suckers for an accent

Paul pointed out this article and discussion on BBCNews about the tendency for Americans to assume that the British are brighter (and their lack of recognition of non-RP accents as British). Better Half says that he's not sure whether Americans think he's smarter because of his accent, but he does think Americans (in America) find him more interesting and give him more attention because of it. American women often also find the accent sexy... Better Half says for the record that he didn't say that last sentence--though the fact that he's had more American girlfriends than British may provide some corroboration.


  1. A work-colleague from my British-based organisation gave a serious talk (in BrE) on a serious subject to a conference in the US and, afterwards, an American who'd been in the audience earnestly congratulated him on his presentation, saying it had been just like watching Benny Hill.

  2. I work with a Brit surgeon, "From the North". While being well liked, his surgeon mumble on top of the accent elicits many complaints. I do think the accent gives him a certain cache amidst the Boston slur.

    Having grown up around Canadian accents, and BBC shows, I just have to deal with his typical surgeon mumble. (A group of surgeons is a "Mumble.")

    "That'll do."

  3. A couple of years ago my father (British) was shopping in America with his brother-in-law, a New Zealander. They were both somewhat taken aback to be told by a shop assistant, "You Australians have such a cute accent".

    I understand that the shop assistant's injuries are well on the way to being fully healed.

  4. Of course the effect on American women was the basis for Kris Marshall's storyline in Love Actually.

  5. If I'm describing my accent to an American who doesn't know much about accents, I'll tell them I sound a bit like Daphne from Frasier, even though telling anyone I sound like I'm from Lancashire is like admitting I once murdered someone, or something. It's just the easiest way.

  6. What's non-RP?

    While I can distinguish Australian and Scots/Northern Br. Isles, I would say that hearing someone speaking with what I assume is an upper-class Southern accent would leave me to presume that that individual (whether from India or Buckingham Palace, had the advantage of an education far better than the average American experiences.

  7. RP stands for Received Pronunciation. It's a bit like U, and non-U, but for speech. Non-RP would be the collective accents of everyone else. From Wikipedia: "Received Pronunciation was also sometimes referred to as the Queen's English, because it is spoken by the Queen, or BBC English because it was traditionally used by the BBC."

    George Mason University Speech Accent Archive might provide an example or two of RP, among the many non-RP patterns.

    As for "... had the advantage of an education far better than the average American experiences."

    That's not saying much. I am routinely astounded by the abilities of UK students age 12 and above in reasoning, arguing, articulating, and having both broad and detailed grasp of facts. Not students at posh institutions, mind you, but ordinary city schools. My recollection of schooling in the US just doesn't bear comparison.

  8. About five years ago, they refreshed the PA (tannoy?) announcements at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. About half of the new announcements were spoken by a pleasant-voiced woman with a BBC RP accent. At first, I didn't notice, because I watch enough British TV shows that the accent isn't all that odd to me. Then I remembered where I was and realised that it was very odd indeed.

    Then I realised that, whether or not it makes sense, things just sound so much more authoritative in BBC Received than in Generic American Midwestern. I wondered if the people who chose the voices thought so as well, or if it was really just a coincidence of who was available for the job.

  9. David, the problem with explaining "(non)-RP" to an American as "U/non-U" is that most Americans have no clue what "U" and "non-U" are!

    This Wikipedia article might help.

    The assumption that an RP accent = good schooling is just not founded, nor is the assumption that UK education is better than US. There are a lot of ways in which I'd say US education is better (having been on the delivery end of both). For one, at the university level, American students receive explicit teaching on how to write, with lots of practice and feedback. If you think those courses aren't worth much, then you probably haven't marked student essays from both countries! But a major difference in school education between UK/US is that the standards vary more in the US, in large part because of the way education is funded.

    I haven't found British students any more (nor less) prepared than American students for the kinds of thinking that one does at university level.

    American students do more different things at higher levels than British students, whereas British students speciali{s/z}e earlier. At the (post)graduate level, American universities offer much more teaching than the typical British university. You could say that one or the other is better, depending on what kinds of people you want education to "create".

