Acting, speech, and authenticity

« previous post | next post »

In advance of the fifth and last season of The Wire, HBO released a documentary-like special called "The Last Word". The very first line is from an interview with series protagonist Dominic West, who says: "What makes The Wire so amazing is its level of authenticity." (Watch the first part of the special here.)

Even now, after having re-watched the entire series several times, I'm floored by the irony of that line, spoken in West's native British dialect (born in Sheffield, but of Irish descent). West plays Detective James "Jimmy" McNulty of the Baltimore Police Department, and McNulty is a very American character: breaking all the rules in a very selfish (but also self-destructive) way, all in the name of some greater good (doing "real police" work and catching the bad guys). So how authentic can the show be, if this very American character is played by a Brit?

Pretty damned authentic, as it turned out. Although I understand that many folks familiar with Baltimore-area speech could somewhat reliably distinguish the Baltimore-native actors from others, there were probably very few who would have picked out West as British or even as not American (or Idris Elba for that matter, another Brit who played Russell "Stringer" Bell on the show). These folks are actors, after all — really good ones who do what it takes to play their characters as authentically as possible, speech and all.

I don't recall there being much more than benign surprise among the viewing public upon hearing these actors' real voices, though maybe I wasn't paying enough attention at the time; perhaps this is because The Wire was "just a TV show". (Putting aside the fact that writer/creator David Simon was awarded a MacArthur Grant in large part for his work on The Wire.) By contrast, some folks appear to be getting very upset that the American superheroes Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman are being played in movies (both recent and forthcoming) by British actors: Christian Bale, Andrew Garfield, and Henry Cavill, respectively. Why all the fuss?

Much of the complaining appears to center around the plain fact of nationality: these are American heroes, so they should be played by American citizens. [Concerning Superman, there's a lower-level argument among the geekier commenters: Superman isn't American, he is an alien from Krypton! say some; But he came to America as a young boy and was raised by the Kent family! say others. (The same kind of argument goes back and forth concerning Andrew Garfield: Garfield isn't British, he was born in LA! say some; But he moved to the UK as a young boy! say others.) Wow, is all I can say.] But Gretchen Carlson of Fox & Friends comes right out and says it. Speaking of the choice of Henry Cavill as Superman, she says:

So he's a good-looking chap. Now, you all know — if you watch the show — that I'm a big fan of the British accent. When [unintelligible name] comes on the show, whatever he says, I just like listening to him. But maybe not as Superman, because he's gonna probably have to get rid of the accent to be the Superman character.

I suppose I don't blame Carlson for (implicitly) worrying that Cavill might consider not "get[ting] rid of the accent"; after all, Kevin Costner was roundly criticized for not giving his Robin Hood character a British accent back in 1991 (see e.g. here). But is that really an option for Cavill? At the very least, he would be bucking the trend: Christian Bale has a very convincing American accent in the Batman movies (he even kept it on for this Fresh Air interview, in deference to the expectations for the character; listen to the last couple of minutes), and Andrew Garfield has already proven that he can play a convincing American in his role as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network. But Carlson's concerns betray what I believe to be the driving force behind all the fuss: the belief among many Americans that British speech is an accent (one that Carlson is "a big fan of", mind you), that (standard) American speech is not, and that to be a Brit playing an American you have to "get rid of the accent". Forget the fact that this happens, like, all the time in the movies and television, in both directions — and more often than some of us may care to admit, very convincingly so.

Incidentally, Dominic West has a hypothesis as to why "British actors are getting big parts in American TV shows" (and movies): "Maybe it's because we're cheap." With regard to the superhero parts in particular, the suggestions that have been made tend to revolve around the general claim that the current crop of youngish male American actors isn't up to snuff for superhero-dom: too fat, not sufficiently manly, and so on. Whatever. I'm just looking forward to seeing even more superhero movies.


  1. D said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 3:36 am

    There's another trend, accompanying the medieval/fantasy fad that's going strong nowadays, where American actors try to speak British English (usually some approximation of a non-existing variant). My guess is that it's supposed to give Ye Olde Medieval feel, but it's a bit strange to see, since the characters often aren't supposed to be British at all.

    Game of Thrones is a prime example of this. Peter Dinklage does a great job as Tyrion Lannister, but his sort-of-British accent is just weird. The characters live in a fantasy world, so why is a British accent more realistic than an American one?

