That gecko's pleasant accent: Martin and Mellors

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Yesterday's Doonesbury:

I'm not especially sensitive to class nuances in British accents, but BP CEO Tony Hayward doesn't sound  very "fancy" to me. Here's a post-spill interview:

And here's a lecture from 5/12/2009, about a year earlier:

His Wikipedia page says that he was born in Eton, Berkshire, and "gained a first class geology degree from Aston University in Birmingham followed by a PhD from the University of Edinburgh".

Duke's point in the Doonesbury strip is that (certain kinds of) British accents sound stuck-up, condescending, snobbish, arrogant, etc., to many Americans. But he immediately undermines this point by recommending a switch to "whatever that gecko uses", which is also a kind of British accent.

According to the Wikipedia page about the GEICO gecko,

The company's ads sometimes focus on its reptilian mascot, Martin the Gecko, an anthropomorphic Day Gecko created by The Martin Agency and most recently a CGI creature generated by Framestore CFC. The gecko first appeared in 1999 during the Screen Actors Guild strike that prevented the use of live actors.  In the original commercial, where the gecko pleads for people to stop calling him in error, mistaking gecko for GEICO, he was voiced by Kelsey Grammer.  Later "wrong number" ads used Dave Kelly as the voice of the gecko. In the subsequent commercials with Jake Wood,  (which portray him as a representative of the company), the gecko speaks with an English (Cockney) accent, because it would be unexpected, according to Martin Agency's Steve Bassett. Paul Morgan, a British actor and comedian, is the current voice of the GEICO gecko. In current commercials the gecko's accent is more working-class, perhaps in an effort to further "humanize" him. "As computer animation got better and as we got to know the character better, we did a few things," says Steve Bassett, creative director at The Martin Agency. "We wanted to make him a little more guy-next-door. And he looks a lot more real than he's looked before." A recent ad shows the gecko in a GEICO sales meeting. One of the people at the meeting says, "I could sell more insurance too if I was green with a British accent." to which a female counterpart says, "British? I thought you're from Australia." The commercial concludes with the gecko saying, "Actually I'm from-" and the commercial cuts off.

Here's the original Kelsey Grammer GEICO gecko, speaking in a somewhat posh-sounding accent that uncle Duke would presumably not recommend:

Here are some more recent examples, voiced (I think) by Jake Wood, in a much warmer style:

And another one (I don't know whether this is Jake Wood or Paul Morgan):

Martin the gecko now certainly seems warm, friendly, and approachable, not cold and aloof. Is this even partly because Americans understand enough of the socio-economic associations of British accents to apply the usual alignment of class, formality, and intimacy? (See for example how D.H. Lawrence arranges for Mellors to switch between "cold, good English" and "the broad sound of the vernacular" in Lady Chatterly's Lover, described here.)

Or is it just that Martin is animated by skillful designers, and voiced by a skillful actor, so as to create the desired impression, independent of his (what I take to be) working-class London-area accent?


  1. Ray Girvan said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    The first gecko voice is a very mannered, camp even, RP accent; the second some flavour of slightly higher-grade working-class London / Estuary.

    Hayward sounds slightly downmarket RP; that is, RP with glottal stops and a bit of a rustic twang – a Home Counties 'town' accent. It also sounds as if he's spent time in Australia.

  2. dw said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    Hayward doesn't sound at all RP or rustic to me. He has a slightly diphthong-shifted lower-middle class London-area accent with strong L-vocalization. Note the diphthongal final vowel of "opportunitY" in his first sentence, and the full L-vocalization of "well" in the first word of his second.

    The diphthong shift is also characteristic of Australian accents, but I don't think L-vocalization is.

  3. dw said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    The characteristics of the Martin the Gecko's speech that make him seem friendly and approachable seem to be mainly intonation and tempo, rather than phonetic realization. I don't perceive a huge difference between Martin the Gecko and Hayward in terms of the actual phones they use.

