Botswaner and Louisianer

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BBC News Online's Magazine recently asked their (British) readers to call in with their best American accents, and all I can say is that I have new respect for British actors like Hugh Laurie of House who can convincingly sound American. (In a recent survey on BBC's Radio Times, voters named Laurie's American accent the best trans-Atlantic imitation on television, with Michelle Ryan of Bionic Woman the worst. However, Laurie was also voted as the fourth-worst accent, which might simply indicate the paucity of British actors on American TV who are prominent enough for people to have an opinion about.)

The article is accompanied by audio selections of Magazine readers trying to pull off American accents, as well as a clip of British voiceover artist Stuart Smith giving some dialectal approximations of the sentence, "Lucky Lily liked to live in Louisiana." You can listen and form your own judgments, but what struck me about both the amateur and professional efforts was a pervasive hyper-rhoticity, or over-/r/-fulness.

The first speaker in the audio clip is Fiona Cooper of Liverpool and Suffolk, a foreign language teacher, reading a passage from Alexander McCall Smith's The Company Of Cheerful Ladies. In the line, "It was not true that such a thing could not have happened in the old Botswana," Ms. Cooper's pronunciation of the final vowel of "Botswana" as [-ər] sticks out like a sore thumb to my American ears. (Her other vowels are a bit all over the map too.) But she shouldn't feel too bad, since the professional, Stuart Smith, uses [-ər] at the end of "Louisiana" in the first two quasi-dialects he offers.

Since Smith doesn't use the "Louisianer" pronunciation in all of his American-esque voices (including impersonations of Christopher Walken and Al Pacino), I assume he's trying to simulate varying levels of rhoticity in different regional accents. That's all well and good, except that even the most /r/-ful speakers in the contemporary United States would be unlikely to render a word-final schwa as [-ər], as in "Botswaner" or "Louisianer." It is, however, typical of non-rhotic speakers' attempts at approximating rhotic accents. Perhaps most famously, when the Beatles covered "Till There Was You" (a song from "The Music Man"), Paul McCartney sang, "There were birds in the sky / but I never sawr them winging." Peter Trudgill discussed McCartney's hyper-rhotic pronunciation in this song in "Acts of Conflicting Identity: The Sociolinguistics of British Pop-Song Pronunciation" (in On Dialect, Blackwell, 1983). For further discussion, see these posts (and the accompanying comments) on the sadly defunct "Positive Anymore" blog: "Don't Believe The 'ype" and "Trudgill on Pop Song Pronunciation."

Some Americans do pronounce word-final schwa as [-ər], but those tend to be non-rhotic speakers who have what's known as "intrusive /r/." Crucially, however, intrusive /r/ only occurs before a following vowel, and not before a pause as is the case with the "Botswaner" and "Louisianer" examples (or before a consonant as in McCartney's "sawr them"). John F. Kennedy famously had a non-rhotic accent with intrusive /r/, but that feature has often been over-extended by Kennedy impersonators as if he used it in all contexts, rather than just prevocalically. The evidence on Kennedy's intrusive /r/ is clear, though. Take a listen to his address on the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 22, 1962 here. Kennedy does indeed pronounce "Cuba" as [kjubər] on three occasions in the speech, but all three occur before a vowel:

…Soviet assistance to Cuba[r], and I quote…

…any nuclear missile launched from Cuba[r] against any nation…

…which has turned Cuba[r] against your friends and neighbors…

Kennedy pronounces all other instances of "Cuba" in the speech as [kjubə]. (Interestingly, there are some places where I expected to hear the [r] liaison, but Kennedy managed to insert a pause after "Cuba" even when it wasn't prosodically necessary. It's possible that his aides made him aware of his intrusive /r/ and trained him to avoid using it after "Cuba.")

The only time I've ever heard an American with a hyper-rhotic extension of intrusive /r/ (what Ben Sadock has called "intrusive intrusive /r/") is in cases where speakers of a non-rhotic background are shifting to a new rhotic prestige model. A rather amazing example of such hyper-rhoticity is Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney and housing advocate from Brooklyn. In this interview with Siegel on WNYC, you can hear him use [-ər] for words like "America," "arena," "Columbia," and "Scalia," extended beyond the usual prevocalic context for intrusive /r/. He adds /r/ to these schwa-ending words before pauses and consonants as well — even within a word in the case of "arena[r]s." In a sense, Siegel is trying to "pass" as rhotic, though there are glimpses of his non-rhotic background in places (as in his pronunciation of "neighborhood").