  2. Adam said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 4:14 am

    "where American actors try to speak British English (usually some approximation of a non-existing variant)"

    In The Crying of Lot 49, the actors performing the Jacobean revenge play in San Narciso speak in "Transplanted Middle Western Stage British".

  3. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 4:30 am

    Concerning Superman, there's a lower-level argument among the geekier commenters: Superman isn't American, he is an alien from Krypton! say some; But he came to America as a young boy and was raised by the Kent family! say others.

    The other night, Stephen Colbert pointed out that Superman is an illegal immigrant.

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 4:41 am

    Does Dominic West's accent in The Wire sound convincing to Americans, as a) American and b) Baltimore? To me (English) it doesn't – but I suppose I'm not the right judge, especially not of Baltimore.

    American, yes. Baltimorean, no. (As I believe I implied in the post.)–EB

    He does do one bit brilliantly – in the episode where McNulty calls the brothel and impersonates an Englishman (badly). To play someone with a different accent impersonating your own accent badly must surely be pretty hard.

    I'd forgotten that bit. There's also the bit where he impersonates the serial killer that he's fabricated, making him sound not only crazy but also Baltimorean (as he comments on later).–EB

  5. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 4:54 am

    I think it's a "standard finding" for speakers of majority "standard" accents to believe they don't have one but everyone else does. Which sort of makes sense.


    @D medieval/fantasy fad: That's one of the ways "British" speech has been stereotyped in American mass culture. Another one is British=villain in SF, horrors, children's movies etc. Rosina Lippi-Green's book English with an accent is one of the best studies that discusses this. The original edition was 1997 but as I've just discovered at the link above, a new edition is forthcoming. I wonder whether there's new research, and whether anything has changed now that there have been more real Brits on American TV (not least on shows such as So You Think You Can Dance etc.).

  6. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 4:57 am

    And of course much of this has been discussed on here before, including things such as "Shakespeare should use RP" etc.

    Funny how I always need two comments to make one point. Need to think thinigs through more thoroughly before posting…

  7. Jon Weinberg said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 6:43 am

    Geek note: While Garfield played played a convincingly-accented Eduardo Saverin in the Social Network, Saverin is not a typical American. Near as I can tell, he speaks English as a second language, having immigrated to the U.S. (from Brazil) in his early teens.

  8. Kylopod said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 6:53 am

    The Costner thing has always fascinated me, because it comes with an assumption that a modern British accent would have been more "authentic" than an American one. In reality, people in the 1200s (or whenever Robin Hood takes place) would have been speaking some form of Middle English that wouldn't have sounded a bit like either contemporary British or American. But this reflects a larger issue: there's a deeply ingrained cultural assumption on both sides of the Atlantic that the British way of speaking is more traditional, and that American speech is a deviation from it. Pointing out the conservative features of American English isn't enough to shake this belief. That's why you see the British accent crop up in epic-type films (fantasy or historical) even when the setting isn't England. In Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, Heath Ledger and Matt Damon adopt English accents to play Germans. You see that sort of thing often. There's kind of this idea that the English "own" the English language (the very fact it's called "the English language" contributes to this belief), and that Americans are its beneficiaries, so that when it gets introduced into films set in a foreign land, it has to follow the British model because that's the default.

  9. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 7:13 am

    I'm an English RP speaker living in Texas. You would (possibly) be amazed at how many people down here will gleefully admit to themselves really being the ones with the accent (often after a moments thought) when I claim that I don't!

  10. Keith Ivey said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 7:41 am

    There's another foreigner doing an American accent on The Wire: Aidan Gillen, who plays Tommy Carcetti, is Irish.

  11. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 7:42 am

    I second Pflaumbaum's point. West's faking of his own native accent was hilarious.

    The Wire is often hugely interesting from a linguistic point of view (although I'm utterly unqualified to discuss the Baltimore variant of AAVE used in most street scenes). The first episode in season 2 has a striking use of absolute 'whipped' (for 'pussy-whipped'), which has led me to wonder if it isn't going the direction of a libfix.

