about New England is that it’s very direct,” he said “That clipped, fast rhythm that New Englanders use is very direct. It’s no nonsense. It’s like: Don’t waste my time.”
Jones recalled teaching an Australian actor, Jason Clarke, to sound like a Rhode Islander for the 2006-2008 television series “Brotherhood.” At one point, he had Clarke go to the Olneyville New York System Restaurant in Providence and order three hot wieners “all the way.”
He talked about how he taught Miles Teller to sound like the Rhode Island boxer Vinny Paz (formerly Vinny Pazienza) for the 2016 film “Bleed for This.” At one point, he played a clip of an ad for the Quality Curtain Outlet in Coventry.
And he analyzed a message sent into the Globe by former state Representative Joanne Giannini, a Providence Democrat who (along with Representative Charlene M. Lima and former attorney general Arlene Violet) form a Mount Rushmore of sorts for great Rhode Island accents heard at the State House.
Jones provided a phonetic description of the Rhode Island dialect. You can listen to his explanation here.
Jones said regional dialects, such as Rhode Island’s, are beginning to fade away. “If I want to get a strong regional dialect, I always go to older speakers,” he said.
Yet language is the way we connect and find community, Jones said, explaining why he loves his job.
“It’s the way that we feel less alone,” he said. “When people approach this work, they just notice all the differences. Now, I’m noticing how we’re connected because it tells a story. It tells a story about where we’re from and tells a story about the history of the world, frankly.”
Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.