Fetishizing British Speech

by Monday, December 14, 2015

At the end of last week, The Huff Post did a blurb on some Brit actors from Downton Abbey doing a scene from the show in their best American accents while guesting on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Watch it here.

Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley on D.A. forsakes her upper-class british articulations for a kind of quasi southern California debutant whine. It’s hilarious (though she drops the R here or there) because her character is instantly de-sophisticated.

Americans have a bit of a fetish about British sounds – especially the RP (Received Pronunciation)  standard speech. We hear it and begin to drop into a silly stupor, and anything can be said to us as long as it sounds like it’s coming from the lips of Hugh Grant or Helen Mirren.

Why is this? Probably because when speaking in a standard brit accent, the consonants are sharper and the vowels tend to be pronounced with the mouth in a more vertical position (like, “draw” is “draww” and not “drah”). This makes the words sound individually more precise and clear and thereby more elegant. As far as the overall rate and melody, Brits tend to speak a bit faster than Americans and choose words on which to land (I call this the “meritocracy of words” rather than the more pedantic way Americans step through the language.

For instance, in an interview with David Letterman a few years back, Emma Thompson is talking about rearing her child and says, “When-you-CAN’T-get-a-child-to-do-something –people-will–know-exactly-what-I mean,–like-brushing-your-teeth-or putting-your-shoes-on…”

An American version might be, “When you CAN’T get a child to DO something, you know what I MEAN? Like brushing your TEETH or putting your SHOES ON…”

Why is even clear American speech less brilliant than RP speech from whence it came? I think it might be because there have been so many immigrants from different countries (most of us here in the US are descendants of immigrants) that in order to communicate with one another in english we had to sloooow it down and hit more words so the message might reach the one to whom we were speaking.

Whatever the reason, I don’t believe you have to sacrifice elegance or intelligence to sound more American, unless…you know…you want to.

 

Photo credit: downtonline.com

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