  12. jfruh said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 7:53 am

    I'm a Baltimorean (though not a native and not a speaker of any of the local dialects) and I can see with some confidence Jimmy McNulty doesn't really sound very Baltimore-y. There is a very distinctive accent spoken by working-class white Baltimore-area natives that does pop up among some of the show's minor characters, played by actors recruited locally. One of the white administrators at the school in Season 4 has a beautiful one, as does the character who's Bunny Colvin's right-hand man in Season 3.

  13. Colin Reid said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    There is of course an analogous belief in parts of the UK that 'standard' British pronunciations are not accents, and that it makes sense to talk about 'the American accent'. It's quite common to say someone has 'lost' their regional accent, as if some standard accent naturally takes over at that point. Then again, I don't think people would say that David Tennant had simply 'dropped' his Scottish accent in Doctor Who, even though he adopts an accent that has become something of a standard across a large area of England, particularly for younger speakers (including his successor Matt Smith, it seems). Perhaps British audiences are more aware of the way actors change accents to fit the role because it is so commonplace on British TV.

  14. Trimegistus said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    What's impressive about the current crop of British (and Aussie) actors doing excellent American accents is the contrast with the situation just a couple of decades ago. In the 1980s British television, in particular, was the home of absolutely cringe-inducing attempts at American accents by British actors. The biggest problem I noticed was that nobody seemed to know that there isn't "an" American accent, and consequently they jumbled together traits of very divergent American regional speech patterns. I expect the increased access to American television programming during the 1990s and after may have helped.

    There's an interesting parallel in music. All rockers and R&B musicians used to adopt lame Elvisoid accents, while American punk and New Wave bands took on a mysteriously Transatlantic tone.

    Tom Wolfe wrote a couple of essays about American and British accents in the 1970s which are still bitchily hilarious.

  15. The Ridger said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    The problem with Costner's movie … well, the accent problem … was that everyone else sounded British.

    I can't believe you wrote this and never mentioned Hugh Laurie!

    There are many, many actors who do convincing foreign (or simply other) accents that I haven't mentioned. Why should I have mentioned Laurie in particular?–EB

  16. pj said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    FWIW, I think the owner of the 'unintelligible name' in your transcript is Stuart Varney.

    Thanks. I got the "Stuart" but couldn't make out the last name.–EB

  17. mollymooly said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    To my mind, "losing" or "dropping" one's accent suggests changing it permanently (as a result of e.g. moving from the provinces to the metropolis, or social climbing) rather than temporarily (playing a role).

    One might further distinguish "losing" (involuntary, e.g. after many years out of one's native place) from "dropping" (voluntary and accelerated).

  18. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 11:29 am

    Thanks, Trimegistus, you just brought back memories of a particularly hideous attempt to portray an American president on ITV's The Tomorrow People. Worth keeping in mind, though, that there's a vast difference in expectations between low-cost children's British television and primetime American dramas, let alone cinematic releases. Laurie, for instance, polished his American accent in Hollywood films before taking the role of Dr House and is currently the highest-paid performer on an American dramatic series.

    On the subject of accents in pop music, I take it you're familiar with Trudgill's On dialect? That made it much easier for me to understand why I had so much trouble figuring out the native countries of my favourite performers back in the 80s.

  19. Rodger C said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    Conversation I've had more than once in essence: "Where are you from?" "West Virginia." "Wow! I'd never have guessed [meant as a compliment]. When did you lose your accent?" "I didn't. I acquired one."

  20. slobone said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    @jfruh, I wonder how good John Travolta's Baltimore accent was in Hairspray? It sounded like he had really worked on it.

    When you see old (American) movies, it's funny how indifferent they used to be to accents. Actors just spoke in their own native accent, or perhaps one they had been trained to use, without regard for the country where the movie was set. So you can have Walter Pidgeon married to Greer Garson, both of them using different accents. Ingrid Bergman always sounded Swedish no matter the nationality of her character.

    I believe Marlon Brando was the first American actor to seriously attempt an English accent, for the 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. Clark Gable, of course, playing the same character in 1935, didn't even try.

  21. slobone said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    And incidentally, Dominic West is not only British, he went to Eton. A generation or two ago, he would probably have emerged with a very posh accent, but apparently that doesn't happen anymore.

