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From the Feb. 12 episode of SNL:

The clips go from basilectal some-kind-of-British to complete doubletalk:

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If you can't get at the version on hulu, this may work better:

[Hat tip: Michael Hoselton]



53 Comments

  1. Ray Girvan said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 7:26 am

    For those who can't access the clip (i.e. outside the USA), it's of a spoof trailer, involving Russell Brand, for a British film called "Don' You Go Rounnin' Roun to Re Ro". The first two clips are horribly accurate – presumably by Brand himself. The third: the female is Estuary/American, and I can't imagine what accent the male voice is supposed to be. It sounds somewhere between Cockey, Brooklyn and Afrro-Caribbean.

  2. Ben said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 7:29 am

    Yeah it's ironic that those Brits in the UK can't check it for authenticity because of idiotic copyright laws.

  3. Jon Weinberg said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 8:16 am

    Ray (or anyone),
    Can you essay a transcription of the second clip?

  4. Steve F said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    @Jon I don't think you'll find anyone who will be able to transcribe that for you. It begins 'If you don't do what we say…' (and I presume that is comprehensible to you, despite its cockney vowels) but then it degenerates into deliberate nonsense. Trust me, I've lived in London all my life, and no East-ender would understand any more than you do. Though the third clip – which I agree does sound more Caribbean than London – unmistakably includes the words 'Graham Norton' among the gobbledygook. By the way the clip is accessible to UK residents here
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0twWw05u_Pk

  5. GeorgeW said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 9:51 am

    Are there any particular American accents that sound marginally comprehensible to Brits?

  6. vanya said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 10:06 am

    There are some rural Southern accents that are barely comprehensible to Northerners – I'd have to imagine British people would struggle mightily. Also many urban African-american dialects are extremely difficult for Brits (or for native American English speakers not familiar with those dialects). Still, these accents tend to be marginalized and are very rarely represented in mass media accurately, so most Brits are unlikely to ever come across them. Have any Brits here watched "The Wire"?

  7. Paul Clarke said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    Have any Brits here watched "The Wire"?

    Yes. I don't usually need subtitles, though Snoop can be hard to follow.

  8. John Burgess said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    I serve as interpretor for my wife when she meets up with Southern accents. Although she's a native to the mid-Atlantic (DC, actually), her ear just does not pick up on what's going on with rural 'southron' talk.

  9. Leo said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    Vanya – I'm the only person in Britain who hasn't seen The Wire.

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 11:00 am

    What's the series with the Glasgow detective? They're playing it straight and are still incomprehensible and I'm a guy who's eaten my share of haggis.

  11. Leo said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 11:03 am

    GeorgeW – I'm not aware of any American accents that are notably difficult for Brits, i.e. known unknowns. As Vanya says, we probably don't get the full range on TV here. New York accents are well represented, but they're not hard to follow. Neither are the stereotyped (and therefore slow) Southern accents. Fargo was popular, but that was mostly just a case of people saying "Yah".

  12. Keith said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 11:24 am

    Dan, would "the series with the Glasgow detective" be Taggart?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taggart

    K.

  13. Dougal Stanton said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    Dan Lufkin is probably referring to Taggart, the series that lived longer than its main actor.

  14. ernie said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 11:36 am

    My London-ear could catch (or thought it could) about half of it. Perhaps the other half was just gibberroo.

    I remember watching Brad Pitt in Guy Ritchie's film, Snatch. Much was made in the reviews of his incomprehensible London-Irish-Pikey mumblings. But for me, brought up among often drunken London Irish, most of it was crystal clear….I recall at one point he had a very funny line. I laughed, as did a lone voice on the side of the fairly-full auditorium. My partner whispered: "_what_ did he say!?"

    Comprehension perhaps requires immersion.

  15. Chris Waters said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    In addition to the "Graham Norton" already mentioned, the male voice in the third clip also says what sounds to me (west coast AmE) like "bouillon", although "bullion" might make more sense in the context. I wonder which—if either—of those words others hear?

  16. Matthew B. said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    Films set in Glasgow, especially, often get subtitled for North American exhibition. Orphans, Riff-Raff, Sweet Sixteen, Neds, My Name Is Joe, Red Road …. Also a couple of scenes in Trainspotting, but that's Edinburgh.

  17. Peter said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    @Chris Waters: I (brought up BrE) heard that quite clearly as “Boolean”, but this seems unlikely given the context. If I had to put words to it, I’d go for “bullying” — but trying to do so is almost certainly tilting at a windmill.

  18. Trimegistus said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    I had to turn on the subtitles for Billy Elliot because the only word my wife and I could make out was "fookin'" — but of course that meant we were getting about sixty percent of the dialogue right there.

