sounding English/American

Bbrug pointed out an article on British and American authors' renditions of the other dialect's speech on the Telegraph website. Not being a Telegraph reader, I was grateful for the link.

The author starts with the following premise (BrE: premiss):
America has become more interested in the outside world since September 2001. If their first, bewildered question was "Why do they hate us so much?" it has, in time, been followed up by questions about what life in the outside world is actually like.
This premis{e/s} itself may be the most faulty part of the article. There have always been people in the US who are interested in what the outside world is like. But, having been an expat both before and after September 11th, I've felt that the proportion of 'what's it like to live there?' to 'why do they hate us?' conversations has changed in the opposite direction of that suggested by the author. Just in March, I was trapped in a conversation at an American party, where a man who'd never needed a passport kept drilling me on the hatred subject, refusing to believe that I didn't suffer as an American abroad. On the two occasions in which I've had dental work in the US since the terrorist attacks, I've been stuck with Dr Dentist's hands in my mouth while he lectures me on why he'll never return to France because of its government's stance on the war. When travel(l)ing with Better Half in the US, I'm always amazed when people ask where he's from and then say "That sounds nice. I have no interest in going there. There's enough of America to see." Why, exactly, did they feel the need to say that?

Anyhow, back to language. The author goes on:
There's an easy test to apply about how substantial this new interest is, or whether the outside world is actually being listened to. Can American writers reliably report the styles of speech of one of their nearest linguistic cousins?
By the end of the article, it's clear that this is not a very good test at all. As the author notes, creating realistic dialogue is one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction, and few writers master it even in their own dialect. And while Europeans can't help but be exposed to a lot of American culture (through media, retail, politics and tourists), there are few British novelists who ably write American voices without crossing the border into parody.

The author's segue into the main discussion of dialogue in novels starts on a filmic tangent:
From Cary Grant to Dick van Dyke to Woody Allen's inadvertently hilarious Match Point ("I was raised in Belgravia"), English audiences have been retching in the stalls at American film's idea of English speech.
Dick van Dyke's portrayal of a Cockney chimneysweep in Mary Poppins remains a byword for American misapprehension of British speech, but seems a bit unfair here in relation to American writers' reportage of the British 'voice', since an Australian wrote the Mary Poppins books. While it is easier to come up with examples of British (and Australian and South African) actors taking on American accents than vice versa, this probably has at least as much to do with the "economic migration" of British film actors toward Hollywood as to do with the quality of American acting. Renée Zellweger's Bridget Jones was warmly embraced here, and Gwyneth Paltrow's English accents, while not perfect, are rarely marked as a distraction.

The article goes on to discuss the stereotyping of (particularly upper class) British speech as 'pompous' and overly wordy, and this is undebatable. One never hears Brits in American films or novels saying "I reckon...". The pomposity is linked to Americans' tendency to cast Englishmen (complete with ridiculously pompous speech styles) as villains. As Leo Benedictus in the Guardian notes, "Sophistication in all its forms is a sure sign of evil, and American audiences find nothing more sophisticated (or untrustworthy) than a snooty Brit." (I can't help but relate Americans' association of sophisticated, wordy language as a sign of untrustworthiness to the otherwise unfathomable electoral success of George W Bush. Well, that and Republican money an a crooked Supreme Court, of course.)

People here often say to me "you don't sound American" or "oh, I thought you were Canadian." One could believe that this is because British people have wonderful ears for accents and recognize a couple of features that are shared between my part of New York and Ontario. But that's pretty unlikely. The only time any American has accused me of sounding Canadian was when I moved to Massachusetts and was relentlessly mocked for saying eh? at the end of each utterance. (This was useful in South Africa, where I easily adapted to saying hey at the end of each utterance.) No, I think there are three reasons why I don't 'sound American' to some Brits, listed here in order of perceived importance:

  • I don't sound like a hick* or a mafiosa. That is, the British get their ideas of what Americans sound like from stereotyped performances, just as Americans do for the English.

  • Everyone lives in mortal fear of travel(l)ing Canadians, who go bonkers when accused of being American.

