The Queen’s Latin.

Ben Yagoda has a Lingua Franca post on an often-discussed phenomenon, “why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, especially if they’re bad guys”:

The invaluable website TV Tropes dubs the custom “the Queen’s Latin” and has this explanation for its use in historical dramas:

Britain’s long history causes British accents to seem somehow “older” — they are used to suggest a sense of antiquity. This is actually inaccurate from a linguistic perspective; the modern British accents actually represent a more evolved form of English. Older English accents were closer to modern Irish and American accents.

In any case, using the Queen’s Latin makes a series or film commercially viable in the U.S. It alleviates the need for subtitles, while maintaining the appearance of historical authenticity. It’s just foreign and exotic enough. (Many British actors already Play Great Ethnics.) It’s also no doubt inspired by productions of Shakespeare‘s plays set in Ancient Rome. Remember: Romeo might have been Italian, but he’s not realistic unless he talks like a proper British toff.

(That last link mentions “the exaggerated smack of a boxing glove” and notes: “Real-life fistfights tend to be eerily silent, which obviously wouldn’t be very dramatic or exciting.” I never knew that.) And it’s not just movies and TV; Yagoda discusses a book that “is set in France and Germany during World War II, yet the author, Anthony Doerr — an American — continually uses British terms: crisps instead of potato chips, lift instead of elevator, and biscuits.” The sun may have set on the Empire, but this silly tradition shows no sign of going away.

Comments

  1. I’ve long thought that the elevated importance of class differences in pre-modern settings is better conveyed by British-accented performances, and that that unconsciously informs lots of film and TV conventions.

  2. The wonderfully detailed blog Speech Talk covered The Accent of Evil not long ago.

  3. Let’s say an Argentinian comedy show sets a sketch in ancient Rome. Would the actors talk in the Spanish of Spain? I’m going to guess not, but maybe someone here would know this for sure? What about Brazil and European Portuguese?

  4. Upscale, expensive stuff is sometimes advertised on American TV in an upscale British accent. Many years ago I spent a fair amount of time watching Mexican TV. I don’t remember them ever using peninsular Spanish in that way. I’m guessing that this is because Spanish elites aren’t perceived as being more sophisticated than Mexican elites.

  5. Anthony Doerr’s use of British terms in that context isn’t necessarily an example of “literary Queen’s Latin syndrome”. I read the British terms as appropriately Old World vocabulary, whereas American equivalents would seem intrusive New Worldisms: slightly jarring, although not throw-the-book-across-the-room jarring. Plus, in contrast to today, French and German speakers of English in the WWII and pre-war periods would probably have been more familiar with British than with American English; so, even if Doerr is only using terms like biscuits and lift in authorial narrative and not in dialogue, the British terms would still contribute a background nuance to the book’s overall tone.

    I’m not American and it’s possible I’m being suckered into my preference for the British terms by “a range of associations that include old-fashionedness, seniority, cultivation, traditional manners, expensive education and tastes, haughtiness, smugness, pomposity” (quote from the Speech Talk blog – thanks to Y for signposting it). But if a British writer set a novel in Mexico and talked about biscuits and lifts, I’d find that slightly jarring too.

  6. The use of various British accents can help to provide class markers that filmmakers may feel are not as easy to create with American accents. (The film Ladyhawke may or may not have been attempt to evoke the same class distinctions using mostly American accents.)

    The related use of various accents in British productions set in non-English-speak times and places is actually something I love to observe. In I, Claudius, the characters use a whole range of accents—native British ones for the Romans, and foreign accents for most of the non-Roman characters. A number of the Jews have Yiddish accents.

  7. How about Farscape, in which they always seem to end up on planets where everyone has an Australian accent?

  8. > And it’s not just movies and TV; Yagoda discusses a book that “is set in France and Germany during World War II, yet the author, Anthony Doerr — an American — continually uses British terms: crisps instead of potato chips, lift instead of elevator, and biscuits.”

    I once mentioned, in a blog post, the possibility of getting “subway passes” in Paris. One of my friends commented to explain that in Paris a “subway” is an underground walkway, whereas I meant the “Metro”.

