Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Language Barrier

[Ed. Note: The Management apologizes in advance for the approximately thirty-seven dozen references in this blog post, both in print and via hyperlinks, to “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”. This blog’s author is a nerd.]

 

This week, I spotted an online question: what’s your favorite English accent? Half the responders thought the questioner meant “what’s your favorite accent from the British Isles?” and the other half thought he meant “what’s your favorite accent in which to hear English spoken?”  So I got thinking about both. What are my favorite accents, and why?

 

It comes to pass oft that a terrible oath, with a swaggering accent sharply twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever proof itself would have earned him.” –William Shakespeare

A great actor is independent of the poet, because the supreme essence of feeling does not reside in prose or in verse, but in the accent with which it is delivered.” -Lee Strasberg, acting instructor

I personally am not conscious of my accent.” -Jared Diamond, American author and scientist

I live in New England, so I probably have a touch of New England in me, but I try to downplay it. If I catch myself pronouncing “there” as “thay-uh”, I stop and think, “no, no, no, no, no.” Why do I do that? Because I hate the New England accent? Hardly. But I try to be careful. Hmmmm.

Background: my standard line is, “my mother grew up in New Jersey, my father grew up in England; we moved to Massachusetts when I was a year and a half old: I got nothin’.” It’s mostly true, possibly thanks to the amount of time I’ve spend amongst people other than New Englanders.

Historically, I’ve been an accent sponge. My favorite story about this comes from my senior year in high school: our music ensembles traveled from Massachusetts to Quebec in the first half of a “home-and-home” exchange trip with high school musicians from Rosemere, a suburb of Montreal. We lived with the families of many of the Rosemere musicians, so for three days we were immersed in the accent of the area. Upon our return home, we jumped off the buses and were met by our parents… and after I spoke exactly five words to my parents, they were chuckling at me. “What?” I said. “You’ve been in Canada,” they said. “Well, yes,” I said, “what’s your point?”

In a really flat and nasal version of a Canadian accent, my Dad said, “You sound just like a hockey coach, eh?”

Oh fine. Guilty as charged. So I’ve got a pretty good ear… ease off!

 

So. Thinking about the various accents that have crashed down on me throughout my life…

[] The Boston Accent. Stereotypically, we pahk the cah in Hah-vid Yahd, but there are other elements to the thing that make it both charming and irritating. Depending on the speaker, the thing can make a person sound either dashingly Kennedy-politician-esque or as dopey as, well, Mayor Quimby of the Simpsons’ city of Springfield. I get a grand kick out of the “Car Talk” guys, but others may not. A college friend of mine from Pittsfield, out in the far west of Massachusetts, had (to my ear) very little of an accent, except that if she was talking about one-fourth of something, she referred to it as a “quotter”.

Well okay, I guess we’re working our way east to west in the United States, so…

[] The New York Accent. Or at least the New York City-centered one. If it’s a Brooklyn accent, to me it just makes everything sound funnier. Thanks, probably, to a combination of Bugs Bunny cartoons, the Marx Brothers and the Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” routine. As for the 1010-WINS radio news reader accent, the cultured Manhattan thing … that is a different thing altogether. Until Los Angeles became the entertainment production capital of the United States, a New York accent was the sound of entertainment. (Ever heard an World War II-era newsreel narrator? Check out the opening 20 seconds of any episode of the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” shows for an attempt at the modern equivalent.)

As a close cousin geographically and sonically of the New York accent, the New Jersey Accent has no better proponent than my mother. Born and raised in New Jersey, she has taken no end of abuse from New Englanders (who ought to exercise caution when mocking accents) for her pronunciation of certain words. Because man’s best friend is in fact a Doo-awg.

[] The Pennsylvania Accent. I never knew there was such a thing until I experienced the work of a particular couple of band instructors in college. Then I figured it out, and then some. I still can’t reproduce it on cue myself, but every so often a hint of it slips out and I think, “oh – Pennsylvania.” Not to mention the Philadelphia schtick of a certain summer colleague of mine (which I suspect is a touch over-the-top… then I wonder if perhaps it’s not).

[] The Min-ne-SO’-ta Accent. If for some reason you think either the movie “Fargo” or Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” crew are overexaggerating it, you need only listen to listen to national talk radio shows and hear “Ken from Minneapolis” … and holy smokes, it turns out they’re soft-pedaling it. Extra-credit proof: Michele Bachmann. In general, the generic Midwestern accent gets spoofed quite a bit … and some of that treatment might be at least a touch accurate. There are moments when a Midwesterner’s nasal, flat, wide “o lemme tell ya ’bout dat” is indeed as wide and flat as the Plains. Now, how is it that a Chicago native says “God” and a Bostonian says “guard” and they sound the same?!

 

I used to say that whenever people heard my Southern accent, they always wanted to deduct 100 IQ points.” -Jeff Foxworthy, comedian

[] The Southern Accent. I take a risk by being a New Englander and commenting at all on the Deep Southern Drawl, I recognize that. Save your cards and letters for a more important issue, please. I like listening to Jeff Foxworthy’s stand-up act, and Minnie Pearl always cracked me up! When I make my voice into the southern college football referee – “we have holding! (holding! holding!) on th’ dee-faynse! (dee-faynse! dee-faynse!) Fifteen yards an’ an automatic firs’ down! (firs’ down! firs’ down!)” it’s out of a wish that all referees could sound that way.