Hyper-rhotics such as Siegel are currently quite rare in the U.S., however, and I doubt that Fiona Cooper and Stuart Smith had such speakers in mind when they said "Botswaner" and "Louisianer." Rather, it's a type of imitative hypercorrection that pervades attempted traversals across the non-rhotic/rhotic divide. And it apparently takes an ear as keen as Hugh Laurie's to avoid it.


  1. Nik Berry said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

    I have a question. I can understand Brit's hyper-rhoticity, as it's not obvious where there should be an r, to us non-rhotic speakers. Hey, we even add them where they don't belong in our own accents. I say 'a fea but' and 'a fear and' – which is fine – but also 'an idea but' and 'an idear and' – which is strange.

    But my question is, when they put them in the right place, do they sound right? I cannot speak rhotically without the r's sounding ridiculous.

  2. John Cowan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    John Wells points out that in Peter Sellers's monologue Balham: Gateway to the South, where he affects an American accent, he rhotacizes dawn to something like /dɔrn/, although in fact Americans say /dɔn/ or /dɑn/. Spelling is essentially an infallible guide to rhoticity, as it reflects the state of the language when it was all rhotic.

    Nik: American and British /r/ are basically the same, but we have more of them than you do: to pronounce square rhotically, say squaring and then whisper the -ing. This is more difficult with "ar", because British "ar" has no tongue movement at all, whereas in American English it does, just as "eir", "eer", "ore", and "oor" do. In addition, American English does not have the "poor-pore" merger, so to get "poor" right one must not only be rhotic but also say "poo-er" (quickly).

    Lastly, Peter Ustinov was as convincingly bidialectal as Hugh Laurie is. I have never caught either of them in a slip. Almost as excellent was an actor playing an American on a BBC costume drama, whose accent was infallible until he came to the word "shan't" in the script, which is has been effectively obsolete in American English for a long time. Instead of properly Americanizing it for the period as /ʃænt/, he made it /ʃɑnt/, as in the RP used (somewhat anachronistically) by the rest of characters, and blew the illusion all to hell.

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    Nik: I think that the articulation of American versions of /r/, particularly the retroflexion, can be difficult for non-rhotics to imitate, so they tend to overcompensate. I recall first hearing Benny Hill doing an "American" accent and being startled by the exaggerated retroflexion and duration of his r's.

    And the example from your own speech is far from strange: non-rhotics very typically have both "linking /r/" ("a fear and") and "intrusive /r/" ("an idear and"). Wikipedia provides an adequate introduction.

  4. mgh said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 1:52 pm

    what of Howard Dean's famous "idears"? For example

    they want candidates with new idears, they want new candidates[…]

    Many more examples by googling "howard dean idear". Is it likely these were inserted by the listeners, produced purposefully by Dean as a device, or that he naturally inserts /r/ even at the end of a word not followed by a vowel?

  5. Charles said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    I agree with John Cowan above that spelling guides American (and Canadian!) rhotic speech. If American imitators are hypercorrecting with extra /r/, the best they can do is add an extra filter – "don't pronounce an unwritten /r/".

    Except maybe for Colonel :)

  6. S Onosson said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    I found the British speakers' versions of American front (especially non-high) vowels even more noticeable than their rhoticity.

  7. Thomas Thurman said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    A child of my acquaintance (now approaching her teens) grew up in a rhotic area to nonrhotic British parents. She has of course grown up with the accent of her area, but it has always fascinated me to see how she pronounces words which don't occur in the local dialect. In particular, I've noticed "farthing" (she wears one around her neck) has correctly gained its R, because the long vowel in BrE could only represent a missing R following, but "dalek" (as in Doctor Who), which has the same first vowel, becomes "darlek". I was interested during a discussion of politics the other day to hear her say "anarchist" without an R at all; of course the schwa in the second syllable makes it ambiguous as to whether there was ever an R there.

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    mgh: My impression (and I could be wrong) is that Howard Dean's "idears" is strictly a lexical phenomenon. In certain American dialects, "idear" developed as a regional variant of "idea," and there are no doubt a handful of other lexical items that have undergone a similar transformation (depending on the dialect in question). But we wouldn't expect Dean to extend the pattern to any schwa-ending word, like Siegel's "arena[r]s".

