HOW TO SPEAK BAD BRITISH.

John Wells, at his phonetic blog, has a post offering a professional analysis of just how an American voice teacher went wrong in a video clip in which she tries to teach the British “short o” vowel. I particularly like this paragraph:

Her happY vowel (at the end of coffee) is much too open. It approaches ɛ or perhaps more precisely [ɛ̝̈], which in England is highly marked both socially and regionally. Socially, it belongs in a variety of U-RP which is probably now entirely obsolete, a subvariety of what Cruttenden calls “Refined RP”. Alternatively, geographically it is associated with (the working-class accent of) central Northern places such as Leeds. No actor should use this kind of happY vowel for “British” unless playing an upper-class character in a play set a hundred years ago or more.

His conclusion: “Tracy’s version of BrE represents an impossible mixture of different social classes and different geographical locations. Bits … of it are Scottish, bits of it are northern English, bits are RP/southern. Some of it is caricature-upper-class, some of it is working-class. Nobody, but nobody, talks like that in real life.” You can see the video at that link; here‘s a hilarious parody by a Brit explaining how to pronounce the American short o. (Both links courtesy of Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org.)

Comments

  1. I liked the young people correcting her in Wells’ post, but they were cut off halfway through their description, so I only caught “the Queen doing Cockney”.

  2. I loved trying to identify which American accents the British guy was mashing together in his unholy parody. He sounds kind of like my mom (Midwest GA), one of her friends (New York), and my stepdad (Rural Midwest) all mixed up together and on drugs.

  3. I think that that British parody is actually very convincing; he made a few errors (pronouncing “fought” like “fort” and “coffee” like “quaff-y”), but aside from those, if I met someone who sounded like he does, I’d peg them as MRDD rather than as foreign. (I realize that most foreigners would rather be recognized as foreign than mistaken for MRDD locals, but still.)

  4. Very funny.
    When you attempt an accent you’re inclined to imitate those noises that are the most foreign to your own pronunciation, so a complete sentence isn’t likely to be consistent to any one region.

  5. dearieme says:

    The fat fellow fumbled over “fart”.

  6. michael farris says:

    To defend the indefensible. I imagine that the person in the original video is often working with actors playing parts in stage plays for predominantly American audiences.
    If that’s the target then it isn’t that bad, the only members of the audience who are likely to notice or mind are either British themselves or linguists (who, by definition, are never satisfied).
    I’ve heard some pretty bad attempts at American accents by British actors (on British tv shows) but it didn’t bother me for the same reason, I wasn’t necessarily the target audience.
    And the language of drama is stylized and artificial to begin with so a bad accent isn’t usually that much more of an imposition.

  7. British tv actors are getting better at it, though. There’s not only Hugh Laurie but also that curly-haired white guy in The Wire — like Hugh he’s an old Etonian. Perhaps it’s a class you can take at Eton nowadays instead of Greek.

  8. If you’re talking about Dominic West (from The Wire), I have to say his accent is horrific and one of the few weak spots of that show.

  9. Bathrobe says:

    The English response to Tracy, “How NOT to Speak with a British Accent” is actually quite funny — even if you don’t know the correct British pronunciation.
    Just 30 years ago this lady might have got away with this quackery (pretending to know what she’s talking about), but in the age of the Internet there’s no hiding. It’s out there for everyone to see.

  10. ‘Course it’s horrific. He does that on purpose because he’s a policeman. It’s very difficult.

  11. Tracy’s version of “happy” reminded me of Henry Graham’s “L’Enfant Glacé”:
    When Baby’s cries grew hard to bear
    I popped him in the Frigidaire.
    I never would have done so if
    I’d known that he’d be frozen stiff.
    My wife said: “George, I’m so unhappé!
    Our darling’s now completely frappé!“

  12. BTW, I stumbled on a bookshelf at Foyles last week stocked with British manuals — for actors and spies I guess — on faking accents of English. Among them, a weighty tome “How to Do the Irish Accent” with a CD attached. But nothing beats a free version.

  13. In the eighties I heard Diana Rigg in London playing an American character in a stage play, and her accent was pretty bad. Janet Leigh’s Southern accent in Gone with the Wind wasn’t too convincing either. But in recent decades the improvement has been remarkable. Not only Hugh Laurie, but Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Michael Gambon as Johnson, etc. Not just American accents, but very recognizable ones.
    Must be some great dialect coaches around now, either here or in Britain, or both.

  14. michael farris says:

    “Janet Leigh’s Southern accent in Gone with the Wind wasn’t too convincing either.”
    Maybe that’s why she was left off the credits.
    On the other hand, Vivien Leigh’s accent, while not especially in tune with modern ideas about the southern US accent, is hard to criticise. For one thing we have no first hand data what people at that time really sounded like.
    Interestingly, according to one book I read years ago, it’s possible that a real life Scarlett O’hara would have spoken something closer to what’s now called AAVE in lots of situations. Children of plantation owners often spent more time as children with the slaves than their parents and picked up their speech (and unlearned it in school with much difficulty).