  22. Mo said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

    Saverin speaks very good English, but he's got a thick Brazilian accent.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

    Mick Jagger's usual singing voice evolved at least in part out of a Brit's attempt to imitate the voices he'd heard on American R&B records (in a milieu where a lot of young English bands were trying to do the same thing), but he has a totally different and "broader" (perhaps comical?) faux-American accent that he deployed on a limited number of Rolling Stones recordings where the song is self-consciously supposed to sound "county and western" rather than R&B-inflected. It's presumably some notion of what a rural unedumacated white American would be expected to sound like, but it doesn't closely resemble any actual American regional accent I can remember hearing. It's notably rhotic and the vowels are . . . are . . . well, they seem to be all over the damn place — I'm not sure if he can pick a Wells-lexical-set story and stick to it for the duration of the song. Good examples of this accent include the lead vocals on "Dear Doctor," "Dead Flowers," and "Far Away Eyes." Keith (when his voice comes in singing harmony) seems less committed than Mick to this particular conceit.

  24. pj said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    Ooh, he's got a pretty posh accent, slobone. His accent is a heck of a lot more Eton than it is Ireland-via-Sheffield. I'm tempted to hazard a guess that you're not British?

    Veering off-topic from acting, but on transatlantic accent-perception, I was recently approached for help at a railway station in Italy by a couple, probably in their 60s, from somewhere in the US Deep South, who asked me, 'Do you speak English?' I said yes and spoke with them for three or four minutes while we tried to work out the cryptic abbreviations on the information screen at the unstaffed station. Then they asked where I came from. 'Not far from London,' I said. With apparently genuine surprise, the woman said, 'Oh! No wonder you speak such good English.' I speak a fairly near-RP Standard British English, and I was taken aback that it hadn't been evident to them as soon as I opened my mouth that I was English – or at the very least a native English speaker (so maybe in the 'Is this person English-Scottish-Australian-or-what?' region) – as her reaction seemed to imply.
    Are British accents really liable to be so little heard in parts of the US, and in the media there, that this should be other than surprising to me?

  25. slobone said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    @pj, you're right of course, for some reason I was still thinking of Christian Bale.

    As for British accents being heard in the US, probably not very often if you're not in a big city. On TV, only if they watch PBS…

  26. Keith M Ellis said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

    Are British accents really liable to be so little heard in parts of the US, and in the media there, that this should be other than surprising to me?

    It may have just been the case that she is very poor at recognizing "accents". Some people are sort of tone-deaf about this. They can tell that it's different from what they are accustomed to, but not much more than that.

  27. vanya said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    @pj, there are, believe it or not, some Italians who speak excellent English. You could argue it was polite of them not to assume immediately that you were a native speaker, though I suspect lack of familiarity with "abroad" might have been the primary reason they did not recognize you as English.

  28. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    @pj: I knew a professor from Manchester who speaks a sort of transAtlantic northern-inflected (e.g. /ʊ/ for STRUT) Oxbridge and he complained to me that people quite often ask him "What country are you from?" I do wonder, however, how much of that is true ignorance and how much of that is a desire not to seem presumptuous. British English is still commonly taught abroad, so you can't assume solely on the basis of an English accent that you are dealing with an Englishman any more than you can assume anyone with an American accent to their English is an American.

  29. Mark F. said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    I'm not particularly put out by the idea of a Brit playing Superman; if an American can play Frodo, it seems like fair's fair. But there are times when having the right accent for a part ought to count for at least something. Simulated accents tend to have a generic quality — sometimes it seems as if all Hollywood southern accents by non-southerners (speaking in terms of US regions here) are more like each other than any of them are like Holly Hunter's. That genericity is OK if you're playing Superman, but not so good for some other kinds of roles.

  30. pj said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

    @slobone – I just had to google for a clip of Christian Bale speaking in 'his own' accent, and yes, he certainly doesn't sound like an Old Etonian!

    @Keith – yes, it's quite possible I was extrapolating unfairly to 'some Americans' from this woman rather than to 'some people'. But I find it very hard to imagine a British person abroad striking up a conversation with, say, someone with a pretty standard Midwestern accent, who they were then positively surprised to find was from the US. (Though plenty might not want to put money on whether the person was American or Canadian).