  9. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

    If spelling guides the US/Can. 'r', could this maybe be a legacy from German-speaking immigrants? As a Brit.Eng speaker learning German, one has to be forced to notice the difference in pronunciation between German words ending in -e and -er, (and of course it's the same with other Nordic languages, but German was my first experience of this).

    How come, when we can't do rhotics, no Britishers just try for a Massachusetts accent? We should be able to manage that, (somehow I don't think we can, though).

  10. Nathan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

    @John Cowan: There are multiple varieties of rhotic American English. For me, poor, pore, and pour are all homophones. I've heard people say poo-er for poor on the radio before, but it sounds affected to me.

  11. John Cowan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    German may have reinforced North American English habits in this respect, but most of it is just inheritance from the common ancestor. Indeed, AmE has certain relic effects from the early loss of /r/ that gives us bass, the fish, from OE bærs, much of which has been rolled back in both Britain and America: passel 'a large quantity' side by side with parcel, and similarly bust:burst and cuss:curse.

    A more plausible candidate for non-native-speaker influence of this type is the unreduced AmE -ery, -ory in military, laboratory; the latter also has recessional accent shift, making it sound like "l/æ/bra Tory" to U.K. ears.

  12. Theodore said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    Comments above from John Cowan & Charles have hit the rhoticity nail on the head; let the spelling be your guide.

    Aside from the hyper-rhoticity, I also notice that most of the imitators were blending vowel features different regional American dialects. I guess I couldn't attempt to make a convincing regional British accent…

    Hugh Laurie sounds convincing to my ears, although his American accent is not easy to place geographically.

    Another impressive (to me) bidialectal actor is David Tennant in Doctor Who; when that show is broadcast in the US, it's followed by a behind-the-scenes "Confidential" program, where it's quite striking to hear the actor speaking in his own accent. Do Brits think he does a good job?

  13. oxlahun said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    My grandmother, who has lived in rural West Georgia all her life, adds an r after a final schwa. It's fairly consistently so in that part of the world, but I've listened to her talk more than other folks who live there.

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

    For quick access: in the Norman Siegel clip here, he says "arener" at 3:19 and "Americer" at 4:22.

    It reminds me of the hyper-rhoticity here in Devon: at a Town Criers competition here, I remember the delegate from Honiton (which has a history of textiles) giving a speech claiming they'd constructed "Madonner's brar, for all to marvel at".

  15. G. L. Dryfoos said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    That "Bridget Jones" gal, Zellweger, when I heard her American accent in "Chicago" I was amazed. It seemed dead-on perfect. Completely convincing. Similarly in "Nurse Betty". But then I saw her in "Cold Mountain" and that completely destroyed the illusion.

  16. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    Ray G.: Thanks — I transcribed some more of Siegel's hyper-rhotic moments in this post on alt.usage.english.

    (And G. L. Dryfoos, you're joking about Texas-born Renee Zellweger, right? I hope?)

  17. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

    It seems to me that for speakers of non-rhotic dialects of England (including RP), there is no distinction between "linking" and "intrusive" [r], since a final /r/ has no effect on how they perceive a word (e.g. "saw" and "sore") except when it affects vowel quality (whence "Burma", "Myanmar" and "Eeyore", previously discussed on LL.) It also happens that when native speakers of rhotic dialects acquire RP, they sometimes miss this feature (I believe this was the case with Margaret Thatcher.)

  18. Nathan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    @oxlahun: How interesting! My grandfather, from East Alabama, always said "Alabamer".

  19. Mark P said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

    A few of the accents sounded at least passible to me, although the first two with "Lousianar" sounded suspect. I tried to picture a person actually sounding like the accents Smith used, and some of them strained my imagination. In my opinion, Hugh Laurie's accent is passible; he would probably get to board the train if he were a British criminal trying to escape a prison camp in the US.

    I would like to hear a similar attempt for Americans to pronounce various American regional accents, particularly Southern accents. In northwest Georgia, my wife's family says "idear" and I have heard her brother pronounce her name (Leah) as "Lear". No one in my own family does that and I do not recall hearing anyone else in this area do it either. However, I think this part of northwest Georgia has a somewhat different accent (flat and nasal I am told) from other parts of Georgia. For example, in east central Georgia, dropped r's are common. When I lived there it was the first time I had heard a Southern accent at least similar to the typical one often affected by American actors. On the other hand, I thought Jody Foster's accent in The Silence of the Lambs was a fine effort. Although I think she was supposed to have been from West Virginia, it would have sounded perfectly normal on the streets of my home town.