    [(myl) Martin (1) drops initial /h/, (2) replaces interdental fricatives with labiodental fricatives, e.g. "otherwise" as something like [ˈʌvəˌwɑɪz], (3) replaces intervocalic /t/ with glottal stop, e.g. in "but a" — even before we get to the vowels. Tony Hayward doesn't have any of these features, as far as I can tell. So Hayward's accent may be a bit "downmarket" (to use Ray Girvan's word) but it does lack a number of specifically lower-class London features that Martin exhibits.]

  4. Dierk said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    Are we sure Duke is not talking about the character 'Gecko' from Oliver Stone's Wall Street films?

  5. language hat said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    Yes, we are. Aside from the films not being exactly up-to-the-minute cultural references, no one would say "that Gecko" without any further context referring to Gordon and expect to be understood.

    [(myl) Amplifying hat's point, commercials featuring the GEICO gecko are ubiquitous these days on American TV and radio, and have been for the past few years. A generous sample of other gecko TV ads can be found on YouTube.]

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Admittedly the two clips differ: on the news one (which I'd still call downmarket RP) he seems to be making more effort to pronounce "t"s compared to the "So wha' was our diagnosis?" and similar in the second. At least when I was growing up, marked L-vocalization in southern England wasn't exclusive to London; it was a part of a 'town' accent right down to the south coast (I was brought up in Gosport, and my wife occasionally ribs me on my pronunciation of the end of words like "doll").

  7. David L said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    I grew up a few miles north of Reading, a bit further out from London than Eton, but Hayward's accent sounds very familiar to me — the way he says "troied" for tried, in the first clip, and the near glottal stop (if that's the right way to put it) at the end of "in part" and "not a lot" in the second clip. My guess is he started out with a lower social class accent (similar to Ricky Gervais, who grew in Reading) but has "poshified" his speaking voice over the years. In the news clip I detect indications ("pursue") that he has spent time in the US — or is trying to sound a little more friendly to American ears.

    But overall though, as Ray Girvan says, his accent is distinctly unposh to my ears.

  8. Josef Fruehwald said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 11:18 am

    Quick decision process for Americans evaluating British Accents:

    Sounds like Eliza Doolittle or Terry Jones in drag: Nice and simple.

    Sounds like John Lennon: Groovy

    Else: Fancy

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    Did US television consistently expand BP to its now obsolete name British Petroleum in the past? Or did that start when the accident happened? Is there some other entity that might reasonably be referenced by the initials BP or by confusingly similar initials, necessitating a distinction (and if so, why not "BP Oil"?)

    Personally I have a habit of expanding HSBC (the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation), despite it to having likewise formally shed its geographic name many years ago. But I didn't start doing this during a banking crisis or after a scandal involving HSBC, I just read it somewhere and liked the name.

  10. Ed said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    I give up. Which country is the GEICO Gecko really from? This really bothers me. I know where Tony Hayward is from.

    [(myl) The GEICO gecko is a computer-generated animation, created by an advertising agency as spokescritter for an American insurance company, so any answer to your question must involve an element of fiction.

    However, the various actors who have voiced the gecko are all British, and there's no question that this fictional character supposed to be English, and in particular to come from the London area.

    Or did you mean to ask a different question, like "where are the computers located on which his images were generated?", or "what is the location of the advertising team who write the ads and supervise their production?" If so, the answer is that I don't know, and it isn't (as far as I can see) really relevant to the current discussion.]

  11. KevinM said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Sounds like Phil Collins to this boomer.

  12. Bob Moore said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    When I spent two years living in England in the 1980s, I tried to pay particular attention to the accents, and to learn to identify as many as I could. (After returning to the US, I impressed a hostess at a restaurant in California by asking if she was from Yorkshire, and recently I nailed the accent of a waitress in Los Angeles, as not just Scottish, but Glaswegian.)