    @vanya – What? They're learning our language? Dastardly furriners. What will they think of next? (I know one chap, actually, who has (I'm told) a broad and slightly 'uncouth-sounding' Roman accent in his native Italian, but learnt his English in some kind of private school that gave him excellent and extraordinarily well-spoken – far 'posher' than me – RP English.) I sort of see what you mean about not making assumptions… but I could have mentioned that our conversation had made it very clear that I wasn't a highly proficient Italian speaker either. I guess I might have been French or German or something. I was certainly part of 'abroad' to them!

    @Daniel – Yes, again, you're right that one cannot automatically assume; to have been asked didn't really take me aback*, but the apparent surprise when I answered did – it was like the dawning of light on a possibility that barely seemed to have crossed her mind.

    *Indeed, when asked 'Where are you from?' I had a moment of awkward indecision as to whether 'Which country?' was meant. I thought 'England' might have been kind of insulting if that much was obvious, but overspecificity – the name of my actual (nearest, not huge, but historic and heavily-touristed) city, or even county – risked being completely unenlightening. 'Not far from London' seemed middle ground.

    Thank you all for your thoughts.

  31. Dennis Brennan said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 6:03 pm

    >Game of Thrones is a prime example of this. Peter Dinklage does a
    >great job as Tyrion Lannister, but his sort-of-British accent is just >weird. The characters live in a fantasy world, so why is a British
    >accent more realistic than an American one?

    Agreed on both points about Dinklage's performance. It grates on me largely because the accent that he uses on the show is jarringly different than the accents used by the actors who play other members of his family (authentic Englishman Charles Dance plays his father, authentic Englishwoman Lena Headey plays his sister, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (a Dane) plays his brother.)

  32. Nicholas Waller said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

    EB comment @ The Ridger – "Why should I have mentioned Laurie in particular?"

    He is a particularly interesting example, I think. Previously he was probably best-known in the UK for playing dimwitted upper-class British toffs, including Bertie Wooster (with Stephen Fry as Jeeves) and both The Prince Regent and Lieutenant The Honourable George Colthurst St. Barleigh MC (in different series of Blackadder). But when it came to casting for House, the producers were apparently specifically looking for a "quintessentially American person" to play the lead, not some cheapo foreigner, and were having difficulty until an audition video came in from Laurie: '[House creator David] Shore says that director Bryan Singer, one of the executive producers, said, " 'See, this is what I want: an American guy.' Brian was completely unaware of the fact that Hugh was English."'

    Not just English, but someone whose very posh English screen persona you'd have thought would have turned anyone off thinking him a plausible American. But if Singer had never heard of him before, he didn't have that baggage in his mind.

    Oddly, Hugh Laurie was at Eton too, as was Dominic West and Damian Lewis, another actor who had to do some of his major work in American (Band of Brothers). The current Prime Minister and current mayor of London are also Etonians.

    Personally, as a Brit, I find I'm not all that keen on actors I know are British playing American roles, such as for instance Tom Wilkinson or Carey Mulligan: something feels inauthentic. Probably no reflection on my ear or their technical ability – I hadn't seen Garfield before The Social Network and he didn't bother me. Yet I am not bothered by American or Australian etc actors playing high profile Brits – Russell Crowe, Reneee Zellweger, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett*. All sounded fine to me (though terrible accents grate, like the legendary Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins).

    *Jack Aubrey (the Robin Hood accent not so good); Bridget Jones; Emma (and Shakespeare's muse); Jane Austen; Elizabeth I respectively.

  33. Nicholas Waller said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

    There's one odd casting/accent choice I noticed not so long ago. Christopher Nolan's film The Prestige is based on a novel by Christopher Priest, a Brit. Book (and film) are set in the UK, mostly, with Christian Bale playing an English stage magician.

    There's a character in the book who is American in London. In the film she is changed into an Englishwoman with an English accent – yet she is played by an American, Scarlett Johansson. Strange. Maybe the thinking was, we haven't time to explore the character's back story and if Johansson plays it American it'll sound as though she simply isn't trying, which will make it seem inauthentic!

  34. Ellen K. said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 7:44 pm

    @PJ. I have a friend from Austria, who has lived in the U.S. for many years. I don't think I could tell she's not English from her accent. And you said you speak "near-RP Standard British English". That means, I think, that people from other countries who learn British English speak like you. Just like I wouldn't be able to tell my friend's Austrian from her accent, I wouldn't be able to tell an RP speaker is English based on accent. If Italians who speak English sound like other Europeans who speak English, I can easily see an RP accent not being a give-away of Britishness to an American in Italy.

