Sociolinguistics and Lip Synchronization: How Phonetic Dialects Impact Character Design and Facial Animation

Kayla Rutherford


Language is a fundamental aspect of our personality, identity, community, and culture. Notably, accents and their idiosyncratic nature play a significant role in shaping an individual's public perception and assimilation to a community. Because of this, they provide an audience with valuable insight into a character's background and worldview. Therefore, they should be chosen deliberately when designing a character to support the artist's intentions behind and provide depth and context to a story.

Globally, there are thousands of different languages, hundreds of dialects within each language, and an infinite number of accents within each dialect. Accents are individualistic and impacted by an enormous variety of factors, including ethnicity, social class, culture, exposure to other accents and languages, geography, and local history. While individual nuances in pronunciation remain scattered throughout a population, a community or region often blends accents over time, creating a global sound indicative of their shared life experiences. These shared experiences and sounds become an intrinsic part of a group's identity and culture, simultaneously unifying those who sound the same and distancing groups with different accents from one another.

The average listener recognizes a communal sound before identifying the distinctions specific to an individual. Previous connections, interactions, or understandings of a group impact social perceptions when listeners bring implicit biases, personal experiences, knowledge of a region, or stereotypes to how they understand the speaker. As a result, accents must be carefully considered and intentionally chosen when designing a character. Accents tell the character's story, provide depth or context to their thoughts and interactions, and challenge stereotypes.

Part of what must be considered when crafting a character's speech sound is that negative linguistic stereotypes are globally pervasive, profoundly impacting speakers of these so-called undesirable dialects. While accents can provide necessary insight into a character, they must be elected ethically and thoughtfully designed to not contribute to harmful stereotypes. When designed ethically and supported by acting and animation, accents can communicate with audiences more personally, profoundly, and authentically, making the story and message more effective and meaningful.

Built on a foundation of my personal experiences, this thesis investigates the development of and mechanics behind phonetic dialects, stereotypes, and implicit biases and why selecting an accent and its reinforcement through nuanced animated performance is essential to storytelling, representation, and inclusion.