  9. Well, for Game of Thrones, it might just be because pretty much every actor in the series apart from Dinklage is from the east side of the Atlantic – either British or Irish, with the occasional continental European – and it might jar if Peter Dinklage’s character sounded radically different in speech from his father (Charles Dance), his sister (Lena Headey), and his uncle (Ian Gelder), and indeed pretty much everyone else who is supposed to come from the same country as him. Similarly, Old Etonian Dominic West and South London lad Idris Elba both had to adopt Baltimore accents for “The Wire”.

  10. Bathrobe says:

    @Glossy

    I suspect that Latin America and Spain/Portugal, and the (sociolinguistic) relationship between them, is rather different from that between the U.S. and Britain.

    For instance, neither of the Iberian countries has been a major military, technological, or cultural power for centuries, unlike the U.K., which continued to be a major power into the 20th century and still wields a lot of influence. Even looking from here in China, Britain is an ‘important European country’; countries like Spain and Portugal are less so. For this reason alone, it’s not surprising that Spain and Portugal might be less relevant to Latin America than Britain is to the U.S. Despite its global dominance, the U.S. still finds itself looking over its shoulder every so often to the main English-speaking country in Europe.

  11. Don’t knock the American attitude towards British (especially RP) accents (not that I would ever admit that it was an accent): I’ve lived off mine for 35 years over here. 🙂

  12. @richard howland-bolton: I always found the sound of your voice on the radio incredibly charming. I have you admit, though, I did imagine you looking anything like your avatar there.

  13. @Glossy,

    Many Latin Americans consider Castilian Spanish to be rather effeminate. For that reason alone, a Mexican movie about Rome probably would not show Caesar or Octavian speaking like a Madrileno unless it was a comedy. Looking in some Mexican forum discussions about dubbing, a lot of people seem to express a preference for the “español neutral”, which is not Mexican or Castilian. I would guess they are referring to something like Columbian Spanish, does anyone here know?

  14. David Eddyshaw says:
  15. Many Latin Americans consider Castilian Spanish to be rather effeminate.

    When I was living in Argentina, Castilian Spanish was certainly not looked up to, but of course Argentines are notoriously self-satisfied and don’t look up to anybody.

  16. español neutral

    It’s not neutral as between European and American varieties, and from what I understand, is mostly a matter of avoiding country-specific vocabulary, having people say autobús rather than any of colectivo, bondi, ómnibus, micro(bio), chiva, escalera, diablo, guagu(it)a, camión(etica), liebre, góndola, lata, bus, casadora, burro, calafia, pe(s/c)ero. Many of these refer to specific types of buses, and consequently overlap regionally.

  17. fisheyed says:

    Many Latin Americans consider Castilian Spanish to be rather effeminate

    Is this true in Chile as well? I have met Chileans who were proud that their Spanish was closer to Castillian than the Spanish spoken by Dominicans, PRs etc.

  18. I have met Chileans who were proud that their Spanish was closer to Castillian than the Spanish spoken by Dominicans, PRs etc.

    It is? How?

  19. I doubt it actually is, but people get these ideas in their heads. (Modern Greeks tend to think their language has barely changed since ancient times.)

  20. When I was a child in suburban Toronto in the fifties, any British accent was considered prissy. But then as I hit my teens the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came along, which led to a re-evaluation.

  21. Modern Greeks tend to think their language has barely changed since ancient times.)

    A former colleague, born in Canada of Greek-speaking parents and raised in part by grandparents whose English was decidedly weak, speaks Greek at near mother-tongue level. She’s quite adamant that she can barely recognize a word in a Classical Greek text.

  22. But she’s not Greek, she’s of Greek ancestry. Never underestimate the power of living in a country where the government enforces ideological uniformity. (Cf. the current attitudes of Russians living in Russia about goings-on in and around Ukraine.)

  23. Bathrobe says:

    any British accent was considered prissy

    A bit of that stereotypically comes through in Grease.