  35. Ellen K. said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

    Okay, I see reading on that it was apparently clear you weren't a local. Still, the point is, for Americans who've been exposed Continental Europeans speaking English near-RP is not a give-away of Englishness when outside the British Isles.

  36. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 9:05 pm

    A bit more on Laurie's impressive American-accented acting in this post from 2008 and comments thereon.

  37. m.m. said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

    I recall when i first learn of laurie's true origins, it blew my mind because as a dedictated show watcher [up until they jumped the shark], i never once questioned his accent.

    Apart from british ones, american television and film has been successfully invaded by canadians as well, hiding quite well any obvious canadian traits from our ears.
    micheal cera used to sound more canadian when on arrested development, with noted usage of/ˈsɔri/ instead/ˈsɑri/ for 'sorry', which he's since 'fixed' for american audiences.

    and the notion of british sounding = evil/foreign/fantasy still goes strong indeed.

    what Nicholas Waller mentioned about Scarlett Johansson seems very relevant and odd.

  38. maidhc said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

    Dennis Brennan:

    It grates on me largely because the accent that he uses on the show is jarringly different than the accents used by the actors who play other members of his family

    Yet G. W. Bush in real life has an accent that is very different from all the other members of his family.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 12:18 am

    @D: Game of Thrones is a prime example of this. Peter Dinklage does a great job as Tyrion Lannister, but his sort-of-British accent is just weird. The characters live in a fantasy world, so why is a British accent more realistic than an American one?

    I'd say it's because Britain has lords and knights and thrones and stuff, which America doesn't. Also, we all learned about heroic fantasy from King Arthur and Narnia and Middle-Earth and imitations of them, all very English (even if Arthur started out Welsh).

    Now when they make a movie or miniseries of War for the Oaks or Pamela Dean's Tam Lin or (but it's impossible) Little, Big, I'll hope for American accents.

  40. Jo said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 2:08 am

    @pj: I’m an American (from Pennsylvania) living in Italy, and over the years I’ve been complimented on my excellent English by other native English speakers more times than I can count. I have to admit it happens most often with tourists from my own country. But I think these are usually people who have never spent much time abroad before and are feeling disoriented—they just aren’t expecting non-Italians in Italy, so they don’t hear the obvious.

  41. John F said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 4:51 am

    At first I thought Hugh Laurie sounded ludicrous as House, but he played it so straight you fall into accepting it quite quickly. But the show's formula got on my nerves so I don't bother watching now except if I'm channel hopping and it's on.

    Anyway, I'm often surprised Ewan McGregor gets so many roles as an american. His accent was OK in Black Hawk Down, but in Men Who Stare At Goats I was often slightly irritated by him (though it was a better film overall than I thought).

    Finally: in Bridesmaids, was Chris O'Dowd trying a US accent at the start?

  42. maxx said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    As a Brit living in the midwest, I get into a lot of conversations about accents. (My accent used to be pretty much RP, but now sounds British to most Americans and American to most Brits, sort of like Alastair Cooke's used to.) One of the most striking was with someone who when young had heard Jagger, Daltrey, et al., singing and taken that as evidence that the natural accent was American, since that's what Brits sounded like when they sing. (Clearly, you have to pick your singers carefully to fall into that mistake.)

    As a sometime actor I have been complimented (I think it's a compliment, anyway) on having lost my accent for a role, though to my ear I'm never really going to sound like a local.

    My favourite "You're not from around here" conversation, though, was with a roofer:
    R: You're not from around here are you?
    me: No, I'm from Britain.
    R: Must be really different over there…
    me: [struggles to formulate adequate reply]
    R: Do they still do a lot of thatch?

  43. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    It would be interesting to know which actors used IPA. A voice coach interviewed for the Cronenberg film A History of Violence says that William Hurt is the only one he knows who does, and that's how he gets his working-class Philadelphia accent so right for the film.

    @ Prof. Baković

    American, yes. Baltimorean, no. (As I believe I implied in the post.)–EB

    You did, my question was aimed at other commenters.

