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Good English vs. Bad English
Posted: 22 March 2007 06:03 AM   [ Ignore ]
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http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/6470095.stm

Best of British

A cut glass English accent can fool unsuspecting Americans into detecting a “brilliance that isn’t there”, says Stephen Fry. So is a British accent - of any variety - the route to success in the United States?

“Gee, I just love your accent.”

Any Brit crossing the Atlantic will have heard that line many times. Like the rest of us, Americans are rarely immune to the charms of an accent different from their own.

There’s the amusement value of listening to someone who sounds like they might just punctuate their sentences with “oh, behave”. And a British accent can conjure up a stereotype of a polite, droll, self-effacing race.

But very few Brits are like Hugh Grant (Grant himself has kicked over the traces of his Four Weddings and a Funeral persona), and Stephen Fry speculates that Americans may be dazzled by the British accent.

“I shouldn’t be saying this, high treason really, but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren’t fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there.”

Fry - who puts his own melodious tones down to having “vocal cords made of tweed” - made the suggestion after seeing a “blitz of Brits” scoop many of this year’s Golden Globes and Oscars.

His comments come as a new generation of British stars are trying to prove themselves in the US, while staying true to their regional roots (and more are landing plum jobs in US hit shows with accents other than their own).

About to try their luck are Ant and Dec, who will record the pilot of a new ABC game show - not a bad score in a country where they are best known for a brief cameo playing themselves in Love Actually, and as tone-deaf American Idol contestants playing a joke on judge Simon Cowell, currently the US’s favourite pantomime limey baddie.

The network hopes they will enjoy more success than previous imports Anne Robinson and Johnny Vaughan - his 2005 game show My Kind of Town was cancelled after four episodes, with entertainment industry paper The Hollywood Reporter describing the Londoner as “heavily accented (and equally heavily annoying)”.

America’s most wanted

Another Brit currently feted in the US is Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen, who gave Rolling Stone a rare interview as himself, rather than in character. The magazine was much taken with his “deep, genteel British accent”, which in the UK might be described as educated north London.

“For most Americans, there’s no distinction between British accents. For us, there’s just one sort of British accent, and it’s better than any American accent - more educated, more genteel,” says Rosina Lippi-Green, a US academic and author of English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States.

“It’s a way of speaking that is all tied up with the Old Country, the Queen.”

This perception extends to any UK accent, she says, divorcing the voice from any regional or class associations it might carry for a fellow Brit.

“There was a sitcom called Dead Like Me with a Brit [Callum Blue] in it. He was a scruffy, 20-something drug dealer. Even he had that sort of patina - his was not an RP accent, it was a working class London accent.”

As for Parminder Nagra, plucked from Bend It Like Beckham to star in ER with her soft Midlands accent intact: “Oh, she’s thought to be very, very classy, very Oxbridge.”

And Simon Cowell, minting it as an American Idol judge? “He’s the classic stereotype of a stuck-up Englishman - and stuck-up is something that goes with that perception of Britishness.” Little wonder he’s found success - the British baddie is a Hollywood staple.

Master and servant

As is the English butler. Henry Pryor, the founder of primemove.co.uk and the Register Of Estate Agents website, worked for Savills International in the late 1980s and early 90s, helping wealthy US buyers purchase flashy dockside apartments, gracious town houses and country piles in the UK.

“Our accents added a huge amount to what they thought they were buying into. This was the age of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Brideshead Revisited - and Arthur, in which John Gielgud played a butler. They approached having an English broker in the same way as having an English tailor or butler - it was a trophy of sorts.”

And with a classic public school accent, Mr Pryor played up his Englishness. “It added cachet - you were buying a piece of English real estate from a guy who spoke just like Hugh Grant, and might look foppishly like him. I suspect it’s the flipside of what my mother’s generation found during World War II - the English seduced by American accents.”

Katharine Jones, author of Accent of Privilege: English Identities and Anglophilia in the US, says the cultured associations have a long history. “British etiquette books have been used for years; and although Americans say they have no class system, they do - and the American upper class apes the British upper class.”