    But, one might protest, such-and-such percent of Americans can't identify China on a map! That may be true--but I think that's not to blame on the education system, per se, but on the culture that sets the priorities for the content delivered through the education. Most British people can't identify Wyoming on a map, nor name its capital. (Many Americans can't either, but they probably could when they were 8 or 9 and learning that kind of thing.) American culture is generally more inward-looking (very obvious in their television news broadcasts and newspapers)--and many Americans will blame that on the size of the country.

  10. GY, I completely agree that knowing about China is generally more important than knowing about Wyoming (unless you live in Wyoming). Though many Americans would say that they have much more of a chance of getting to Wyoming than China--but that's missing the point of education, I think.

    I wasn't trying to say that that's just as important, so much as to say that American children spend their time learning different things than British children spend their time learning--but everyone's learning.

  11. "most Americans have no clue what "U" and "non-U" are!"

    I was pretty sure that's the case, and thought it was a good opportunity to expand the lexicon. Just another aspect of my sense of humour, which has no place on either side of the Atlantic.

    I can constructively rebut some of the other points you make in that comment, but need to do some admin work first. So for now, a short one:

    Where you say 'most British people can't identify Wyoming on a map, nor name its capital'*, I agree on a numbers basis, but not on a percentage basis. I have been pleasantly and repeatedly surprised by the number of Brits who *do* know US states *and* capitols.

    The (anecdotal) basis for this is that I play a party game with people about US states and English counties. Surprisingly, my (mostly British) respondents get further along with the list of states than they do with the list of counties.

    I know that the example of Cheyenne is incidental to your point, but I think my example also illustrates the counterpoint, which is that a less-than-sober adult Brit is likely to recall certain things about US geography, but that the same cannot be said for their peers in the US. I think this is illustrative of something more than 'learning different things'

    *You say a, I say o.

  12. That's me above, not anonymous.


  13. Bank station on the London underground has the best, most authoritative voice reminding one to "mind the gap" in RP I assume (it's too short a phrase for my humble ears to be 100% sure) with some really heavy emphasis on the "d" in "mind". I wonder what folk with english as a 2nd language think the phrase means...

  14. For some reason this reminded me of an ATM I used at a pharmacy a while back. The machine talked in a recorded voice to let you know if your transaction was processing, and it talked it a British accent. I haven't a clue *why* they programmed an ATM in the Midwest to talk in a hoity-toity sounding British accent, but they did. It totally made my day because, well, you just don't encounter British ATMs very often.

  15. Ah, the tube.
    The classic BBC-English/RP of the announcements (and mind the gap¹) juxtaposed with the varied - and usually more demographically accurate - accents of the conductors in case of delays.

    I got in a lift at a newly-built football stadium a few years ago and was taken aback when the lift spoke with an American accent.

    By the way, I've just been told that there's an Australia Film festival in London at the moment. If you get a chance, see Ten canoes, it's brilliant.

    ¹I never did notice a gap at Bank.

  16. David, I don't think that people who play quiz games can be counted as displaying the typical knowledge of an Englishperson! I come from New York State. Even though many UK people I know have been to New York City, they don't reali{s/z}e that it is in a state (which takes a good 9 hours to drive across--it's not even a little state!). It takes some explaining. I thus have a very hard time believing that most BrE speakers can place or name the capitals of US states. (Since Better Half has driven through most of them, I can't really use him as a test case.) And I'm not at all saying that they should be able to! I wasn't trying to start a contest here--just to point out that different people know different things.

  17. I know, I know... anecdotal stories are not substantive. But this is indicative of my experience. People here seem more interested, are willing to try, and I am impressed by what they know.

    I also know that people who've never travelled the US by land have difficulty imagining the scale, let alone having a sense of the varied landscapes. So I'm not claiming some sort of geographical superiority, nor even some sort of academic superiority. But having lived, studied and/or taught on both sides for over a decade in each, my impression is that schools in the UK places greater emphasis on intellectual skills. People here are better at thinking. Shocking, I know.

