Saturday, June 11, 2011

accent attitudes

A while ago, I coined the term AVIC ('American Verbal Inferiority Complex'), to refer to an American tendency to find British English (or at least standard English English) superior to their own way of speaking.  Having done a bit of reading about accent attitudes this week, I'm wondering whether AVIC is on its way out, perhaps mostly found in older generations.  Here's what I found:

In 1985 (see references below), Stewart et al. published a study for which American subjects had been asked to rate the social status of people with standard American or standard British accents. They found that:

speakers of British English were assigned higher social status than speakers of the respondents’ own (American) accent, even though British speech was considered less intelligible and aroused more discomfort. For American listeners, this finding contrasts with their reactions to other ethnic accents (p. 103)
But that was more than 25 years ago. And just 10 years ago, Bayard et al. (2001) found that American accents were more positively evaluated in New Zealand and Australia, and America. Here's their graph showing the reactions to accents in their sample of Cleveland University students:



You might not be able to read the graph, but that dotted line at the top represents the North American accent, as spoken by a woman. Below that is North American male. Leaving third place to....Australian men! Yes, the English accent (as spoken by a man) is way down in 4th place now.

But my favo(u)rite graph of the ones I've come across is this one, from the undergraduate research journal at Brigham Young University. It shows the results of asking Brigham Young students to rate the intelligence of people with different accents.




The main significant effect found in this study was that people who'd lived at least three months outside the US rated the English accent significantly lower than people who'd only lived in the US. In fact, Americans who had not lived abroad considered the English-accented person to be much more intelligent than themselves, but the people who had lived abroad rated the standard American accent more intelligent than the standard English one.  My preferred way of interpreting this (a bit tongue-in-cheek) is that Americans are happy to rate the English as more intelligent than themselves up until they actually start meeting and talking to the English.

Better Half often complains that while he was treated like a god (the god of what, I don't know) when he first went to live and work in the US in the early 1990s, nowadays he's "nothing special" when we go to the States. He attributed this to New York City being overrun by the British, particularly when the pound was much, much stronger than the dollar. But I think he also finds it to be true when we're away from the big city where British people tend to travel. So, perhaps this is a symptom of a general trend for (standard-AmE-speaking) Americans to have more dialectal self-esteem than they used to.  You're welcome to speculate on the reasons for this in the comments--provided that you aren't too rude.


Any other business
  1. Thanks and more thanks to all of you who voted for SbaCL and my @lynneguist Twitter feed in the Lexiophiles/bab.la Top Language Lovers for 2011.  I'm grateful/flabbergasted/proud to see Separated by a Common Language ranked 5th among Language Professional Blogs (and 37th overall) and @lynneguist ranked 2nd in the Twitter category and 4th overall. Big, big thank-yous to all who had a hand in that!
  2. Thanks again for your help in locating instances of Dialect Fail and Dialect Success in transatlantic novel-writing. The Brighton Book Festival talk ('Whose Language is it Anyway?') was a success, in no small part because of your helpful suggestions.
  3. Before you ask, that talk is not available on video--but I'm very happy to give it in other venues. Please email me if you're interested! Talks (with audio publisher/video producer Better Half) are underway to recreate parts of my Lynneguist talks in snazzy podcast form. No release dates have been imagined yet, but you know I'll tell you when they're available.
  4. I had some interesting comments from English teachers (both school teachers and language-school ESL teachers) after the talk--they'd learn{ed/t} that some of their closely held beliefs about English were fictions, and thought that their colleagues would have benefited from the talk as well.  So, that got me thinking that it might be good to do some workshops with teachers on American/British differences, standards and prejudices. (It might also be useful to do them with publishers/editors, perhaps.) If there are any schools out there who might like to be guinea pigs for such a thing, please get in touch!



References:


Anderson, S. et al. (2007) How accents affect perception of intelligence. Intuition 3:5–11.

Bayard, D., A. Weatherall, C. Gallois, and J. Pittam (2001) Pax Americana? Accent attitudinal evaluations in New Zealand, Australia, and America. Journal of Sociolinguistics 5:22–49.

Stewart, MA, EB Ryan, and H Giles (1985) Accent and social class effects on status and solidarity evaluations. Personality and  Social Psychology Bulletin 11:98–105.

61 comments:

Ambulant said...

Oh no! Pseudoscience alert! What is 'standard' speech and what is 'English', and where is 'abroad'? How are we defining 'higher social status'? What are the sample sizes? I'm prepared to believe that there might be some good stats lurking somewhere behind these graphs, but as presented they're both pretty meaningless.