  19. Seonachan said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

    Some of Bill Forsyth's films were dubbed into a "less Scottish" English for the (I assume) North American market, with the actors rereading their original lines. I have Gregory's Girl on DVD and the audio choices are "English" and "original Scottish language track".

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

    After memory had time to kick in, I recalled that The Fast Show did this way back: see YouTube for It's A Right Royal Cockney Barrel Of Monkeys.

  21. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

    @ Vanya – "There are some rural Southern accents that are barely comprehensible to Northerners – I'd have to imagine British people would struggle mightily"

    I, a BrE type, was watching Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby at a AmE friend's house in California, and he insisted on turning on the subtitles as he was sure I would not understand it otherwise. So I didn't get to test myself.

    As for The Wire, at least one lead actor in it was British, Dominic West… maybe he learned his lines phonetically and had a babelfish in his ear for incoming?

  22. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

    @Chris Waters: I heard "bullion"

  23. mgh said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

    for a similar take on american accents, try Boomhauer in "King of the Hill"
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GGA1a4nyVs

    [(myl) Nice point. But the neat thing about Boomhauer is that hard as it is to unravel, his speech is always underlyingly coherent (and even well-informed and sensible).]

  24. Henry Calhoun Clay said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    The Wire is an interesting case. There's a very early scene when the wire first goes live and only one detective can understand what's being said, partially because of the audio quality but partially because the inner city accent is very pronounced. But after that scene, you simply never hear an accent that thick again, and virtually all of the major drug dealer characters speak with what I would consider to be mainstream AA vernacular.

    It almost reminded me of old war movies where the first few sentences are spoken in a foreign language to set the scene, but then everybody switches to English so that the audience can understand.

  25. Jongseong Park said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

    If it's SNL, aren't most of these actors American except for Russell Brand? Are the original actors saying these lines, or is there dubbing going on?

  26. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

    To Vanya, I assume you are speaking for yourself in not understanding Southern varieties of English. This unfortunate meme seems to be culturally propagated–an unfounded stereotype–and I know you didn't mean to be offensive, but your comment seems at best condescending.. A native resident of the South, I have developed an essentially midland accent. Serious Southern accents such as inland South, New Orleans, and so forth are as distinctive to me as certain Northern accents, like New York or Atlantic (New Jersey) accents. Nevertheless, none are unintelligible. Even to a willing listener, Cornish or Jamaican become understandable with just a few moments calibration.

  27. Chad Nilep said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

    @Jongseong Park – These are American actors (except for Brand) doing an impression of stereotypical London accents. Thus they come out as an odd mixture of Estuary, Caribbean, American etc. There doesn't appear to be any dubbing.

  28. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    Hehe, brilliant trailer. Is it true that Trainspotting played with subtitles in some US cinemas?

    When I go to the States I am often surprised by how hard people find it to understand me – I'm RP with some mild Estuary (kind of Cockney-lite) and the odd northern intrusion. Anyway I think it might be less the glottal stops and more the circumlocution. But if I have to repeat myself, good luck with Geordie or Glaswegian.

    I don't think there are any American accents we find hard to understand, we're so used to them. Mind you, I heard an interview with Ethan Coen the other day, and though it wasn't hard to understand him, almost every vowel seemed to be some sort of schwa.

    [(myl) Mike Judge's caricatured South-Midland accent as Boomhauer might be hard for some, I don't know. And I've found that real versions of a similar accent can be a problem for outsiders to transcribe, at least as played through a lecture-hall sound system.]

  29. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

    Actually the picture's more complicated than I said, I think there's a generational thing. A lot of the older generation have trouble with some of the street characters in The Wire, for instance. But it's hard to tell whether it's the AAVE dialect or the accent per se.

  30. Nick said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    How much of that second clip is gibberish? I (AmE) clearly get "If you don't do what we say…" but then the next word I understand is "…mate", which is at the very end. Perhaps someone can enlighten me? I know Bill Hader (the one who plays the protagonist in this clip) is very good at gibberish Italian (see his Vinny Vedecci clips), so normally I woud think this is just gibberish English.

  31. Pat said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

    Oh, my gosh, but this clip had me crying – too, too funny! I lived in GB for three years and am generally pretty good with accents anyway, but every now and then I'll watch a movie, or British TV show, that has me really concentrating to keep up. This clip was all of those occasions rolled into one. The satire was palpable and the gibberish was brilliant.