Then there is the air of authority such a voice carries, hence the number of ads that use English-accented voiceover artists for products such as insurance and mouth wash.

**** continued below ****

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Posted: 22 March 2007 06:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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**** continued from above ****

Good neighbours

Whereas UK expats in Australia tend to lose their accents quite quickly, those in the US are less likely to, Ms Jones says. “They don’t have as much incentive to change because of the perceived benefits - leaving a message in a ‘posh’ accent about a sought-after apartment and the landlady rings you straight back; the ripped-up parking tickets…”

And the job offers. Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman is currently recording his fourth series of the US version of the BBC show, Dancing with the Stars. He describes his own voice and choice of phrases as Cockney.

“Part of the reason they wanted me was my accent. Along with Bruno Tonioli, who’s Italian, it lends the judging panel a cosmopolitan edge.”

But he has modified the way he talks. “I do have to speak more slowly, and I play up to it. I might say ‘that wasn’t my cup of tea’ or ‘give it a bit of welly’. They love those quirky phrases.”

As one who could never be described as sounding like the Queen, Goodman finds that his regional accent often confuses listeners. “I get asked if I’m Australian.”

So does Liverpudlian Alison Walters, an immigration lawyer in Los Angles. But she enjoys feeling unique, and says that people are more friendly, and treat her with respect. “You do get preferential treatment and more of people’s time, but I do think that is also down to our manners - saying please and thank you.”

Then there’s the perception that a British accent equals a brain the size of a planet - a perception reinforced by the not-uncommon belief that for the British, English is a second language. “From time to time I was complimented on how quick I was to pick up the language,” says Mr Pryor.

Ms Walters adds that as the average American has a hard time following what she’s saying, “perhaps the perception of being more intelligent comes from the fact they only understand 50% of what you are uttering”.

With planeloads of Brits relocating to the US - not to mention three million tourists who visit the country every year - the stereotype of floppy fringes and plummy vowels must surely be due an overhaul.

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Posted: 22 March 2007 07:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Alas, our Dutch accent is always mistaken for a German…. downer

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Posted: 22 March 2007 07:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I once got very attentive service at a Denny’s from a waitress who admitted “I just lurve yo’ accent, honey!” This went as far as her phoning someone (her mum, I think) to find out how to make Russian Dressing when they turned out not to have any.

She was cute too, if I hadn’t been taking my parents on holiday… Still, I tipped her well.
wink

One other thing she said was “You English are always so polite!” Which I would take as a bit of ‘buttering up the customer’ if I hadn’t noticed that almost no-one else thanked their waitresses/waiters, not only at Denny’s but at Wendy’s, Howard Johnson’s, Beefsteak Charlie’s (that dates it!).

So is this just a bit of ‘confirmation bias’ on my part, or are Americans generally less polite to the ‘staff’ than us Brits? Or is it just me and my cut-glass RP and AR manners falling for the oldest tip-padding trick in the book?

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Posted: 22 March 2007 10:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I, being an American, always make a point to thank my waiter/waitress every time they bring something to the table.

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Posted: 22 March 2007 10:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Well, to an American’s ears, a British accent almost always sounds polite, even if they are cussing someone out smile

Some Americans are very rude, some are simply thoughtless, and some are very nice. Some waiters/waitresses are rude and give terrible service, some are stellar. A lot of times in the lower priced big chain type establishments such as Denny’s etc you find lackluster service complete with an attitude to match. Can’t blame them really since usually (depending on the clientele of the area) they are underpaid and overworked. You got great service because you charmed your waitress, the others might not have gotten the same as you.

I tend to be polite because 1. that’s how I was raised and 2. They can spit on your food.

However, I do think there has been a general decline of manners overall for the last few decades. I don’t think it’s “on purpose” because I think most people don’t consider themselves rude or don’t think that not going out of their way to be polite constitutes rudeness.