Ambulant said...

Sorry - 'outside US' rather than 'abroad', but the point holds. What was the geographical distribution of these people, and how long did they spend in their various overseas jaunts?

James said...

Yeah, I'm not so sure about this either. When accents in England vary so much, it seems crazy to lump them all together. Even worse, social status is (probably) strongly correlated with accent.

vp said...

What type of "English" accent arewe talking about? Laurence Olivier? Ozzie Osborne?

It may be worth pointing out that undergraduates from Brigham Young University are far from typical of American undergraduates. The University's Wikipedia page states that "Approximately 98% of the university's 34,000 students are members of the LDS (Mormon) Church. Many students (97% of men, 32% of women) take a two-year hiatus from their studies at some point to serve as Mormon missionaries. Many BYU students speak foreign languages during their Mormon missions, and 75% of the student body has some level of foreign language proficiency"

lynneguist said...

I've included the references in case you'd like to look up details, but in general, I've used the term that the study used (British v English) and we're talking about 'standard' dialects--which for British English means something south-eastern and RP-like (the old 'BBC English') and for US would mean the kind of accent that newscasters aspire to.

Yes, BYU is Mormon, which means that its students probably have a higher level of passport-owning than the typical American. But the difference between those who have lived abroad and those who've not is striking in this context. Yes, you'd want these things replicated, but it's certainly suggestive. If I remember correctly, there were 126 subjects in that study.

But the main point I'd want to take away from this trawl for accent attitude studies is that the old chestnut that Americans are awed by (a certain kind of) British accents is not necessarily true, and that there may be support for the anecdotal evidence from British folk (not just BH) that the status of that accent is waning or has waned (and not just in the US).

vp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vp said...

@lynneguist:

The study from BYU appears to be online here.

I'm afraid this decreases my confidence in its scientific validity even more. The PDF, in its "Methods" section, (p. 7), tells us merely that the voice was male, it was talking about a calculator, and that the accent was "British". Elsewhere on the same page, the article talks of "the accent of Great Britain".

No-one who has any knowledge of English phonology would assert that there is such a thing as "the accent of Great Britain". Given this, the value of this study is surely negligible. How do we know that the results weren't due simply to the particular kind of "British" accent included in the study?

lynneguist said...

Yes, 'British' is ill-defined (though I find it pretty easy to guess what it means to undergraduate Americans), but the people with experience abroad and the ones without it heard the same accent, right? So, while I don't want to make too much of an undergraduate study (it's my fave because it's funny/provocative, not because it's necessarily the best study), the fact that people with different amounts of experience abroad took the accent differently still holds.

If the accent that they heard is not a prestige accent in the UK, then maybe the 'abroad' group now had enough insight into BrE to downgrade their expectations of someone with, say, a Birmingham accent. But at the same time if the accent is a non-prestige accent in the UK, then that argues for the view that home-bound Americans are indiscriminate when it comes to UK accents, as they are stereotyped to be.

What no one has pointed out yet is that the 'Middle Eastern' result is absolutely bizarre. THAT's what makes the study look very weird indeed. But then, if they didn't tell the subjects where the speaker was from, perhaps they didn't know that the accent was 'middle eastern'. Hey, maybe they didn't know that the British speaker was British! Maybe they thought it was an Australian!

vp said...

@lynneguist:

... or maybe the "free brownie" that each participant received had been wasn't the kind your grandmother would make...

Anonymous said...

The average American likely has more exposure to less sophisticated UK English speakers and UK culture nowadays. The more people like Gordon Ramsay or Simon Cowell get high profile exposure (and the easier the internet/netflix makes it to see foreign series, youtube, etc), the less the well-educated, well spoken, BBC-newsy connotation of UK accents gets diluted (which isn't universal, I don't think, but does extend beyond RP). Other than rock stars, I feel like my exposure to UK accents as a kid was restricted to PBS, BBC news, and David Attenborough narration. Bit of a different connotation than watching Misfits and Simon Cowell shouting at people.

That's my theory, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, the results are too striking to take the graphs seriously as anything other than noise. Why should living outside for a few months increase "Middle-Eastern" so highly, for instance? There's a lot of pseudoscience in the world, where people draw conclusions from single not-sufficiently repeated experiments like this.

AHLondon said...