  32. fog said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 11:00 pm

    Ah, I see that I'm not the only person who thought of Trainspotting. I watched that film a few months ago, and if I'd had English language subtitles available I definitely would have turned them on. I got through it, of course, but I wasn't prepared for such close listening. It was supposed to just be a relaxing movie for the evening! It's weird, because as a university student I am regularly exposed to a lot of different accents of English, but for whatever reason that one was particularly difficult for me to follow.

    I wonder if that Graham Norton in the gobbledigook is supposed to be some kind of subtle advertising for his show.

  33. m.m. said,

    February 15, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

    Nick said,

    How much of that second clip is gibberish? I (AmE) clearly get "If you don't do what we say…" but then the next word I understand is "…mate", which is at the very end. Perhaps someone can enlighten me? I know Bill Hader (the one who plays the protagonist in this clip) is very good at gibberish Italian (see his Vinny Vedecci clips), so normally I woud think this is just gibberish English.

    with Nick on this one. Its obviously the english version of the italian gibberish, to give the effect of a 'very foreign british accent' to the point it becomes incomprehensible to americans.

    the clip was indeed funny. mind the bit about not having any 'consonants' xD

  34. Bob Violence said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 3:14 am

    Is it true that Trainspotting played with subtitles in some US cinemas?

    No, except for the scene in the club, which had subtitles everywhere (since the dialogue was deliberately drowned out by the music). But they did re-dub a few bits. Riff-Raff was subtitled in the U.S. (which was used as something of a selling point) and so were the early parts of Sweet Sixteen, although this was apparently done in the UK as well.

  35. michael farris said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 3:35 am

    Many years ago I remember being in US theater audiences that had significant problems following all the dialogue in Quadrophenia and Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet.

    Since I live in Poland now I usually watch British dvd's with Polish subtitles and that might make some things easier to understand (I'm sure it did with Trainspotting). But sometimes the dialogue still blurs up and I can't match the translation with what was said in real time.

    I've also (over)heard Brits abroad with accents that don't seem to make it into the media and don't even necessarily recognize that odd sounding language as English until 10 seconds or more.

  36. J-M-M said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 3:55 am

    [(myl) Mike Judge's caricatured South-Midland accent as Boomhauer might be hard for some, I don't know. And I've found that real versions of a similar accent can be a problem for outsiders to transcribe, at least as played through a lecture-hall sound system.]

    This clip could well be one of my aunts or cousins, and I could not catch the first part of what she was saying. (I began growing up in Dallas about half a century ago, but much of my extended family stayed in rural northeast Texas. The urban environment had a big mitigating effect on the accent, though I problems with pin and pen even after years on the east coast. FWIW, I could almost always understand them in person, but did not like to talk to them on the phone.)

    Boomhauer has always seemed to me to be based on a west Texas accent (Permian Basin and Panhandle). Tommy Lee Jones is a real life and less over blown example, so is "W", though I think he fakes his.) We blamed that way of talking on the need to keep your lips togeather to keep the blowing dust out of your mouth.

    The accent I know as east Texas and which is closer to Arkansas and further east, is much more like Sissy Spacek.

    To me these seem very distinct. and I know that there are Piedmont accents, further to the south in Texas, but that isn't what I'm thanking of, that is more distinguishable.

    I guess I'm getting well off the point, but are Tommy Lee Jones's and Sissy Spacek's really considered the same accent?

  37. speegster said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    Here's a second vote for the Fast Show's "it's a right royal cockney barrel of monkeys", although the production in the SNL clip is slicker. I must admit I'm a little surprised with this particular audience here: the majority of what's being said in the SNL pastiche is clearly gibberish in my view (I grew up in central London from the age of 11, erstwhile Estuary English speaker), as opposed to the completely intelligible (to any even modestly long-standing Londoner) and colloquially faithful vocabulary and grammar employed by the Fast Show mob.

  38. Janice Byer said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    Unlike "Boomhauser", the sitcom character in the below clip is clearly faking it. I believe she's doing what the Brits call "taking the piss", one of those colloquialisms that means not at all what it sounds like to American ears.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INOL2zVv7mw

  39. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: Maybe that's what you sound like to the poor Americanos: Fast Show.

    (No offence. I know you probably don't ;)

  40. vanya said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

    "To Vanya, I assume you are speaking for yourself in not understanding Southern varieties of English. This unfortunate meme seems to be culturally propagated–an unfounded stereotype–and I know you didn't mean to be offensive, but your comment seems at best condescending.."