But for every example of the Georgia-and-environs drawl that may cause its purveyors to sound less than fully connected with human intelligence, I would offer any speech by Roy Blount Jr. It’s more than just “ah do declare” and “frankly, Scah-lett, Ah don’t give a damn”. When one wishes to make a pungent point, there might be no better accent in which to do it.

[] The Texas Accent. Maybe the best one in which to exude swagger. As a political observer, I have had lots of opportunity to check out this version of English expression. To my ears, for every Molly Ivins, adding three layers of smart and funny to a phrase, there’s a Rick Perry adding three layers of dim. And then, for three added layers of greed and evil, watch the documentary “The Smartest Guys in the Room”, about “Kenny Boy” Lay and the other corrupt sons of guns of the Enron scandal, based in Houston. Phew. Swagger firmly on display, earned or not.

 

Now. As long as I had an English father, I figure that’s my qualification for examining accents from across the Pond – or perhaps my excuse. And I will limit myself to that. I truly would love to hold forth on things like the French accent (my first exposure: Inspector Clouseau!), the German accent (I first heard it up close from my Dad, while he was creating different voices for bedtime story characters: Dennis the Dachsund was from Munich, no doubt!), and the Russian accent (Ensign Chekov; did you really have to guess?) … I’m not knowledgeable enough. But the British Commonwealth nations? Them, I can talk about…

 

Americans like the British kind of quirkiness and the strange accent. They find it kind of cute or something, with a certain charm.” -Nick Park, co-creator of “Wallace and Gromit”

If you were from England, and you spoke briefly with my Dad, he could tell where you came from to within about 20 miles. And apparently this is not uncommon.

 

I learned to change my accent; in England, your accent identifies you very strongly with a class, and I did not want to be held back.” -Sting, lead singer/bassist, “The Police”

Well, heck!: “My Fair Lady” is a whole Broadway musical about how what you sound like can affect your public image, your prospects for career advancement, your economic status, almost everything about you, in England at least.

[] Many many English Accents, therefore: the Upper-Crust… the Cockney accent… the Midlands (the Beatles)… Ian Darke’s soccer calls… and a remarkable number of extremely local variants of each, and more. And that’s just within the borders of England, never mind the rest of the United Kingdom.

I always thought that “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was just funny stuff; the more I look at it, the more I realize that those gentlemen’s ability to mimic regional accents did as much to sell their satirical commentaries on British life as the actual dialogue did. (Thanks to their “Holy Grail” bit about the Holy Hand Grenade, I cannot listen to the annual radio broadcast of the Christmas Eve service from King’s College without chuckling.) Although I must say that along with Peter Sellers’ Goon Show work, the Pythons made sure that I grew up thinking that anything spoken with any British accent was automatically funnier, too.

 

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

I love my accent, I thought it was useful in Gone In 60 Seconds because the standard villain is upper class or Cockney. My Northern accent would be an odd clash opposite Nic Cage.” -Christopher Eccleston, actor

True fact: all the members of the Imperial military in “Star Wars” (the bad guys) spoke in English accents (except Darth Vader, of course). All the Rebels (the good guys) spoke like Californians. Eddie Izzard has commented very expertly on this. Some of the “Star Wars” hardcover fiction writers have actually come up with a cover story to explain this: the accent of a native of the planet Coruscant — the capital of the Old Republic and then the Empire — is basically that of the House of Windsor. The accent is very cultured, very refined (English!). The Emperor apparently had a spectacular anti-alien bias (i.e. anybody not human), therefore the Imperial Navy officer corps is dominated by humans, therefore all the officers are from Coruscant, therefore they all sound like that. Clever reverse-engineering.

Also: for one single scene in Episode IV, Princess Leia adopted an English accent. The rest of the movie, she was regular ol’ Carrie Fisher, and many of us out here in Audience Land assumed it was a mistake. One “Star Wars” novel has deftly suggested that Princess Leia was doing this to mock Grand Moff Tarkin (played by Peter Cushing, owner of one of the ULTIMATE upper-class British accents of all time). Imagine! Mocking the chief Imperial Governor, possibly the third most powerful man in the entire Empire, to his face! –Ah, but his revenge? He blew up her planet. Think before you impersonate, folks.

[] The Irish Accent. I know very well that there is more than one sort of Irish brogue. But the Irish accent that I am familiar with just might be the most musical, melodic accent I know. It seems to me that Irish-inflected speech can’t be done in a monotone.

[] The Scottish Accent. When this accent is done right (by a faker) or done at all (by a native speaker), it is unmistakeable, and to my ears, makes every word more funny, or passionate, or sarcastic, or heroic, –just MORE. My first exposure to a Scots accent, obviously, was James Doohan as Scotty in “Star Trek”. Clearly that was not the best way to start a meaningful relationship with a brogue: the rolled R’s, and the use of the word “aye” without “sir” behind it, were nearly all he got right, sadly. The practitioners that I’ve since experienced have been, well, Scottish: therefore clearly a bit more authentic. Folk singer Jean Redpath… comedian Billy Connolly… and Simon Pegg as Scotty in the 2009 re-boot of “Trek”, which has potential to re-define the character!