    Australian attitudes to British accents were a bit more complex when I was growing up. RP was regarded as a prissy accent (‘plum in mouth’). There were also Australians who spoke a local version (often the kind of people who studied ‘speech and drama’), which had sociological connotations (being ‘stuck up’). But there were also plenty of immigrants from the UK speaking non-RP accents, which weren’t prissy at all. I don’t think Jason Statham’s accent sounds terribly exotic for Australians because it’s an accent they might have come in contact with.

    Since I haven’t lived in-country for many years I can’t speak for contemporary Australians, nor am I really sure how different this is from Canada or the U.S.

  24. Fisheyed: “I have met Chileans who were proud that their Spanish was closer to Castillian than the Spanish spoken by Dominicans, PRs etc.

    Y:“It is? How?”

    When Latin Americans say their Spanish is purer or closer to that of Spain they usually mean that it is freer of slang, localisms and regionalisms; closer to the literary standard therefore more correct and presumably more elegant. I’ve seen this from Colombians, Peruvians, Argentines and probably others although it’s almost always from South Americans.

    Vanya:“Many Latin Americans consider Castilian Spanish to be rather effeminate.”

    I must say I’ve never had that impression or gotten it from pop culture.

    Vanya: “Looking in some Mexican forum discussions about dubbing, a lot of people seem to express a preference for the “español neutral”, which is not Mexican or Castilian. I would guess they are referring to something like Columbian Spanish, does anyone here know?”

    When Latin Americans talk about a “neutral” Spanish they mean one with a very standard pronunciation free of distinctive regional features (like the lightening or dropping of “d” and “s” sounds) and vocabulary. The standard, educated kind that is spoken as it is written and written as it is spoken. The standard accents of Mexico and Colombia (without the slang and regionalisms) have a reputation for being the most like a neutral Spanish in Latin America (sorry Argentina and Uruguay but your italianate lilt and frequent “sh” sound leave you guys out of the running) and there are Mexicans and Colombians who are more than happy to tell you so. In fact, the principal news anchors on the Univision television network are of Mexican and Colombian background.

    Languagehat:“When I was living in Argentina, Castilian Spanish was certainly not looked up to, but of course Argentines are notoriously self-satisfied and don’t look up to anybody.

    Argentines are know for their, um, positive self-esteem 🙂 . When Pope Francis gave an interview to Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki a few months ago, he told a joke. How does an Argentine commit suicide? He climbs up to the top of his ego and jumps off.

  25. Ha!

  26. Pancho: That’s what I thought, but I don’t think of Chilean as particularly conservative: it drops final s’s, uses ustedes for vosotros, and has its own wealth of regional words.

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    My Hispanophone son tells me that in “Toy Story 3” where Buzz Lightyear gets reset and (in the English version) starts speaking Spanish, in the Spanish version he speaks Andalusian.

  28. Y: Well, yeah but I assume the people fisheyed was speaking to were a) comparing themselves to the Caribbean folk and b) probably thinking of a more standard, neutral form of Chilean Spanish and not what they speak in the working class districts and fishing villages.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    The standard, educated kind that is spoken as it is written and written as it is spoken.

    So this is not a “geographical” standard but some kind of “notional” standard? What exactly is it based on? Is it based in linguistic history (some kind of Castilian or Pan-Latin American notional standard), is it based purely on the orthography, or is it just something that everyone “knows”? I assume that the Spanish of Spain would be equally out of the running because of its lispy c’s…

  30. fisheyed says:

    Y: Well, yeah but I assume the people fisheyed was speaking to were a) comparing themselves to the Caribbean folk

    Yes, it was definitely in comparison to Caribbean Spanish, which they found sloppy, unattractive etc.

    I am not saying their view was accurate (I don’t know Spanish, actually), but that they seemed to think of Castillian as an admirable standard.

  31. per incuriam says:

    Never underestimate the power of living in a country where the government enforces ideological uniformity

    Greece? Not since the colonels surely.

  32. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I have met Chileans who were proud that their Spanish was closer to Castillian than the Spanish spoken by Dominicans, PRs etc.