  44. jfruh said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    @slobone Travolta's Baltimorese isn't great, but it's immediately obvious that he's listened to locals talk and is making an attempt at it. You sort of have to give him props for trying (nobody else in the film does). The accent is actually pretty hard to nail; I'm pretty good with accents (which got me in trouble when I briefly lived in Germany, as my pronunciation implied a much better grasp of German than I actually possessed) and I can't really do it.

  45. dw said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    If you need to hear British actors doing really bad American accents, listen to the BBC's What The Papers Say (an archive of past editions is helpfully available here). The program(me) consists of quotes from the past week's papers, with a bevy of actors declaiming quotations from people in the news, in their "authentic" accents. However, their attempts at American (or indeed anything non-British or even non-English) are usually laughable.

  46. Sal said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    Some American viewers were apparently disconcerted by the British accents and vocabulary used by the Italian characters in the series Zen which recently aired on PBS.

  47. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    @jfruh: It's my native accent (insofar as I was born in Baltimore and lived in Carroll County until I was 6) and I still have a few Bawlmerese features in my speech, but even I can't drop into the accent at will. I have to be speaking to my relatives from there for a bit to pick it up again.

    One reason I never got into House (beyond very limited patience with the overused "brilliant asshole" trope) was that Laurie is so firmly associated in my mind with his English toff characters that I find it jarring every time he opens his mouth and Amurrican comes out. To put it another way, I've got all the baggage that Singer lacks.

  48. Ken Brown said,

    August 10, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    @Jerry Friedman: "Now when they make a movie or miniseries of […] (but it's impossible) Little, Big, I'll hope for American accents."

    I want to see that! It has to be a TV series, not a feature film, and not that mini! But as most of the main characters apart from Smokey are either upper-middle-class English immigrants to New York State in the 1890s, or their home-educated children and grandchildren, they might well have accents that would sound English to most Americans. Certainly non-rhotic and long-A.

    @slobone: "As for British accents being heard in the US, probably not very often if you're not in a big city. On TV, only if they watch PBS…"

    I'm not convinced of that. There can't be many TV-watching Americans who, depending on age and inclination, aren't familiar with the voice of at least one or two of, say, David Bowie, Tracey Ullman, Simon Cowell, Sean Connery, Helena Bonham Carter, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Ewan McGregor, Alec Guinness, Barry Gibb, John Lennon, or George Michael.

    It might be that Americans they don't think of those distincitve voices as different *accents* though.

  49. Christine Mallinson said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    To learn more about the language patterns of African American Baltimoreans, you can listen to this podcast, produced by a native Baltimorean: The podcast is called "Baldamor, Curry, and Dug’: Language Variation, Culture, and Identity among African American Baltimoreans” — it's very creative and fun to listen to, and features native Baltimore speakers from a longstanding family (4 generations).

  50. Jim Gawn said,

    April 28, 2014 @ 10:13 am

    Regarding the authenticity of Dominic West's (Jimmy McNulty's) Balmer accent: There's a scene in Season 3 where he happens to mention "the ocean" and nails the mid-Atlantic diphthong version of "o". The sound happens to be close to the RP version, but it's not identical, and for him to manage to hit it in a throwaway line is impressive.

  51. Jim said,

    October 14, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    Can we just get one clear – "THERE IS NO BRITISH ACCENT. IT DOES NOT EXIST. IT IS ABSURD". British means "English, Scottish and Welsh" which is like lumping the "American, Canadian and Australian" accent together i.e. nonsensical and ignorant. There are hundreds of English accents (Geordie to Cockney is more diverse than Alabama to New Jersey though), numerous Scottish accents and numerous Welsh accents. Nobody except second generation immigrants or Northern Irish Protestants identifies themselves "British" instead they use the words "English", "Scottish" or "Welsh". What Americans mean, generally, when they say "British English" is the Hugh Grant accent which is called RP and is spoken by many stage actors and politicians but virtually nobody else and is also not much liked by "British people" as it is seen as snobby and cold.. Charles Dance in Game of Thrones speaks this way. However ALL the accents on Westeros including Ser Davos (Geordie accent) can be narrowed down to a variety of English ones – not Scottish, not Welsh but "English". Peter Dinklage's accent would fool nobody in the UK but he gets away with through sheer charm.

RSS feed for comments on this post