Taking the points about specifics and adding that Americans don't distinguish accents the way Brits do regardless of travel experience--we judge status largely on other things, accent mostly tells us region, not class-- I'm still with lynnguist about the trends. I am also with her hunch about why, more exposure to Brits, which we have had more of lately, takes the bloom off the rose, so to say.
I've been in the UK for 5 years and either have friends for whom I no longer hear accents (lynnguist is that normal?) or hear s British accent as elitist or snobbish. An exsmole on point for this post: twice in the past week alone I have been present for a Brit shamelessly mocking someone about their American accent, to the person's face, in formal social situations.
Basically an English accent used to sound 'smarter than us' now it sounds 'thinks it is smarter than us'.
As for the ME data, perhaps PC pressures are responsible, that is, respondents thought it would be unacceptable to rate a ME accent lower.

Anonymous said...

It's worth thinking about the reasons why BYU students might have a changed perception of British English speakers after living abroad. Their foreign travel is mostly motivated by missionary work. From my conversations with Brits about religion, and particularly Mormonism, I wouldn't be surprised if the BYU missionaries had a particularly difficult time seeing eye-to-eye with Brits on this subject, which could lead to them believing Brits are less intelligent than they previously thought. I have no idea how this theory would apply to Middle Eastern accents because I have no idea how Mormonism is percieved there. A study based on opinions of BYU students is really only an indication of how the Mormon community percieves other cultures via accent perception, and a reflection on their experiences as Mormon missionaries.

Ambulant said...

The other interesting aspect to the 'Middle Eastern' and 'Latin American' results in the BYU paper is that these are not accents of native English speakers. If you hear someone speaking a foreign language fluently, might you not tend to make a whole set of assumptions about their education and social status based on their facility with this additional language? There's also the possibility that these non-native speakers might use either AmE or BrE, a mixture of both, or another variety of English altogether, and these could all influence their interlocutors' perceptions of their social status.

Regarding BrE speakers and RP specifically - the Bayard study explicitly makes use of 'RP-type English English voices' - there is also the fact that fewer and fewer BrE speakers now use what might formally be defined as RP. This might have all sorts of effects on how people in Britain or elsewhere react to a PR speaker. For example, if they know that 'normal' British people don't speak like that, they might be more likely to regard RP speech as affected or pretentious.

The last two comments about the attitude of British speakers towards their American interlocutors are interesting. Brits do tend to be very suspicious of faith groups, so I'd certainly second the point that Mormon missionaries might find them a difficult group to get along with. Possibly AHLondon just knows some particularly obnoxious British people, but in the specific case she mentions it does sound suspiciously like it's the concept of the pisstake which is failing to translate.

Kelv said...

I agree with Anon of 11.42's theory on the Mormons' attitudes towards an English accent.

I could well imagine a Mormon's shock to discover how attitudes differ in the secular UK, where atheism isn't viewed as anything out of the ordinary and where any form of religious zealotry is viewed with scorn. In much the same way that a left-leaning UK atheist's perception of a southern American drawl could be clouded by preconceived baggage they may associate with that accent.

AHLondon said...

@Ambulant, yes both recent situations involved particularly bitchy Brits. Your comment also made me realize that this attitude is far more prevalent among professionals. My husband encounters it regularly. All of the rude instances I can recall involve intellectual professionals. In typical social situations we might just have a laugh over "oregano".
As for impressions of people fluent in a foreign language, my hunch is most Americans would assume that the person was from a second gen immigrant family or a military brat or oil family or missonary, i.e. Someone who had lived abroad or had fluent parents. Despite popular wisdom, biligunal Americans is common. The first thing speech tells an America is region, but if bilingualism tells an American something, it probably says common rather than sophisticated--unless it is French. Outside of Louisiana, there isn't much reason for an American to speak French unless they took the time to learn it.
Also, your point about speakers trying to sound RP and that coming off as pretentious, for Brits listening to Brits, that is absolutely true. Brits loathe people trying to change their accents. Americans would rarely care. We are sometimes annoyed when a politician from somewhere else tries to sound local, again with region association, but otherwise I can't imagine many times we would care. In fact, American accents tend to become more neutral, change, with advanced education.

Andy JS said...

I like standard American accents because they sound totally class-less to me. That's impossible as far as British accents are concerned.

My parents told me that when they went on a holiday to the US in 1980 a lot of Americans told them how interesting or "cute" their accent was. They've noticed how no-one ever says this when they visit the US these days.

EP said...

I'm American and find that Dr. House's American accent givese me an inferiority complex, even though Hugh Laurie is actually British (or maybe precisely for that reason). OK, OK. It must be all that medical terminology. ;-)

Discodoris said...