  • I make certain accommodations for British ears, namely avoiding intervocalic flaps. (Click here to hear a flap in the middle of the word letter and here to hear it with a regular /t/ sound.)

*AmE has lots of unflattering epithets for rural folk, including: hick, hayseed, hillbilly, redneck, rube, country bumpkin, yokel. The last couple aren't marked in my Concise Oxford as 'US', so presumably they are known in Britain too. (Better Half is not here to serve as my editor today!) But while hick is now considered to be an Americanism, it's another of those words that started out in England and was forgotten here. See The Word Detective on the subject.


  1. Offtopic.

    Me and one of my friends were wondering if the word 'nick' (as in cut, steal etc.) was used in American English as well.

    Just a thought, but could you perhaps have an answer for me? :)

  2. Nick is used to mean to cut in AmE--e.g. Rodrigo nicked himself shaving.

    The meaning 'to steal' is very British, though.

  3. Thank you!

    Google had a few more definitions.

  4. "Nick" to mean steal is (especially?) common in Hiberno-English. It usually implies a petty crime.

  5. As a fiction writer myself, I find this very interesting. When I first moved here (almost two years ago) I realized I may never be able to write American dialogue again! I have picked up many British expressions and ways of speaking unconsciously, just like I can no longer spell anything.

    And speaking of actors, the worst thing I've heard here is a Radio 4 performance of A Gathering of Old Men. A Pakistani accent sounds nothing like an old southern black man!

  6. It's nice to know there's a name for that US tendency to mumble the letter T. I too avoid it, mainly after noting that in the UK 'water' is pronounced distinctly differently from one locale to the next, often with a clear emphasis on the T. There are some other Americanisms I've worked over, but haven't got names for - aside from 'Valley Girl speak'. Perhaps you can name some more distinguishing features.

    The modifications may also have something to do with the inability of interlocutors to peg my nationality. I have heard similar remarks. But I have not heard about Canadians going bonkers. The Ottowans I know here are bonkers, but that's a point of pride in character rather than a distemper.

    Another factor in the nationality game is that people here are so used to the nasal monotone and 'statements posed as questions' of US mainstream speech that they can't place subtler dialects. 'Park the car in Harvard Yard' is not something they've heard. An apt analogy might be the initial difficulty of distinguishing the Nordic languages from each other, or Kiwi from Oz, or, English spoken with Dutch, Swedish, or Celtic accents.

    Two incidental thoughts: what is it with dentists and politics? My previous dentist was equally gung-ho on a range of Rush Limbaugh type topics.

    As for Americans who say that they have no interest in going abroad, I reckon they are making what they regard as polite conversation. Without realising how parochial it is. Happens in the UK too... once you're outside of London.

  7. I don't know about that "outside (AmE of) London," DP. Certainly up here in Glasgow I have never heard any such sentiment expressed, whereas when I lived in London it was heard although not exactly common. I especially remember one girl on a radio phone in there declaiming that she wished "all these people" would stop criticising London, because it was clearly the best place in the world. When asked where else in the world she had ever been to make that judgement, it turned out she was seventeen and had once been to Brighton for the weekend. All of which strikes me as a perfect analogy of the attitude Lynne was talking about. On the other hand, I have met people in Hull, TX who would rather be anywhere else on Earth.

  8. I understood from a friend that Dick Van Dyke has stated in interviews that he was pretty well aware how bad his accent was -- but he was far too busy in rehearsal trying to keep up with professional dancers 10 years younger than himself to devote the necessary time to the accent... Of course, this might be a disingenuous post-facto effort to live down having become a byword for bad, but then again -- given the choreography -- it could equally well be true :)

  9. regarding this: "Dick van Dyke's portrayal of a Cockney chimneysweep in Mary Poppins remains a byword for American misapprehension of British speech, but seems a bit unfair here in relation to American writers' reportage of the British 'voice', since an Australian wrote the Mary Poppins books," I heard Dick van Dyke say in a radio interview that his dialect coach for Mary Poppins was, in fact, Irish. (this was on the Public Radio quiz show "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me."

  10. Here's a link to the "Wait, Wait" segment with Dick van Dyke:


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)