  20. Dan H said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

    I have had a hypothesis for some years about McCartney's overemphasized r's, which are a much wider feature than this one song. As a native Scouser now living down South, I recognise the same feature in my own speech sometimes. The Scouse accent has a relatively weak r in many circumstances, and I think McCartney is semi-deliberately voicing them to counteract this effect: not to sound more American, but to make sure he is enunciating clearly. The same thing happens with certain vowel sounds: sometimes you get halfway through a word and your internal dialect translation thingy decides it's not entirely sure whether to use 'native' or 'adopted' pronunciation. Alan Bennett once described it as "an incurable disease of the vowels."

    For an interesting opposite effect, every time I hear Hugh Grant speak in a Hollywood film, I think he has the most fake-sounding English accent imaginable. I think his accent has turned into a parody of itself. But I'm sure I'm in the minority on this point: other people I've spoken to disagree.

  21. Brett said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

    The r may be the most intrusive feature of many bad imitations of American English, but what I have always found stunning is simply the general incompetence of Brits attempted to evince a North American accent. An American actor doing a British accent may be remarked upon, but it usually comes off fine. The reverse does not hold true, however. British actors almost always do bad American accents. (At one point, I decided to keep a running tally of British actors attempting to sound American in television programs I saw. After a few weeks of watching, the rate of poor imitations was a little less than 80%.) For an especially clear example of the difference in imitation quality, take the episode of Fawlty Towers with the obnoxious "American"; compare his atrocious American with Connie Booth's flawless British.

  22. Fan of Reneé said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    G. L. Dryfoos said:
    That "Bridget Jones" gal, Zellweger, when I heard her American accent in "Chicago" I was amazed. It seemed dead-on perfect. Completely convincing. Similarly in "Nurse Betty". But then I saw her in "Cold Mountain" and that completely destroyed the illusion.

    What illusion was destroyed? Zellweger is American, not British.

  23. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    Dan H: Interesting theory about McCartney's r's. As Trudgill notes, this feature is more prominent in early Beatles songs, so perhaps he grew more sure of his enunciation over the course of his career. Also, the version of "Till There Was You" that appears on "Live at the BBC" does not have an intrusive /r/, suggesting that he was more self-conscious about his pronunciation in the studio.

    But as I pointed out in the comments on Positive Anymore, "Till There Was You" fits in with other early cabaret-style covers sung by Paul like "A Taste of Honey," "Falling In Love Again," "September in the Rain," and "The Honeymoon Song." And not coincidentally, it's in those songs that he sounds the most rhotic, often to a hammy extent. So I think it's not just an enunciation issue, but also Paul's concerted attempt to emulate a particular American singing style. (Compare his lack of rhoticity in rockers like "I Saw Her Standing There": "One, two, three, FOH!")

  24. Kate said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

    @Brett: "An American actor doing a British accent may be remarked upon, but it usually comes off fine."

    I'm half-dead of laughter here. Are you British? Because I've never met a British person who'd say that. Renee Zellweger is genuinely outstanding but regarded as an oasis in a desert of Dick Van Dyke and James Marsters.

  25. Dan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    The big problem I have with "faking" being a rhotic speaker (having grown up in New England) is with words that were homonyms in my childhood, but which aren't homonyms in General American. Eg, growing up I would have pronounced "father" and "farther" both as /ˈfɑː.ðə/. Now I pronounce "father" as /ˈfɑː.ðɚ/ like a good rhotic speaker, but a lot of the time I end up pronouncing "farther" that way too (ie, still missing the first "r"), as though the two words are stuck permanently sharing a single slot in my internal pronunciation dictionary…

    I think that the articulation of American versions of /r/, particularly the retroflexion, can be difficult for non-rhotics to imitate

    The reverse seems to be true as well. I can't say how well American actors imitate British accents, but their Boston accents tend to be pretty awful. :-)

  26. Sridhar said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    @Brett: The American man in the "Waldorf Salad" episode of Fawlty Towers was played by a Canadian actor, Bruce Boa

  27. Alexis said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

    When I lived in Scotland I used to make a parlor game of trying to get my British friends to say things like "bird" in American accents. The reason the parlor game was funny was that their imitations of the American approximant /r/ were completely off and always sounded ridiculous. So I believe that this consonant is generally difficult for non-rhotic British people to produce realistically in contexts that are non-rhotic for them. (I would also do words like "arrow" where they can't seem to sound natural producing the "air" sound that I produce due to the marry/merry merger.)