I've not got much to add about the study, other than to say that it doesn't impress me with its rigour either. However, I do wonder culturally, whether the increasing use of British actors to play "bad guys" in so many movies and tv programmes has devalued the British accent as well?

On the slight off branch of British people being bitchy towards the US, I've increasingly noticed this trend and can only point to the US being seen as the architect of many bad decisions and problems that Britain currently faces, such as the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, tensions of terrorism and the credit crunch. It's unattractive, but not unusual for xenophobia to raise its ugly head in such circumstances. I deplore it, personally - being rude is being rude.

Donald Duck said...

An English journalist who lives and works in the United States told me that, whenever she opened her mouth, people used to pay more attention to HOW she spoke -- to her British pronunciation -- than to WHAT she said - and that annoyed her quite a lot.

That happened in the year of the Lord 2001.

-E- said...

simon cowell.

PW said...

AmE speaker to those who comment that the study isn't valid because we don't know which BrE accent is used. I think the point needs to be made much more strongly that to a certain extent it simply doesn't matter. I don't think most AmE speakers would know the class/social status affiliated with most accents. In fact, I think most BrE speakers would be surprised at how often we wouldn't even differentiate between the accents that you recognize with ease. In my experience, accents simply aren't as meaningful or important here. So the study may or may not be valid (I haven't read enough to form a useful opinion), but I don't think that issue is nearly as critical as you find it.

Sean said...

Interesting stuff. As mentioned, not necessarily the most scientific studies ever conducted, but still an insight into the sort of responses you might get. Obviously, you would expect the more travelled people to get a better understanding of what an accent really indicates; location of upbringing more than intellectual level. What baffles me is that as we travel and dispel our preconceptions, we still choose to see accents as being indicative of an intellectual level, albeit different to our original view.

Did nobody abstain on the basis that an accent really says little about intellect? Not even those that were travelled and had now learnt as much?

Anon1 said...

I must plead 'mea culpa' here.
I always take an southern US accent as less intelligent.

AHLondon said...

@Sean, I guess this doesn't hold for Ireland, but in England they think accent, and shoes apparently, say everything about a persons status, class, education and thereby intellect. How reflexive and rigid this accent analysis is shocks Americans living here. I've found the lack of American interest in accents difficult to explain to friends here. We don't really have a status accent. A person tends to lose their regional accent as they get more and more education, so a person who doesn't have a regional accent is probably well educated, but we typically only think of that if we need to figure out where the person is from and realize that we can't.
With that in mind, this accent study is really kind of a word association exercise. We here the accent, think 'Aha. A Brit.' and the answers reflect a general attitude of Americans about Brits. If this were a reverse study looking at what Brits thought, then you would need to know more nuance about the speaker's accent because Brits are more detailed judges of accents.
@Discordis regarding British bad guys in movie: that's not really new. Grand Moff Tarkin and all the Star Wars baddies, save Vader, come to mind. And on rudeness, keep thinking along those lines. The dip in favor of the British accent might have much to do with Americans souring on such rudeness and more direct British complaining about US foreign policy, see Secretary Gates's speech in Brussels about NATO last week for the latest example. I covered that issue last week.
http://americanhousewifeinlondon.blogspot.com/2011/06/gates-sounds-death-knell-of-nato.html

Sandra said...

Oh come on, Brits, stop it with the "there is no such thing as an English/British accent!" thing! We've all heard it, we all know it's true in a way and also completely rubbish on so many other levels!
Try to ask Barack Obama and Gordon Brown to say "Where's your pickup truck, man?" (or "Could I have some more water, please?" if you want a more British example) and then tell me you won't be able to spot immediately which one is American and which one is British (I have chosen Gordon Brown on purpose because he is definitely British but certainly not from south east England and wasn't educated at Eton either). You want another example? Try Sarah Palin and Harriet Harman. Yes, the Cornish accent is very different from the Glaswegian but they still sound British more than American and I think what the human ear and brain do in this instance is compare and differentiate rather than identify and analyse instantly all the characteristics of the County Durham dialect before nodding sagely while puffing on their pipe and saying "Most definitely, Watson".
Stop fancying yourselves as modern day Professors Higgins, even though you're pissed off you could be mistaken as Liverpool lads when you are actually Manchester United guys.
Of course, it could be because my French ears are quintessentially flawed, but not more than American ones, I'm sure.

Richard Howland-Bolton said...