I didn’t notice it until I moved to Canada where the salespeople and waitstaff are sooooo polite it borders on being creepy smile  I don’t think I’ve ever had to open a door myself at the stores, unless I was the only person entering. Even on the roads - they keep talking about a road rage epidemic in Canada, but I’m not seeing it. People stop to let you in their lane if you are making a turn, they don’t block streets that people may need to turn onto if they are stopped at a light, they wave at you to pass and if you do the same for someone you get an appreciative smile and wave in return. My husband has chided me several times for not waving at someone who let me in. Yet up here too, the old folks complain about how thankless everyone has become.

Of course, this could be where I specifically live, not Canada as a whole. I find a certain borough of Toronto to be rather unpleasant to drive around and shop in, specifically because the people there who I’ve encountered are overall rather rude and unfriendly. However, I find Toronto itself to be a very friendly city.

Ironically, I lived in the city that holds THE TITLE for rudeness - New York - for 15 years. I never found the people there to be rude at all. In fact, I found everyone to be rather polite. I never drove there though LOL People were way less pleasant in Boca Raton, FL which is where I grew up.

I’m not exactly sure WHY people are less polite now. I do know that we are more insular these days, especially in North America where the geography is expansive and you are forced to live an automobile lifestyle if you don’t live in a big city. There is not the sense of community there once was because people are not interacting with one another in their daily lives the way they used to. I also think American’s in particular are under more stress than Canadians (who are also stressed, but less so) Stress tends to trigger self-absorbtion which in turn leads to thoughtlessness and in extreme cases, really rude behaviour.

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Posted: 22 March 2007 11:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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People recognized me as being a Yank while in Scotland.  Most were completely disinterested until they found out I was from Texas, then they would light up and ask if I lived near Dallas.  I guess being Texan makes up for being American.

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Posted: 22 March 2007 11:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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LOL

Where I live, being Texan AND being American is a double strike. You can see the words “oh S—-!” flicker across their face through the strained smile.

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Posted: 22 March 2007 06:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I don’t know that my accent really gets me better service or preferential treatment from men; it mainly seems to just confuse them as they try to figure out where I’m from.  But then, I seem to have trouble with men anyway; for some reason, I often tend to intimidate them, and then they start acting excessively macho to make up for that, and then they get annoying, and so I end up having to throw them out a window or something.  downer

From girls, on the other hand. . .it seems to confuse them just as much, but they also get all giggly and want to talk with me and tend to get rather familiar.  It can be a bit awkward at times, especially when I’m needing to be somewhere else in the near future and the salesgirl is busy asking me if I’m from Ireland or Scotland or England or Norway or Holland or Germany or France or South Africa or wherever they decide my accent is from.

LaMa - 22 March 2007 11:01 AM

Alas, our Dutch accent is always mistaken for a German…. downer

What, you mean that there’s a difference???    wink

MadCarlotta - 22 March 2007 02:55 PM

Well, to an American’s ears, a British accent almost always sounds polite, even if they are cussing someone out smile

That’s true. . .Boo’s a good example of that.  cheese

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Posted: 22 March 2007 07:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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British accents make me think of old guys with beards.

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Posted: 23 March 2007 12:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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My uncle married a woman from Sheffield…and b/c of that…I am not quite as lulled by the accent as some others are.  (I’m just used to it…been hearing it my whole life, after all!)  Now…An accent that intrigues me is West Ivory Coast.  I worked w/ a man who immigrated w/ his family.  When I hear an accent close to my aunt’s…I will perk up a little & ask where they’re from.  My brother is in England now (RAF Lackenheath)...so I have often made some conversation when I detect a British accent to find out if they know the area. 

Anywho…Maybe b/c of my aunt, I tend to pick up on some of the “trashy” accents vs. the “educated” accents.  I’m sure that’s not the right way to describe it…but I can’t think of an easier way to distinguish them.  My aunt has pointed them out when we have watched television together…or when I have met her family.  She is 1 of 5 & they all have different fathers…and all look completely different.  You’d never pick up they were all related, except they have the exact same accent.

...And I think the South African accent is weird.  It does something to the ear.

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Posted: 23 March 2007 02:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I’ve often been asked if I was australian

And I know one woman wanted my phone number so she could call me every morning
just to hear my voice.

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