    Maybe one of the differences I am thinking of is not about 'what' people know, but how they arrive at that knowing.

    In a similar vein, my experience of essay writing skills contrasts directly with yours. I took two undergraduate developmental writing courses and and three essay-based 'environmental philosophy' and 'classical thinking' courses at an Ivy League school, but did not know the basics of academic essay writing until I came to the UK and started teaching it!

    In retrospect, I don't see how on earth I passed those courses...

    The contrast seems to be based on UK strictures about content and delivery, whereas my US professors had full liberty to do as they chose, and may have avoided the tedious bits in favour of things that kept their interest.

    Again, that's anecdotal speculation from one person's perspective. I'm not going to have anything more substantive to offer. But I'm convinced that there are noteworthy qualitative differences, particularly in primary and secondary education. We don't need to agree on whether that's the case, particularly given the latitude in each country for experience that supports one position or the other. But is it not worth considering?

  18. Re U.S. women's perceptions of British men's accents: Scottish ones are considered the sexiest, even more so if he's wearing a kilt. Also, in Hollywood action movies, the charming evil genius invariably speaks the Queen's English.

  19. One of the problems with this discussion is that we're comparing apples and oranges and papayas and green beans. Is 'being educated' about knowing facts? Having academic skills? Being intelligent (please define!)? The richness of the educational experience? etc. etc.

    Another variation is who's being educated. According to 2001 figures, 41.8% of US women and 36.2% of US men ages 25-34 have a tertiary education. The figures for the UK were 28.8% and 30.1%, respectively. (That'll have gone up by now, and it'll have been higher than 10 years earlier.) This probably means that US higher education students are a more diverse lot than UK students (although within any particular institution, the range might be quite limited).

    On other rankings (these all come from here), we find the UK coming quite a bit ahead of the US on reading, math(s) and science attainment at 15. (These are all 2000 figures, as the UK figures were not available for later years.) The only things that the US comes ahead of the UK for in these data are young readers of comic books (but UK wins for magazines and non-comic-book fiction) and Nobel laureates (but Americans have an advantage there just because there are more of us--the British would probably win on laureates per capita--but I can't be bothered to do the math(s)).

    The British generally read more than Americans do--something I attribute in part to higher use of public transportation and fewer television channels (though that's changed for a lot of people). There's also an element of wil(l)ful ignorance in some sectors of the US. There's that in the UK too, but the sectors in which one finds it seem smaller.

    But none of this means that one's accent has anything to do with it--though anywhere you go, it seems that there are some accents that are regarded as sounding 'less intelligent' than others. There are ignorant buffoons who sound like Stephen Fry (who strikes me as anything but an ignorant buffoon), and geniuses who sound like the Beverly Hillbillies (though maybe not Jethro).

  20. Following up on Anonymous's note, there's a bit on British = baddies back at this post. I'm sure some people will differ on the point of Scottish accents being sexier--and it REALLY depends on the Scottish accent! Some of them would be fairly incomprehensible to most Americans.

  21. To kind of turn this around, if I may, do AmE-speakers think that this native BrE-speaker impersonating an AmE-speaker could actually pass for an AmE-speaker? Warning: contains strong* language.

    * BBC-type euphemism for obscene

  22. Oh, yes, Catherine Tait. Her accents are very good as a general rule, though she had a sketch in the latest series where she and some others play cheerleaders and a football player. Their accents are pretty good but they have a problem with word choice -- I know better than to speak for the whole USA on much of anything, but where I went to high school the verb was "to cheer," not "to cheerlead," and I've never heard anyone say the latter except on that show.

    Anyway, I've seen that Catherine Tait bit before and it's a really good fake accent. She sounds consistently American in my ears, though the regional/social accent she's putting on is exaggerated, and she has a couple of words slip in with East coast pronounciation. So to me she sounds like an American aping a California stereotype.