    Mr Fnortner, you may be propagating the stereotype that Southerners are thin-skinned and quick to take offense. I didn't say, or certainly didn't mean to say, that all, most or even many Southern accents are difficult for Brits (and I am not British). I quite agree that for the most part the American speech varieties found South of the Mason-Dixon line are not very different from "standard" American speech. I am simply stating that there do exist some accents in the more rural and hilly parts of Georgia and Alabama that differ noticeably from what I suspect your average British person would have been exposed to if they have only heard American accents on television or from tourists. I believe the formal designation for this variety is "Southern Appalachian".

  41. Chrisj said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

    When I bought "Mad Max" on DVD, I was rather surprised to discover that the language choices included "English" and "Original Australian" (with English subtitles available for the latter). I didn't watch enough of the (American) "English" version to determine whether they'd actually changed any of the dialogue….

  42. Janice Byer said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 8:29 pm

    In Vanya's defense, I've lived most of my long life in Virginia, yet there remain certain regions of the Commonwealth, where the accents of older citizens tax my comprehension. Obviously, this isn't their limitation but mine.

  43. codeman38 said,

    February 16, 2011 @ 11:06 pm

    I wish I'd actually thought to watch this live so I could've seen what the closed captioners did with it!

  44. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    @ Jareck – hehe, maybe as incoherent but no not quite that posh!

    Incidentally, is 'British accent' a phrase with any linguistic, rather than geographical, meaning? Is there a group of features most of which they all share, as in the case with BrE dialect?

    For instance, it seems to me that Northern Irish accents have as much in common with many American ones than they do with, for instance, RP. using the Mid Ulster accent as described by Wikipedia, it has:

    1. Rhoticity.

    2. Tapped /ɾ/ (or sometimes /d/) for /t/.

    3. The 'cot' vowel is [ɑ] as in many US accents.

    4. Aspiration in wh- words by many speakers of Mid Ulster and some U.S. speakers.

    That's three of the major differences between US and English English, and one minor one, that are shared by NI. Does Mid Ulster have any more in common with English or Welsh accents than, say, an Australian accent, which is not considered 'British'?

  45. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: Incidentally, is 'British accent' a phrase with any linguistic, rather than geographical, meaning?

    Well, I'd say it isn't, at least when talking about phonetics/phonology. Informally*, you could say that London has more in common with Sydney, Australia than with Glasgow or Belfast. And surely Belfast has more in common with Glasgow than with Dublin…

    Lexis and (possibly) syntax, not to mention spelling conventions etc., are a different matter. (You could argue…)

    (*) There are methods that are supposed to measure distances between accents, so – at least to a certain extent – you could try to verify it empirically if you wanted.

  46. Jahi Chappell said,

    February 17, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    I've always been quite impressed with Richard Coyle's fake language, though it was a mainly gibberish hybrid of two or three languages (at least to my untrained and non-linguist ear). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TyNVcZhGo8#t=5m20s

    Also quite amused that he convinced the cast that he was Welsh because he kept using the accent even outside of takes, IIRC.

  47. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 18, 2011 @ 5:10 am

    @ Jarek

    Yes certainly BrE as a dialect is well defined. But I think you're right about 'British accent'.

  48. Hex said,

    February 20, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Unfortunately NBC have now blocked the clip on YouTube, meaning this video is, as far as I can tell, completely inaccessible from the UK.

  49. Baylink said,

    February 21, 2011 @ 1:29 am

    For whatever it's worth, the Beeb interviewed a Scot on Newshour the other morning, about the football headbutt incident, and while I could, finally, understand most of what the gent said, it took me two or three words at the beginning of *each* reply to re-sync with his burr, and dig through it to the english.

  50. Alan Darvill said,

    February 22, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    Nothing compares for bad acting than Dick van Dyke's so-called "London cockney" in Mary Poppins. They GOULD have had Tommy Steele – he was a singer/actor – and was born in the East End of London.

    But with almost all American actor/actresses, especially younger ones, it's not the accent that British people cannot understand, it's the very fast way they talk. Almost every American TV serial in, say, 20 years ago, I can read perfectly, but now, I cannot even read 2 out of 3 words.

  51. Josh said,

    February 27, 2011 @ 12:35 am

    I thought I heard elfish for a second…

  52. Todd Casey said,

    July 6, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    It makes me think of the Beatle's movie, A Hard Days Night. I can remember the accents killing me, way back when. Now of course, after having rewound it numerous times on vcr's and dvd's and most recently various cable company boxes, I can totally understand and enjoy the movie at uninterrupted full speed every time it pops up as a rerun.

  53. monroe said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 9:13 am

    I serve as interpretor for my wife when she meets up with Southern accents. Although she's a native to the mid-Atlantic (DC, actually), her ear just does not pick up on what's going on with rural 'southron' talk.

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