Re your favo(u)rite chart:
Thank goodness more Americans haven't lived abroad.
I've been in the States for (Good Lord!!) more than 30 years and I still 'live off' what I like to call my lack of an accent (I speak an SRP-ish dialect), and down here in Dallas I still get mistaken for a brilliant intellectual.

Graham said...

Went to see Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this weekend and, coincidentally, it is right on this topic. The production is set in modern America and I am sure the fake American accents would be very grating to American ears. There is definitely some unintentional variability in the actors' accents. However, it is very clear that Portia deliberately (at the Director's direction) uses three different accents for three different contexts: much more Southern when she is "on air" as a game show participant, less "regional" (to my ears) when she is off-air and different again when she is Balthasar (there are also three different hairstyles to go with them).

The contrast is clearly intended to emphasise that assuming the blond bimbo on TV is stupid because of her hair and her accent is just as much of a mistake as being anti-semitic (it doesn't quite work because Shylock is both a very nasty piece of work and is subject to much more severe hatred and abuse than she is).

But it depends on the association that I think most British people in the audience made between Southern and less intelligent. You might want to think about going to see it (and the new RST is worth a visit, even if the seats are too cramped).

Oh, and I am interested in your theories about what the dance at the end is supposed to signify!

The Ridger, FCD said...

I remember - oh, a dozen or maybe fifteen years ago, maybe even longer - reading a column by a black British correspondent in DC saying he was used to instantly being granted 15 IQ points over the phone and losing 10 when he met people face to face. (Of course, he pointed out, that still left him 5 to the good...)

Adrian said...

@Sandra

Yes, but what you're talking about is the ability for an observer to distinguish members of two discrete sets, which is a fairly straightforward proposition. Being able to tell the difference between an apple and an orange though doesn't imply anything about an observer's ability to distinguish a Braeburn from a Granny Smith.

An assumption in this discussion seems to be that for two sets of English speakers, set A and set B, most members of set A will find the accents of most members of set B indistinguishable. We might therefore expect on the basis of voice recordings that a member of A would be likely to make similar inferences about the social status of any arbitrarily chosen members of B (for example, picking two entirely fictional characters, Rab C. Nesbitt and Boris Johnson). I don't doubt that sometimes this would actually happen, but I think that determining reliably how often would take a great deal of work.

Even when where non-Brits can't or don't distinguish a Bristol accent from a Birmingham accent, I think they'll still subconsciously be making assumptions about whether a given speaker sounds educated or not. So - in this regard at least - I think it's a mistake to regard Britons as fungible.

AHLondon said...

Cue the British eye rolling, but the best verbal indicator of educational status for an American is grammar, which I suspect is the main reason Brits typically enjoyed IQ enhancement when speaking with Americans. They have better grammar across the middle and upper class accents.

David L said...

There's a downside to this business, I've found. I'm originally British but have lived in the US for close to 30 years. In the last couple of months I've had people say to me on a couple of occasions that my accent makes what I say sound very intelligent. And I want to reply no, it's not the accent, it's because what I'm saying is in fact very intelligent. But I refrain from saying that, on account of residual British politeness.

Ken Brown said...

There are no class assumptions based on accent in America? So US TV has been lying to me all these years?

Maybe I watch the wrong programs (programmes?) but The Simpsons, The Wire, South Park, and the complete works of Josh Whedon (OK, I know he is a hopeless Anglomane, so maybe that doesn't count) seem riddled with comments on class, and sometimes subtle and sometimes bludgeoning use of accents to signify class or personality or education.

And as for Jersey Shore...

(I confess to never coming across it before it was parodied on South Park)

Vince said...

There definitely are American accents that are viewed as lower class and have negative stereotypes attached to them, from southern accents to urban black accents to New York/New Jersey accents. I think the real difference is that there's no American equivalent to RP, at least not since the Mid-Atlantic accent of wealthy northeasterners died out decades ago. The general American accent that's viewed as standard now is completely class neutral and is thought of by Americans as a non-accent.

Harry Campbell said...

No offence to either lynneguist or AHLondon, but what would a "south-eastern and RP-like" accent be, given that the whole point about RP is that it's not regional? If it's south-eastern, it's not RP-like, or at least no more than, say, a Glaswegian or Geordie accent that's nearly RP.

As for "the middle and upper class accents", this is presumably the Dan Brown school of dialectology. Wearily predicting "British eye rolling" doesn't make it any less silly.

AHLondon said...

