I have been told by a number of British friends who have traveled Stateside that having a British accent automatically endows you with kudos and improves your standing in almost every social situation. I would like to think that my countrymen are less shallow and gullible than this, but I know from experience that they are not. Having spent years in the company of my English-accented graduate adviser and even-more-English-accented husband, I can verify that most Americans find the accent “cute,” “funny,” “sexy,” and/or “intelligent-sounding.” Actually, let’s be honest here—these opinions are mostly those of American women, whose appetites have been whetted by James Bond and Jane Austen movies, and who think that all English ladies sound elegant and all British men sound suave. Who knows what the men think, except maybe to mistakenly judge English men as sounding effeminate or wimpy—a strange misconception among much of the American population who, clearly, have never watched a game of rugby or seen a pub brawl in the wee hours of a weekend morning.
In any case, you may have noticed that I switched from saying “British accent” to “English accent” halfway through that paragraph, and that’s because there is a difference. After all, “Britain” refers not only to England, but also to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Not only is there variation in accents among each of these countries, but there is also variation within them. Let’s take England, for instance, where I have traveled most widely. I had no idea until I moved here that there were such strong regional accents, and I am only just beginning to learn how to differentiate and identify them. In the US, it makes sense to have so many accents because the country is so large, and it is inevitable that little pockets of people in the South would sound different from those in the Northeast, etc., but England is so small that everyone should sound alike, right? If you think about it, the diversity makes sense. After all, England is bordered by more countries than the US is, and is made up of people from just as many nationalities.
In the north, where England is bordered by Scotland, there is a definite Scottish Gaelic influence on dialect. In my humble opinion, accents from as far south as Liverpool and Manchester have a bit of Scottish gutteralness, with that peculiar Scottish way of twisting vowels into unrecognizable forms and adding extra syllables that you didn’t expect, while removing ones that you did. England is also bordered by Wales, to the west. I was not able to discern the Welsh accent at first, but have grown to identify its singsongy lilt; the words are like dainty little fairies tripping across flower petals. Every now and then I hear remnants of this daintiness in the upturned ends of words spoken by people from Liverpool, Manchester, and even Newcastle. I suppose it’s not a Welsh influence, per se, so much as a Celtic one in general. Another accent I have learned is the one from Essex, notably discernible in my culinary hero, Jamie Oliver. If you really want to focus on Jamie’s accent, don’t watch him in a cooking show set in Europe or Britain; watch him doing one of his American specials. Then you will notice not only his ridiculous way of talking but also his absurdly and uniquely British vernacular (“Awright, ‘avin’ a bit of a nosh, right, bruv?”). Essex is often called the New Jersey of Britain because of the behavior of its residents, but there is also a similar in-your-face brashness about the accent that does remind me of the strongest New Jersey dialect.
The regional sound I have had the most experience with, given my geographical location, is the West Country accent. If you have seen Lord of the Rings, you are familiar with what this sounds like—think Sean Astin as Samwise. This accent has very hard, curly “r” sounds (as I think of them), and it does not take a great leap of imagination to relate this sound to the stereotypical pirate accent (“Arrrr, matey!”), or, for that matter, the seeds of contemporary American dialects. Indeed, the West Country is the origin of both pirates and a large percentage of the original American settlers, and if any Brits would like to make fun of my hard r’s, I would kindly like to point out that they originated here, thank you very much.
As in the US, there are many people devoid of a regional sound—my adviser was one of these (before he started sounding American, anyway), and my husband is another. Much of this stems from education—meaning not only that people who are better-educated tend to have less harsh accents, but also that people who are sent off to boarding schools in other parts of the country are exposed to different accents and therefore begin to sound a bit intermediate. This accent is the typical “newscaster” sound of people on the BBC or in many of the British films that make it to PBS (but not the British films that make it to the big screen, such as Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which are filled with the dialect and language of London). Something that no longer has any real equivalent in the US, though, is the “posh” sound, by which I do not mean people who have received a boarding-school education and come from the upper middle class, but, rather, landed gentry and royalty. I have not encountered many of these people, other than on television, but occasionally you do hear the tortuously uptight sound of someone who has been taught to speak without moving any facial muscles or betraying any emotion. If you have ever seen the original Nanny McPhee and have listened to the rich old matriarch correct people’s pronunciation, you know what this sounds like and that it would not be easy to learn this dialect as an adult. In the US, there used to be a similar accent among the Hollywood black-and-white movie stars and the type of people who went yachting off the Rhode Island coast on weekends, but now rich people in the US just sound like everyone else, leaving the British elites to preserve the dialect that, better than any other, captures the essence of presumptuousness and condescension.
One thing you most certainly do not hear much of here is the type of Cockney accent made famous by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Now, “Cockney” really does exist as a geographical and cultural entity, and, as such, also describes the dialect of some people (mostly, working-class Londoners) in some places (generally, the East End). Unfortunately, because of the popularity of Mary Poppins, the ease of reproducing that accent, and the ignorance of much of the American public, if you ask any American to mimic an English accent, you’ll probably be treated to a bit of Cockney. I, myself, am horribly guilty of this, and I still whip it out occasionally in order to torture my husband or make our friends laugh. Don’t try this with strangers, though, because English people hate this characterization, and I can’t blame them. As an American abroad, I have been told that I sound like a cowboy, and asked if I am one. Given that I have almost no regional accent (and, not to mention, am from Appalachia rather than Texas), I have always found this quite weird, but I’ve been told that it’s actually a common characterization attached to Americans by foreigners. While I find it bemusing, others tend to find it offensive or obnoxious, unless of course they really are from Texas or somewhere similar.
Tune in later for: new words, different meanings, strange pronunciations, and odd spellings