    Listen to John Thomson's Professor Denzil Dexter on The Fast Show if you want to hear an accent that hurts my brain -- mostly American accent but with many word choices that would take a very odd background indeed to hear from the mouth of an American, a voice in a weird high register, and some words that sound strange. If I didn't personally know some geeks who use very odd idiolects I would loathe it rather than just squirm a bit.

  23. Sorry, Tate, Tate, Tate. For some reason I got the wrong spelling for her name lodged in my head years ago and I can't get it out.

  24. Following up on my last statistic-filled comment, I cannot resist reporting that in the recent UNICEF study of child well-being in rich countries, the US comes 12th (of 21) for educational well-being and the UK comes 17. This was the study that made the news a while ago because it showed that British children are the least happy children in the industriali{s/z}ed world. Except it didn't, because the US did not participate in that aspect of the study. Thus we'll never know where it would have ranked. However, certain sourcse of unhappiness, particularly bullying, definitely seem worse to me in the UK. I'm not sure if it's the bullying that's worse (any nerd like me will recall some bullying/exclusion at school), or if it's how the bullying is responded to/internali{s/z}ed. And that's something that's waaaaay beyond what we can say much about here, I think.

    One can download the results of the UNICEF study here.

  25. I've found a couple of top ten lists of 'worst movie/film accents ever'. This one originates from the US and finds fault with 4 Americans' English accents, but has no English people with American accents. (The only Brit on the list is Sean Connery for his Irish accent in The Untouchables.)

    This one is by a British magazine, and a bit more international, including bad accents by Laurence Olivier (doing "Jewish"--I haven't been able to figure out if that means "immigrant" or just standard "NY Jewish"--I've never seen Th Jazz Singer) and Pete Postlethwaite (not doing American), plus Sean Connery at the top again for his Irish accent).

  26. Thanks, Jill, for comments on fake US accents. Here's Prof Dexter probably getting it wrong while testing the strength of empty loo-rolls. I presume his /tu:bz/ for tubes is right.

  27. My 'favourite' worst accent is from an old 1980s film no-one I speak to has ever seen. It was called 'Don't tell her it's me' and starred Steve Guttenberg who pretends to be a farmer from the middle of Auckland, NZ in order to get a girl.

    Okay, okay, there is Cornwall Park in Auckland which has a few sheep on it, but other than that sheep farms are a bit scarce in the middle of New Zealand's largest city.

    And the accent... oh my lord.

    I've often wondered how Lucy Lawless' accent came across in Xena.

    For some reason a couple of government phone systems have such things as "If you are wanting accouts, please press one" in american accents, which take me aback when I hear them and I find it quite difficult to follow.

  28. As an American (Arizona), my only real problem with Professor Dexter's accent was that he said "tiss-you" for "tissue" where every American I've ever heard says "tishoo."

  29. Great blog, Lynne, which I've just found.

    I love English spoken with a French accent (esp. by women - I even married a French woman). Interestingly, French women seem to like French spoken by Englishmen with an English accent, they find it cute.

    Have you looked at accents used by vehicle sat-navs? My Toyota uses a lady with quite a 'proper' (RP) English accent. I think it's to get male drivers to pay attention. However, for French towns, it switches to a lady with the sexiest French accent ever! I even re-routed to hear her again... Worth a blog?

  30. Doesn't The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have computers and lifts/elevators with quasi-human (and usually deeply irritating) personalities and voices? A mate of mine's satnav has Mr John Cleese as its voice. He's fine as long as you follow his suggested route but, if you make a detour, he gets increasingly irritated in a Basil Fawlty way.

  31. Allie the Kiwi above, I have seen Don’t Tell Her It’s Me. It wasn’t Guttenberg’s Kiwi accent that got me: it was the name. Does anyone in New Zealand even know a bloke called Lobo Marunga? Or anyone called Lobo? Or anyone with the surname Marunga?

  32. U and Non-U speech does not make any sense to me as an American. In America we do not define classes by speech. I know extremely wealthy people who have horrible speech and grammar, and the poorest of the poor who speak better than they do. Wealth has little to do with speech.

    U and non-U sounds extremely condescending and rude.


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