@David L, heh. Still have your dry sense of humor after all this time in the states.
@Vince and Ken, I agree. Americans certainly have stereotypical accents that come with various baggage. My very general point, is that the judgment baggage accompanying the accents is more tied to the region, I.e. what people think of Texans or New Yorkers than the accent, and that the regional association can be diluted, which is very different from accent stereotypes in the UK. If we come across, for example, a doctor with a New Jersey accent, we don't worry about intelligence unless the doc has bad grammar. Think too of the "bad" American accents; they typically have charactersitc grammar problems. But a doc with a NJ accent, is just a doc from NJ. In contrast, in the UK accents are never supposed to change, and it seems one of the ultimate social mistakes to try. Since a Brit would not trust a doctor with a less favored accent and since accent changes are frowned upon, accent analysis is much more rigid and unforgiving than in the states. If you have a less favored accent, moving up is difficult.
@Harry, I wasn't "wearily" suggesting eye rolling, I was jokingly suggesting it. I thought that Brits would find my assertion that Americans judge grammar as ridiculous and unhelpful because to them our grammar is all bad. I should leave the self deprecating humor to the professionals. As for the Dan Brown bit, I'm not sure what you mean? Are you suggesting that the assertion that there are middle and upper class accents is wrong? If so, have lived here too long to believe that.

Harry Campbell said...

@AHLondon The humour in your eye-rolling comment went straight over my head I'm afraid, so I was delivering the predicted eye-rolling humourlessly. I certainly wasn't going to get involved in discussing an idea as absurd, jokingly so or not, as the inferior quality of the grammar of lower orders. As followers of a blog by an actual academic linguist, rather than of the Daily Mail comments page or whatever, we surely have better things to do than stigmatise unfamiliar English dialects as "bad grammar".

Is the notion of "the middle and upper-class accents" wrong? I'd say it's positively fanciful. To be honest I'm amazed that someone who has actually lived in the UK would believe it. Surely they would know that nothing in British class culture is so banally straightforward, outside of Dan Brown. In case it's really necessary to spell it out, there is no such thing as "the middle-class accent". We can argue till the cows come home about what exactly middle-class means (let's not), but if you're thinking of RP, that would make for an absurdly small middle class! I'm guessing the majority of middle-class people who don't speak RP would be a pretty substantial one. As for "the upper-class accent", the mind boggles. Bertie Wooster? Lord Peter Wimsey? Huntin', shootin' an' fishin'?

Whether such cross-cultural misunderstandings
stem from an American interpretation of the terms middle/upper-class, or a lack of awareness of British accents, I don't know, but believe me, misunderstandings is all they are.

Ken Brown said...

AHLondon: "In contrast, in the UK accents are never supposed to change, and it seems one of the ultimate social mistakes to try. Since a Brit would not trust a doctor with a less favored accent and since accent changes are frowned upon, accent analysis is much more rigid and unforgiving than in the states. If you have a less favored accent, moving up is difficult."

I'm not sure its true that a Brit wouldn't trust a doctor with a less prestigious accent. OK, that is understatement, I am very sure that its not true.

As for prejudice against changing accents, to the extent tat it exists I think it is very recent. From the early 19th century to about the 1960s it was expected that someone with a regional accent who went to university or got a job in the public eye would change their accent towards RP. Tennyson and Gladstone were thought strange for keeping some aspects of their local accent. Change was expected, maybe even demanded. Even as late as the 1970s I met university students who deliberatly affected RP.

Nowadays we assume people won't do that. But its not entirely over. The journalistic campaign against "Estuary English" is really a bit of social policing of the boundaries of the middle class. There is some residual feeling that anoyone aspiring to move up in society jolly well ought to lose their local accents and adopt RP.

I was born and brought up in Brighton, and I have a normal Brighton accent, which is somewhere in the middle of a triangle whose points are a London accent, an East Sussex accent, and RP. In my case its probably nearer the London side of things. I use glottal stops in words like "glottal", and I even say "innit". And have done for over 50 years. And now I can read articles in the newspapers saying that my own accent was invented sometime in the 1980s.

Ken Brown said...

Sandra said: "Oh come on, Brits, stop it with the "there is no such thing as an English/British accent!" thing! [...] Yes, the Cornish accent is very different from the Glaswegian but they still sound British more than American"

Well, they are both British. But the difference between them is huge. In fact its larger than the difference between them and most American accents.

If you made a family tree of English accents the main splits would come within Britain, not between Britain and other countries. A typical Australian accent is closer to southern English accents like RP, or London, or Suffolk than they are to northern English accents.