    Anyway, I am sure I am no match for a trained Btitish phonetician, but to my ear, Tony Hayward's accent reminds me of someone who has risen from the working class to the middle class. His accent is in no way either upper class or Oxbridge, which are the accents I would consider "posh". (I see from his bio that he obtained his first degree from Aston University, which was established in 1895 as the Birmingham Municipal Technical School, and upgraded to university status only in 1966). His speech and demeanor remind me of a type popular in British fiction and drama in the go-go Thatcher years, the young man on the make, sort of the British version of Sammy Glick from "What Makes Sammy Run". But maybe I am just projecting, based on what is happening in the Gulf :-)

  13. Nathan said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    @Nick Lamb: I consider myself a well informed American, and I never heard of BP before the spill. I was really surprised to learn a British company was extracting oil here, then I looked them up on Wikipedia and found out they had merged with Amoco (which I had heard of) in 1998, but hadn't phased out the Amoco name until 2008. I suspect most Americans would have similar reactions, and it makes sense for the news media to explain who the heck this huge company we've never heard of is.

    And I had thought the GEICO gecko was intended to be Australian, but voiced by a Cockney because Americans don't know the difference.

  14. Boris said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    At least where I am (New Jersey), BP gas stations are quite common. Around the time Amoco started to be phased out BP launched a huge (again, at least here in NJ) advertisement campaign on TV pitching its "Beyond Petroleum" tagline. For awhile BP gas stations carried a "Fuel by Amoco" or similar stickers.

    It is, in fact, true that I didn't know what BP stood for until the coverage of the oil spill enlightened me. I'm not sure why it's significant though. Most gasoline retailers in the US belong to various offshore companies these days (Royal Dutch Shell, Lukoil, Citgo, etc)

  15. Mark P said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    I'm a reasonably well-informed American of a certain age, and BP is quite familiar to me, maybe because I was something of a car fan in the past. I probably saw BP signs in photographs of races from way back. I don't expand BP to "British Petroleum" mentally or any other way, but that name does linger somewhere in my consciousness. I have read that in Britain there is some dissatisfaction with the way BP is being treated (by the US government? the media? blogs?) with respect to the Gulf oil spill. Does that cause sensitivity to the expansion of BP to British Petroleum? I haven't noticed the use of British Petroleum much, but maybe I don't notice it because I'm not sensitive to it.

    On the other hand, it wouldn't surprise me if US television reporters were ignorant of the official name change, and were just fulfilling what they think their role is in explaining what they think they know to their viewers.

  16. Mr Punch said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    I, an American, read the gecko's accent as decidedly un-posh — but note also that he almost always speaks tentatively or uncertainly rather than assertively.

    As for American treatment of BP, most of the complaints I've seen come from Tories (e.g., Boris Johnson), who of course belong to a party in which killing birds has been considered a good thing.

  17. James said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    @myl: However, the various actors who have voiced the gecko are all British
    Kelsey Grammer is American.

  18. John Cowan said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation

    Once known to every anglophone in the Far East as the "Honkers and Shankers"; it was the agent of Ghu-knows-how-many remittances to younger sons and graceless nephews.

  19. Colin Reid said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    Funnily enough, Kelsey Grammer is exactly who I (a Brit) think of when I'm trying to think of a modern 'fancy' American accent. Then again, this may be because I am thinking of that unashamedly elitist character, Frasier Crane.

  20. Tom said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    @Mark P, yes, I've seen it suggested in several places that the BP – British Petroleum ("a name the company has not used since the 70s") expansion is an anti-Brit smear by a US government & media hungry for a foreign scapegoat. I find this reasonably unconvincing but a possibility, at least.

  21. Lazar said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    @Nick Lamb: In US commercials, BP has been promoting itself under the initialism for a long time, with no mention of the full name. As Boris notes, they launched a feel-good ad campaign a year or two ago in which they were boosting BP as standing for "Beyond Petroleum".

    In a similar vein, I've heard that in non-US markets, America Online promotes itself exclusively under the initialism AOL, because "American" would be bad for business.

  22. Sid Smith said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    The last two gecko voices are very like Michael Caine in rhythm and lilt (no doubt the wrong terminology for you linguists!) but with a stronger London-ish accent. Definitely not Australian — and the reference to pie and chips utterly nails the London angle.

    As a Brit, I agree that the BP man is certainly not posh. In fact, his accent makes him seem more credible: ie, a technocrat who's risen through the ranks and knows his stuff, rather than a smoothie PR or parachuted-in executive. At the beginning of his comments I caught the odd yokelish tone (I becomes oi) which seems to exist right across southern England from East Anglia to the West Country, tho with RP overtones: a Berkshire boy finding success seems about right.