    While not doubting that you have met such people, I would say that that was highly unusual. Most of the (many) Spanish speakers I know are Chilean or Spanish, and I have never come across any of the former who would make such a claim. If anything, they tend to be apologetic about their Spanish, and to say that the purest Spanish in Latin America is to be found in Peru and Ecuador. I don’t know about “purest”, but the language of the shanty towns of Lima puts that of even highly educated Chileans to shame: they pronounce all the syllables, they pronounce s at the ends of words, and they give their vowels the sounds the textbooks say they have. Like all Latin American they pronounce z, and c before e and i, like s, but otherwise it’s not very different from schoolteachers’ Spanish.

    Chileans may be rude about Argentinian or Central American accents, but that’s about it. Once when we were in the cathedral museum in Oviedo my wife said she thought a group of people near us were Argentinian and that we had met them before. I went to listen and said that to my ears they sounded more Chilean than Argentinian, and she said yes, that’s because they are from Mendoza. (She was right on all counts).

  33. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Before my first trip to Chile I learned a few sentences of Spanish to say at the beginning of my lecture (“Me gustaría comenzar expresando mis gracias a la Sociedad de Bioquímica de Chile …”). As I was taught by a Spanish lady I used the ceceo in words like comenzar. Afterwards I was told that it would be better not to use the ceceo. I had the impression that speaking like someone from Madrid was regarded as pretentious.

  34. Greece? Not since the colonels surely.

    Well, I shouldn’t have said “enforce,” which sounds like it involves guns pointing at you. “Strongly encourage” would be better. The point is that it is discouraged at all levels to publicly doubt the uniformity in time and space of the glorious Greek language. (I speak under correction, obviously, since I am not Greek and have not looked into the matter for some time; this is just how I understand things in my present condition of ignorance.) As far as I know, kids are taught in school that they speak the same language as Socrates and Pericles; as learned a man as Seferis thought the ancients pronounced Greek exactly as he did himself, and was indignant about non-Greeks who claimed otherwise. And of course to say there are Greek citizens whose native language is not Greek (i.e., to mention the Slavic and Vlakh elements of the population) is to risk ostracism if not worse. (Or so it was when I was looking into these things. I hope it’s changed; certainly Greeks have other things to worry about these days.)

  35. they are from Mendoza

    I wondered about this, and it turns out that the province of Cuyo (modern Mendoza + San Juan + San Luis provinces of Argentina) was part of Chile until 1778, when it was transferred to the new and short-lived Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata (roughly Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay, with parts of Peru that were later returned). And of course, what’s 1778 in linguistic terms? Yesterday!

    (Fun facts encountered along the way: the area of northern Chile was originally known to Europeans as New Extremadura and later as Indian Flanders, of all things — remembering that what is now Belgium was Spanish territory then. Central and southern Chile remained under Mapuche control until about 1890.)

    regarded as pretentious

    If it’s like other places in the world, it’s not pretentious to talk like you are from Madrid if you actually are from Madrid, but if you’re obviously not, then it is. Which is obviously unfair, but there it is.

    Slavic and Vlakh elements

    Don’t forget the Arvanites.

  36. I didn’t, but I wasn’t sure they were treated the same way; it seems to me that the Albanian element in Greek history was so well known it couldn’t have been scrubbed out — some of the early heroes of independence couldn’t even speak Greek, for heaven’s sake. But I may be wrong about that.

  37. Bathrobe:

    “The standard, educated kind that is spoken as it is written and written as it is spoken.”

    So this is not a “geographical” standard but some kind of “notional” standard? What exactly is it based on? Is it based in linguistic history (some kind of Castilian or Pan-Latin American notional standard), is it based purely on the orthography, or is it just something that everyone “knows”? I assume that the Spanish of Spain would be equally out of the running because of its lispy c’s…

    Forgive me, I don’t know what you mean by “‘notional’ standard”. I simply meant the standard, textbook version Spanish as used in Latin America which ultimately isn’t very different from that used in Spain. If there is a standard I assume it’s based on that of the national language academies together with the Real Academia, the sort taught in schools. It’s the counterpart to standard American English, or “newscaster English” to put it another way, which ultimately isn’t that different from the standard used in the U.K.