American accents split off earlier, but RP is a lot more like, say, a Boston accent than [b]either[/b] is to most northern English accents. And RP is nearer to General American than either are to Geordie or Scots. (For a start they are entirely mutually intelligible) So the idea that any English speaker can't tell that Geordie or Scots accents are different from most English accents is really odd.

vp said...

@Sandra:

I repeat my earlier point. Are you saying that Americans would respond the same way to Laurence Olivier and Ozzie Osbourne?

Brett said...

@vp: I think lots of Americans would react the same way to the accents of Olivier and Osborne. Different as they clearly are, the only salient feature to most non-Anglophile Americans is that both are British.

lynneguist said...

If you put Olivier and Osbourne next to each other (hard to do these days), and asked an American if they had different accents, they'd probably say 'yes' and they'd probably be able to tell you which is more 'standard'.

But most Americans hear single UK accents in isolation, and it's hard to keep the features in memory between hearings, especially with little UK social context to draw on. So, Ozzy can be perceived as sounding distinguished, just because he sounds 'British'.

Remember also that many Americans can't tell the difference between English and Australian or South African. It's all just 'Englishy' to our ears.

biochemist said...

All these comments and nothing about Cheryl Cole! Famously dropped from the X-factor in the US because her Geordie accent is unintelligible to Americans - well, I spent 10 years on Tyneside and I can't understand her either.... I'm sure this lady has a lot going for her but being difficult to understand tends to suggest one has difficulty understanding, hence the apparent link between intelligibility and intelligence.

As for an 'educated' US accent - does anyone listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (early Saturday evening on BBC Radio 3)? The interval speakers and quiz masters - and some of the musicians/singers - seem to descend from a rarefied middle-European colony in New York. Boy, do they sound intelligent!

vp said...

@Brett; @lynneguist

Hmmm: all my American friends were falling over with laughter at Osborne; admittedly that may have been because of his behavio(u)r as well as his accent, but several explicitly cited his accent, and asked me to try to "translate" it.

lynneguist said...

Osbourne also slurs everything he says, so maybe not the best accent example!

Anonymous said...

From Lynneguist in a comment: But most Americans hear single UK accents in isolation, and it's hard to keep the features in memory between hearings, especially with little UK social context to draw on.

I think that makes a lot of sense. It fits also with when I do and don't notice American accents (the ones closer to mine). Including, I'm more likely to notice them when the distinction is socially meaningful.

scepticalexpat said...

Living in Chicago I'm getting a *lot* of comments about my British accent and how lovely it is, both in my office temping jobs where callers constantly remark on it over the phone, and from students when I do a bit of university teaching. My British friends have had students comment positively on it in their teaching evaluations, too.

I don't think I've exactly heard anyone say that it makes me sound more intelligent, but people do genuinely seem to like it and even find it attractive (I am cringeing slightly as I write this). Moreover it elicits a lot of talk about how I 'must find it awful how we Americans massacre the language', which is something I would never, ever say and only think about a few individual usages that I dislike. So linguistic inferiority seems to be ongoing among some Americans anyway.

The other thing I think is funny is that when I read out Middle English at American conferences (I'm a medievalist) I get comments about how my Britishness gives me a natural advantage... and this from English academics, who you'd think would know better!

Dilsnik said...

@ Biochemist:
The Metropolitan Opera broadcasters on NPR have legitimate New York accents, mostly. As a fellow New Yorker, I would refer to it as Upper East Side. It is the normal accent of the wealthy or educationally privileged, just as the Boston Brahmin accent affected by Thurston Howell III was a few decades ago.

AHLondon said...

@Harry, I was not arguing that there was one middle class or upper class accent. I was arguing that among the array of accents spoken by middle and upper class Brits, Americans note little difference. Brits not only instantly note the differences among these accents, but also rank them in order of prestige. I discussed your comment with some British friends over the weekend, and I can now place all my British friends in rank order by their accents. Thanks for that, as it explains some social oddities I've seen in the past 5 years that baffled me at the time.
@Ken Brown re: doctors, you must know more laid back Brits than I do, conceivable since I live in Chelsea. The rigid accent analysis I hear about might be an exaggerated account due to my location.

PW said...

I remember reading several years ago that the Irish actress in the TV show "Touched by an Angel" was upset that people in the US didn't realize that she was Irish. How could anyone think she had a British accent? In all honesty, most of us in the US just don't recognize most of the accents or understand the associated issues.