    The Kelsey Grammer clip has poor sound quality, so hard to judge how British it seems. But once you know the id of the actor it all falls into place. Agreed that it seems a little supercilious.

  23. mollymooly said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    Lucky Goldstar launched a big marketing campaign when it rebranded itself as LG not long before the 1990s Asian financial crisis. The media didn't taunt it with its former name when it was down!

    The GEICO gecko is clearly the original of Aleksandr Orlov ("compare the meerkat, not compare the market"). The Martin Agency should sue BGL Group.

  24. Ian said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    I recently moved from England to America, and practically the first comment anyone made about my accent was a comparison to the Geico gecko.

    I'm middle class and from Oxford, so my accent is closer to the first ads than anything aired recently. I wonder whether Americans are really identifying class indicators at all, or if it's just a case of "British accent belonging to someone I want to like" vs. "British accent belonging to Hollywood villain"?

  25. James C. said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

    As one born in Alaska, I can say fairly that I’ve known BP as “British Petroleum” all of my life. I was heretofore unaware that, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, their initialism no longer had a referent. They have a very large presence in Alaska, particularly after their purchase of ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Co.) who was the other huge oil company, with ConocoPhillips picking up the pieces afterwards. BP has been very “British” for Alaskans, particularly since one hears the occasional Englishman or Scotsman (never a woman) jabbering on a cell phone or bitching out an underling in their atrium. My mother who worked in the state government’s petroleum offices would occasionally complain at home about not understanding someone’s accent, or would make fun of some uptight British executive she had dealt with that day.

    More on topic, although as a linguist I can easily tell the difference between various English accents, as an American I really don’t know about them and can’t tell the differences other than Cockney, Liverpudlian, and The Rest. I can identify “Upperclass Twit” from exposure to Monty Python and other English comedies, but really I don’t notice how the non-Cockney GEICO gecko is specifically different from some Oxbrigensonian professor. Unlike the typical American, however, I know well the difference between Kiwi, Strine, and South African, having worked with citizens of all three nations.

  26. Rubrick said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    Leaving geckos aside entirely — close your eyes and listen to the first clip and tell me the Fox newscaster doesn't sound uncannily like Paula Poundstone.

    [(myl) Or, equivalently, that Paula Poundstone doesn't sound uncannily like Greta van Susteren. Please, no one tell Paula — she's had enough troubles in her life.]

  27. Liz said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

    As a Mancunian living for a long time in London, and consequently tending to notice London accents, the "pie and chips" ad sounds to me like someone posh trying to talk Estuary English – a very irritating affectation, commonly used by politicians.

    [(myl) Jake Wood was the gecko's voice through 2009 — he was born in London, apparently, and has played a role for years in EastEnders. Does his portrayal of Max Branning strike you the same way?]

  28. Jimmy James said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 9:58 pm

    One interesting thing about this discussion is the expectation that Mr Hayward might have a more cultured accent than he does, given his position as a CEO of a major oil company. A generation ago, he might have modified his accent to meet those expectations, unless he was from a part of Britain where people traditionally "get away with" having strong regional accents, like Scotland, and even then class distinctions emerge in how people would speak. Baroness Margaret Thatcher, who had a humble origin as the daughter of a shopkeeper, definitely speaks with a "classy" accent, but Mr Hayward doesn't bother. What that suggests is that the badges of class distinctions in Britain, like a pukka accent, are becoming less important.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 16, 2010 @ 11:10 pm

    @Dierk: Not to pile on, but the movie character's name is spelled "Gekko".

    @Nathan: BP bought Sohio (Standard Oil of Ohio) in 1978, according to Wikipedia, and BP stations have been familiar to Ohioans since then. The article says there are or have been lots of BP stations in the Southeast in recent years. Of course, that doesn't make other Americans familiar with them.

  30. Dierk said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 2:44 am

    Thanks, Jerry and Language Hat! Wasn't aware of the ubiquity of this annoying reptile – or the way Stone spelled his fiend. [Put another way, it was an honest question, not some stupid 'look I know more than you' game.]