    “Spoken as it is written” is a phrase I’ve seen used, not without a little bit of pride, to describe how close the spoken version of this standard or “neutral” language is to the written version and vice versa. It’s free of distinctive regionalisms in vocabulary and pronunciation. Textbook, dictionary pronunciation minus the c/s/z distinctions used in Spain. Remember I was writing about the online discussions Vanya saw about film dubbing, which I have also seen, and a kind of language that is neutral among all the Latin American countries. These discussions almost always end up being about which country’s Spanish is most like the neutral Spanish that is suitable for dubbing. The standard, educated speech in Colombia and Mexico usually come up as the most “neutral” kind (although of course, both of those countries have all sorts of other accents and varieties.)

    Those discussion are about film dubbing in Latin American film releases so the features of European Spanish aren’t an issue. I assume that films dubbed in Spain (for the most part) also have a standard, Castilian pronunciation rather than a distinctive regional ones like that of Andalusia. I did once see a clip of the movie “Selena” about the hugely popular Tejana singer (played by Jennifer Lopez) that was dubbed for Spain. The voice-actors all had Spanish accents though Selena’s family is Mexican-American, the film actors were Latinos/Hispanic Americans, and the dialogue used Mexican-American slang like “orale”. It was kind of odd, like watching a Western where cowboys and Indians speak with British accents.

    I used to work at a place where I sold DVDs and a French guy would come in asking if he could get a different version of the DVD he bought because it seems many (most?) of the French language tracks on U.S. DVDs use Quebecois voice actors and this Frenchman found that annoying.

  38. I was in Germany last week, and it was pointed out to me (by an English-speaking Berlin enthusiast) that in American films, Germans are almost always villains. Still, all these years later. (I don’t know which is worse, being ignored, as are Japanese-accented actors, or villainized, as are German-accented actors.)

  39. per incuriam says:

    The point is that it is discouraged at all levels to publicly doubt the uniformity in time and space of the glorious Greek language

    The Greeks of my acquaintance regard Ancient Greek as essentially a foreign language and appear unaware of any pressure to do otherwise. When I chide them for their lack of prowess in the old language they inquire as to my Latin.

  40. I’m glad to hear it, and I will retire my outdated cultural presuppositions!

  41. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I used to work at a place where I sold DVDs and a French guy would come in asking if he could get a different version of the DVD he bought because it seems many (most?) of the French language tracks on U.S. DVDs use Quebecois voice actors and this Frenchman found that annoying.

    I imagine most French people would find that annoying, but although I see many US films dubbed into French I rarely (if ever) see US DVDs dubbed into French. The former are virtually always dubbed by French actors. In fact regional French accents are rare in French films and television, and someone playing the part of a Belgian will have either no Belgian accent or a very exaggerated one (in the latter case the dialogue will certainly include the word nonante). There is a hugely popular series called Plus Belle la Vie, which has been running for more than ten years: it is supposedly set in Marseilles (and the backgrounds are certainly filmed here), but abosiolute none of the characters speaks with a Marseillais accent. That is not a matter of being understandable: Marseillais speech is easy enough to understand. Likewise the film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis was actually about the weird accent of the region of Calais, but most of the dialogue was perfectly understandable to people from elsewhere. To imitate a Swiss accent in a French film it is sufficient … to .. speak … very … slowly … and … deliberately.

  42. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    the province of Cuyo (modern Mendoza + San Juan + San Luis provinces of Argentina) was part of Chile until 1778, …

    I hadn’t realized it was such a long time ago. Chileans tend to give the impression that Mendoza was Chilean much more recently than that, say until the War of the Pacific (1879). However, despite the Andes in between, I think that Mendoza has always had and continues to have strong connections with Santiago. Even today, the crossing at the level of Aconcagua is just about the only place you can get by road between Chile and Argentina until you get much further south (approximately level with Bariloche) and nearly all the land traffic goes that way. Chileans say that Mendozans have more in common with them than they do with Porteños, but I don’t suppose the latter would agree.