I think my personal experience might speak to the difference in dialect perception between the two cultures. My in-laws speak a version of AmE once common in the Rocky Mountain area of the US. To call it ungrammatical would be kind. I've never thought it said anything bad about their intelligence or social acceptability. It certainly didn't stop me from marrying their son. I will admit that I made sure my daughters didn't pick up their speech habits. But I've never been more judgmental about it than that, nor has anyone else I know. They are respected by a wide circle of friends that includes many highly educated and professional people.

Ken Brown said...

AHLondon: "...you must know more laid back Brits than I do, conceivable since I live in Chelsea. The rigid accent analysis I hear about might be an exaggerated account due to my location."

South-east London here, the Deptford end of Lewisham. I'm even a Millwall fan :-)

So yes, towards another pole of Londonish diversity.

vp said...

To those surprised at the "Middle Eastern" accent: it would be useful to know what the speaker's first language was (Turkish? Farsi? Arabic? if so, which variety?) and how much fluency (s)he had acquired.

And, not to flog this horse to death, but the "Latin American" speaker's native tongue could have been either Spanish or Portuguese (there are an awful lot of Mormons in Brazil).

Alan said...

Interesting discussion. I watch a fair amount of British TV and movies (I'm a huge Mike Leigh fan), and while I can't make the fine distinctions (or, in particular, identify the precise type of accent a speaker uses) that a native British person would, I definitely notice differences.

But I think it's likely correct that many Americans do not notice them. I recall reading an interview with Michael Caine in which he always found it amusing that American filmmakers wanted him to play distinguished, professorial types since his accent is nowhere close to RP.

Sully said...

Nothing quite like using the reverse to your advantage. Nothing will get a bird flying from her knickers quite like a wonderfully American "charmed to meet you"

Ahh the joys of expat life

donahoe said...

I'm a US-born person who has lived abroad for a couple decades and interacted with Brits of all sorts. It's clear to me that Brits have widely ranging accents, much more so than US citizens. I think I can tell - perhaps I'm mistaken - the relative 'class' of a Brit by the speech I hear. I also think that of US people I meet. I may be mistaken. Probably often am. Accents change. People change. I wouldn't read too much into this, frankly. I seriously doubt very many people consciously change their accent. What a bother! I actually don't care what someone's particular angle on the language is as long as I can understand. Tempest in a teapot.

PTHoboken said...

Fascinating discussion and thread for someone who grew up in Blighty but lived in the US for the past 13 years. Reminded of a "Frasier" episode when Roz commented on Daphne's uncouth brother having such a "sophisticated" accent. The line assumed enough knowledge on the part of the US-based audience to understand that it was anything but! That was back in 1998 or 1999.
Some observations: here in NJ/NY, many people can identify local accents: e.g. born and raised in Brooklyn vs Jersey City, Pennsylvania accents, and different New England accents. After years of living here, my ear is only now getting accustomed to the differences, which are very subtle to someone from the UK, where the accents are closer to dialects.

John Thacker said...

Remember that Americans who have not lived abroad have most likely only experienced foreign (to them) accents in person with expatriates and tourists, and with actors and media figures, all of whom are likely to be somewhat wealthier and better educated than average. Americans who have lived abroad are more likely to have had experiences with average foreigners.

It is this fact that may color impressions. If the only person speaking Indian or Pakistani-accented English that you've met is a doctor, engineer, or academic (quite common in the US), then you'll have a different impression of that accent than if you've traveled to India or Pakistan extensively yourself.

Ger said...

As a Dutchman in Australia I get a lot of comments on my Denglish (English with a hint of windmills and tulips). Although many people tell me they like my accent, I cannot get the idea out of my head that it is not favorable when I present my projects. And some the studies support that - if I look at the other accents than British...

Shawn said...

Advertisers find that Americans perceive a cockney Scottish accent is the most "trustworthy" followed by the Australian. I think this explains the GEICO car insurance gecko.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BaXPg_2FJ4

vp said...

@Shawn:

Any evidence for your theory? :)

Albert Welch said...

In regards to American impressions of British dialects and accents I'm reminded of the following exchange.


Nellie Forbush: Do you get letters from your mother telling you everything you do is wrong?

Lt. Cable: No. My mother thinks everything I do is right. Of course, I don't tell her everything I do.

--"South Pacific"

A crisp oxford accent or a lilting brogue delight the ear, but I don't think many Americans would attribute anything positive to Johnny Vegas based on his accent.

Many other regional British accent could easily be misheard as Appalachian, Southern US, or continental European.