  31. Eric said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 2:45 am

    I think it's completely unfair–and vaguely offensive–for an entity to "change" its name to its own initials, and then expect people to disassociate the expanded version as the referent of the initials. I mean, I can understand KFC's desire to break my association with Kentucky Fried Chicken. But surely no one will join them in their exasperation when the disassociation fails to obtain. Consider that they're up against, e.g., TO, UCLA, and (from England) BA–all of whom graciously accept their initials, but don't bristle when people accurately recall that those initials are there for a reason: Terrell Owens, Univ of Calif. etc., and British Airways.

    For the desired effect, please change your name from Philip Morris to Altria…Bell Atlantic to Verizon…Puff Daddy to P. Diddy (et al.).

    @Colin Reid: Agreed about Kelsey Grammer. But his actorly mannerisms are so Shakespearean that I'd bet any American (myself included) would admit he sounds a little English. Especially as Frasier Crane. So I'm a little uncomfortable with the apparent correlation between US posh and theatrical British. Might I suggest Mayor Quimby as a better go-to for American Patrician?

  32. Rachel said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 3:54 am

    As someone who left South-East England 20 years ago (for foreign climes/lingos), I am glad I’m not the first to comment that to me this accent sounds totally affected. We all know that class and accent are deeply interrelated in Britain (and I had occasion to learn to talk ‘down’) but the supremacy of Estuary is since my time and it grates every time I go back. I think drama students spend their time losing their accents and then putting them back on demand, except fake. And yes, I completely say the same about Eastenders.

  33. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 5:29 am

    "I consider myself a well informed American, and I never heard of BP before the spill."

    That's pretty surprising to me. I mean, besides being one of the largest companies in the world (well, until their share price collapsed), they were also responsible for a massive explosion at a refinery in Texas just a few years back which killed several people. Surely you remember that.

  34. weloveallthat said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 5:51 am

    So this GEICO/Gecko thing is where the UK compare the ad people ( got their inspiration from.

    Is nothing original these days?

  35. BlueBottle said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 7:03 am

    Sid Smith said: "At the beginning of his comments I caught the odd yokelish tone (I becomes oi) which seems to exist right across southern England from East Anglia to the West Country, tho with RP overtones: a Berkshire boy finding success seems about right."

    I think what you're hearing specifically is a touch of Brummie that he probably picked up during his time at Aston. There were moments when I caught a fleeting hint of Jasper Carrott.

  36. S.Norman said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 8:45 am

    Isn't the accent all wrong? Day gekos are from Madagascar.

    [(myl) Well, originally. But this one is no doubt the (fictional) child of immigrants, and as English as you like.]

  37. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    "So this GEICO/Gecko thing is where the UK compare the ad people ( got their inspiration from."

    Talking animals are not exactly unheard of in ads.

  38. John Cowan said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    What actual geckos say is "Fuck you! Fuck you!" (Some hear it as "Tokay! Tokay!" instead.)

  39. Coleslaw Praisebroccoli Kohlsen said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    Tony Hayward's accent strikes me as pleasant, clearly from somewhere in Southern England, but probably not London, because you wouldn't have the slightly rural
    tinge that he does unless you picked it up in childhood.

    I don't think he went to an expensive private school (if he had, he would either sound posher, like John Bird and John Fortune, or be affecting a less well-integrated version of estuary english, like the gecko)

    Hayward's education comes through in lexis and organization rather than accent. He sounds as if he fully understands his talking points, as he should in his position. And he also sounds calm and informal in both clips.

    Bird and Fortune

  40. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 18, 2010 @ 1:58 am

    Hard to guess how Hayward's accent goes over in the US, but it's definitely not posh.

    I'd say his image problems are due to acting like the engineer that he is and being very transparently careful not to say anything that might increase his liabilities.

    The guy obviously has no relevant training in speaking for the wider public, let alone an American public that probably wants to see a more can-do if not gung-ho attitude.

  41. Maureen said,

    June 30, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    BP may have bought Sohio in 1978, but Sohio stations didn't become BP stations until the 1990's. (That's a really ugly green BP has, btw. Maybe they better go back to the good old friendly Sohio red and blue.)

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