  43. fisheyed says:

    In fact regional French accents are rare in French films

    Recently there has been a vogue for regional dialects in Tamil films and they are even used as selling points in the advertising. Even in films where the setting hardly figures in the story, adding an unusual setting/dialect is a way of standing out from the crowd.

    And of course makes for lots of internet discussion about whether they got the dialect right.

  44. Trade routes can do funny things to linguistic geography. In the U.S., the local accent of New Orleans is much more like the local accent of New York City than either is like its neighboring accents: una lingua tedesca in bocca irlandese. What is more, speech in the Big Easy and the Big Apple is even evolving in the same way both toward and away from more mainstream American varieties.

  45. Greg Pandatshang says:

    For the most part, the important thing is that the cast’s accents match each other, unless there’s some reason they shouldn’t. The only time I recall this bothering me was in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Willem Dafoe’s Jesus and Harvey Keitel’s Judas speak with American accents so striking that they almost sound like parody, but the Devil has a British accent and not a lot else going for him.

  46. Good point; as long as the accents are consistent and don’t hit you in the face, they fade into the background and you just enjoy the story.

  47. @ Pancho

    By “notional” standard I meant something that is regarded as somehow standard although it doesn’t exist anywhere in reality, i.e., isn’t based on a specific accent. But your explanation cleared up any questions I had.

  48. True about the Greeks. When an Australian-Macedonian I know visited Greece recently, she was constantly asked where she was from. She kept saying “Australian”. On a couple of occasions when she mentioned she was of Macedonian origin, she was thrown out of a taxi and refused service in a cafe.

    Her ancestral birthplace was renamed (given a Greek name) after WW1 and the inhabitants forced to change their names to Greek or (failing to do so) were deported and their property confiscated. Still no offers of compensation from the country that was meant to have given us democracy.

  49. Yeah, it’s very sad. When I was living in Astoria (home of a huge population of Greeks in NYC), I quickly learned never to even say the word “Macedonia” in the hearing of a Greek; no matter what I said, I was in for a siege of nationalistic ranting.

  50. cardinal gaius sextus von bladet says:

    “Former Macedonian Republic of Greece”. Discuss, preferably from a safe distance.

    (FYRM is, uniquely, seated under “T” for “The” at the UN.)

  51. FYROM, please!

  52. David Marjanović says:

    Modern Greeks tend to think their language has barely changed since ancient times.

    I was at a scientific conference 3 weeks ago. It was in English, but the participants were from all over western and central Europe, including Greece. (Native English speakers were a small minority.) You can imagine the diversity of pronunciations of scientific names. At lunch, one of the Greek colleagues once brought this up, in particular how everyone said -au- instead of -av-. He had learned Ancient Greek in school (apparently like a foreign language) and therefore insisted that he knew that the pronunciation hadn’t changed, because surely the teachers would have said so if that were the case. *facepalm*

    This is not dissimilar to the fact that I was taught next to nothing about the pronunciation of Latin. The difference is that Latin was treated as a dead written foreign language where pronunciation was secondary, not as a glorious ancestor of German.

    Never underestimate the power of living in a country where the government enforces ideological uniformity. (Cf. the current attitudes of Russians living in Russia about goings-on in and around Ukraine.)

    Or of Russians living outside of Russia but getting all their “information” from Russian = Kremlin-approved media.

    Y: Well, yeah but I assume the people fisheyed was speaking to were a) comparing themselves to the Caribbean folk and b) probably thinking of a more standard, neutral form of Chilean Spanish and not what they speak in the working class districts and fishing villages.

    I’ve heard a Chilean colleague addressing a Spanish one as usted and pronouncing that as ujté.

    To imitate a Swiss accent in a French film it is sufficient … to .. speak … very … slowly … and … deliberately.

    That’s because not speaking as unusually fast as the Parisians is all that’s left of a Swiss accent nowadays, at least in the big cities.

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