 

I played a lot of leaders, autocratic sorts; perhaps it was my Canadian accent.” -Leslie Nielsen, actor

[] The Canadian Accent. I have Canadian relatives. When they visited my house when I was 13, that was when I really focused for the first time on how Canadians aren’t just far-northern Americans. My cousins were all full of those constricted vowels, and indeed, whenever I hear a hockey coach interviewed, I think fondly of them. Beyond the stereotyped yet ever-present “eh”, there are all kinds of curious and to my ear very flattened sounding things about a Canadian accent. One can forgive Mike Myers, or the fine SCTV gentlemen who brought you Bob and Doug MacKenzie, since they, um, are Canadian.

[] The Australian Accent. Oh my Lord. Isolate British citizens on a Pacific island for a century or two, and you end up with curious speech patterns like: the “ay” vowel sound has become an “eye” (G’day!); and an “ee” vowel sound has been tacked onto the end of every word which in print would otherwise appear to end in an “oh” sound. “Hello(-ee), is there a pho(-ee)ne boath neeah’-boy, do you know(-ee)?” Amazing. And Crocodile Dundee is just the tip of the iceberg. (“Oys-beug.”) It sounds like an English accent and a Boston Brahmin accent had a head-on collision.

 

But I just know from experience that accent wise, even if you’re an accent genius, crossing the Atlantic is the hardest thing in the world either way.” -Hugh Grant, actor

By the way: we all think that our particular accents are neutral, because we’re around them so much. Therefore, as an American, I find it amazing that British, Scottish, Irish actors can adopt an American accent. To me, it’s as if they had to sand down what they start life with … into nothingness; like temporarily sandpapering the rough edges off a block of wood. So okay: actor Ewan MacGregor (Scotsman) can adjust his accent to sound like Sir Alec Guinness (not a Scotsman). But he can also adjust his accent to sound like an American fellow?! And Hugh Jackman is as Aussie as they come, but when he’s Wolverine in the “X-Men” movies, he’s definitely North American. How does that happen?

Well, obviously it does…

 

I think it’s sort of a rite of passage for a British actor to try and get the American accent and have a good crack at doing that.” -Orlando Bloom, actor

I think most British people who say they can do an American accent are so bad at it. I find it excruciating. I find it excruciating the other way around, too.” -Eileen Atkins, actress

One example of this is a BBC recreation of a Marx Brothers half-hour radio comedy show. British actors got close to decent impersonations of Groucho and Chico Marx, but not quite close enough. No blame, no shame: one of the great things about the Marx Brothers is that to imitate them well looks easy, and is very hard indeed. No doubt the British feel just the same way about Americans desperately trying to sound English (Kevin Costner and Christian Slater attempting the feat in 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”).

 

Anyway. If you’re looking for a slam-bang ending, full of philosophy and wise musings and clever ways to tie together toss-off phrases (a/k/a loose ends) from throughout this post … sorry. No such luck. I guess I’m just continually amazed by how many different-sounding ways there are to pronounce words from one single language. It’s a wonder anyone can learn English to start with (all the different version of plural noun forms alone would be off-putting… “you mean it’s mouse/mice, but house/houses? Box/boxes, but ox/oxen? Hell with this, I’ll go back to speaking Spanish”), and then on top of that, how many different accents and brogues are out there, lurking, waiting to confuse not merely the “English as a second language” contingent but people from our very own US of A?

Makes my head hurt. Meanwhile, I gotta go make some suppah, before I siddown and watch the Broons play hawkey.

February 17, 2012 - Posted by | entertainment, Facebook, film, language, media, movies, npr, radio, religion, science fiction, social media, television | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. Great post, thank you. Made me giggle 🙂

    I never thought about Monty Python’s use of accents like that before, but it’s a very good point. They had a great range.

    Comment by Moon Under Water | February 17, 2012 | Reply

  2. You are brilliant. I LOVE this piece. I think it stands as Exhibit 1 of why Meryl Streep and Hugh Laurie are brilliant with the accents. (p.s. I assume you’re familiar with the Gallagher bit about how stupid the English language is).

    Comment by Holly B. Anderson | February 17, 2012 | Reply

  3. Check out the BBC series “Misfits” on hulu.com for an interesting array of (presumably authentic) British Isles accents. I had a hard time following some of it. As they say, two countries separated by a common language. I also recall one of my high school teachers telling me about a motorcycle trip he took through a good chunk of the eastern states. They were well off the beaten path in West Virginia, looking for directions back to the nearest major highway, and stopped to ask a couple of people stereotypically sitting in rocking chairs on their front porch. After spending five or so minutes trying to interpret what was being said, they said thanks, waved, and rode off, not having understood any of it.

    Comment by Steve Robinson | February 20, 2012 | Reply


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