  15. No, I wouldn’t criticize Leigh too much. She was probably taught “stage Southern,” just like any of the American actors in it who weren’t southerners, and that may have been as appropriate as you could get for a story like that.

  16. dearieme says:

    Here’s a very fine British (specifically Scots) accent, spoken by a Very Famous Chap.
    http://mhpbooks.com/mobylives/?p=16976#comment-68330
    (Thanks to Marginal Revolution)

  17. Very interesting, Dearie. Except for his Rs, he sounds (to me) a bit like Sean Connery. Perhaps there’s a film to be made …

  18. dearieme says:

    He sounds just like my old Edinburgh GP. Points to my ankle, shakes head: “Aye, but it’ll never be the same again”. And much like my childhood GP too. Really, it’s the only valid accent for doctors.

  19. Dr Finley was Scots, though his tv accent was broader.

  20. That is an excellent clip of Conan Doyle. Here‘s the direct link.

  21. ec – are you joking? Dominic’s accent fooled me and I’ve only been American for 43 years. Through the first two seasons of The Wire I had no idea Dominic West was British. I also had no idea for years that Idris Elba was British, and was completely surprised to find out Jamie Bamber on “Battlestar Galactica” is British. It’s probably easier to get away with imitating a generic “American” accent because there’s so much tolerance for variability. Because we tend to move around a lot, there are plenty of Americans who don’t have any “standard” regional accent but speak with a hodge-podge of different accents. I know I have some elements of Mid-Atlantic from early childhood in DC, but also some New England from later childhood in New Hampshire. Plus whatever ticks I acquired in college going to school with people from all over the US. I probably sound a lot like Dominic West.

  22. I can’t really explain it except that West’s accent just feels off to me. “Horrific” is probably a completely unfair word to use, but I was never convinced he was a cop in Baltimore. It’s just a general tinge to many of his words. I agree about the hodge-podges; his hodge-podge just seems to include British giveaways.
    I was, however, stunned when I read Idris Elba was British

  23. Idris was I ere I saw Sidri.

  24. Ginger Yellow says:

    The Bugle, the podcast featuring John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, took the mickey out of this a while back. Very entertaining.

  25. David H says:

    Jamie Bamber gets my vote as best pretender. He sounds so comfortable, like he was born here (US.)
    I watch an embarrassingly large number of soccer/football matches each week & the one thing that drives me mad is how some of the (UK) announcers seem almost allergic to long vowels.
    CAR-loss for Carlos, MAR-tin-ez for Martinez, etc. Makes for rather amusing attempts at pronouncing non-English names.

  26. Christophe Strobbe says:

    You can also learn to Learn How To Speak Propah English with Ted Heath.

  27. Christophe Strobbe says:

    You can also Learn How To Speak Propah English with Ted Heath.

  28. Christophe says:

    Ouch, I thought I had stopped that first submit in time. Now I look like a spammer.

  29. I mean, Idris was I ere I saw Sirdi.

  30. And much like my childhood GP too. Really, it’s the only valid accent for doctors.

    *starts practising.* Thankfully, I have the alveolar trill from Spanish.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    “Propah English”
    Actually, those who speak that variety of English do use “proper” nor “propah” in this context, since the next word begins with a vowel. For instance, they say “the idear of”, not “the idee of”.

  32. That Heath thing is quite funny, I think I linked to it once. It was one thing to ridicule Ted Heath in the ‘seventies, when he was a pompous Tory politician; nowadays I have to acknowledge (at least to myself) that I’m laughing at someone for breaking out of the lower-middle class.

  33. I had no inkling that Rachel Griffith of Six Feet Under was not American. (She’s Strine.)

  34. I hadn’t realised that Sarah Palin grew up in Tunbridge Wells.

  35. Interesting to hear Conan Doyle. It’s more or less a “pan loaf accent”: upper-crust Edinburgh, a rather strange hybrid of Scots and English RP/URP. I can’t find a clip at this instant, but Stephen Fry did a fine imitation of something similar on QI, telling of a gentleman he met who insisted he spoke English with no accent (see clip).

  36. I heard Andrew Cruikshank doing it (I think) the other day.

  37. English is not my native language, so I speak with an accent. I’m only starting to understand the complexities surrounding pronunciation of vowels and consonants and why I run into so many different situations where I have such a hard time trying to get my points across to other people. Anyways, after watching the video that was quoted here and some others related to it, I couldn’t stop laughing and thinking about the ways in which brits and americans make fun of each other’s accents.

  38. ignoramus says:

    No wonder Anglians, Londoners, Georgdies, Scousers, thems from Zumerzet , Yanks and Sand dwellers of Californya etal, have a hard time, Ye be not these ear parts they be a saying, be ye? I been a bludy foreigner looking for his china all these decades, tally ho.

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