    I can't carry off a British accent myself (of any type, whether RP or regional), but I can do a passable imitation of words and sentences I've just heard, so the discrepancy was always interesting to me.

    @John Cowan: like Nathan, I also have the poor/pore/pour merger. I don't think I have any "oor" sounds in my idiolect at all — a brief look through a lexicon suggests they all merge with either "er" or "or", though I can produce them if requested. The first reader in the audio selections, incidentally, over-merges this by producing "pouring" as "purring".

  28. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

    @Thomas Thurman: I know exactly what you're talking about! I grew up in British Columbia, Canada (rhotic) with a father from Yorkshire, England (non-rhotic). Naturally, I acquired my local rhotic accent without incident. However, there are a few words that are rare enough that I heard them only from my father and from nobody else, so there was potential to get them "wrong" according to my own local dialect. In particular, when I learned the word "tautology" from my father, I thought it was "tortology" until I tried to use the word one day in secondary school and was disabused of my notion.

  29. Josh G. said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

    The pronunciation of "idea" as "idear" is not just a lexical quirk. For many rhotic speakers, the stressed syllable of "idea" has a diphthong which occurs in very few other words (possibly in the first syllable of "theater.") That is to say, "idea" is pronounced as [aɪˈdɪə] and contrasts with "Medea", for example, which is [mɪˈdi:ə]. Since the non-rhotic equivalent of the [ɪɚ] diphthong found in words like "near" is [ɪə], the vowel in "idea" merges into the "near" category and invokes the appropriate "linking R."

    Many of the features of "linking R" are, in my opinion, better explained historically as loss of contrast (between [ə] and [ər]) than loss and insertion of an [r].

  30. dr pepper said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

    Huh. This rhoticity thing is a lot more complex than i had ever suspected. Before coming to language log i had always assumed that people who didn't pronounce 'r' in english were just showing their dialects, an ingrained choice. Like me not pronouncing the 'l' in "walk", i can, i just don't because that's how i learned the word, i am certainly not 'non-lamdic'.

    I also never knew there were people for whom the last 2 syllables of 'idea' were different from the ones in 'Medea', must remember not to use them as rhymes. (Or maybe i can start by having her give everyone a pronunciation potion.)

    There is one thing i haven't seen addressed, and that's when you almost but not quite get an r. It's most noticeble to me in an old arparthied protest song called "Johanna".

    What can you do, what can you say
    Can it be [b]law[/b] to hate your neighbor

    The singer pronounces 'law' as if they were trying to say 'lore' but flattened the 'r' almost out of existence.

  31. Mr Punch said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    Rob, the reason British actors can't do a (coastal) Massachusetts accent is the vowels.

    Hugh Laurie, to my ear, has a "minimal" English accent even when speaking normally. His House sounds plausibly American, but remarkably it's not all that different from his Bertie Wooster.

  32. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

    I first noticed this hyper-rhoticity phenomenon in Monty Python sketches with Graham Chapman or Eric Idle trying to sound American. Idle was better at it than Chapman, but they both put superfluous Rs at the ends of words. I remember not quite knowing whether it was some sort of hypercorrection or just some uncorrected feature of their normal dialects.

    My own, mostly Midwest US-derived accent is extremely rhotic, but not hyperrhotic or (I think) prone to intrusive r. However, just today, after reading this article, I noticed my wife Samantha using intrusive r in the phrase "put the pizza (r) in". Her accent is mostly Bay Area Californian and rhotic, but influenced to some degree by the many years she spent living in traditionally non-rhotic New Hampshire.

  33. Claudia said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

    Poor, and pour and pore, do have two distinct sounds in American English Phonetics, though most regional dialects don't use them. Poor is pronounced "puer" and pore and pour pronounced as the first "pore" is spelled.

    There is also a difference between Merry, Mary, and marry. Merry, has a short e, Marry is with a short a, and Mary is a dipthong.

  34. Don Campbell said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

    I find it interesting that although Australian English is just as non-rhotic as British English(es), I've heard very few complaints about Australian actors in Hollywood, such as: Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Naomi Watts.

    Which leads me to wonder, are Australians better at picking up the (Hollywood) American accent than Brits, and if so, why?

  35. Mark said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

    Except for the extra r's, I at least thought the British attempts at American accents sounded more American than their own accents. So they got something right.

    It's interesting that they asked a British audience to rate actors' American accents. The American actors in The Lord Of The Rings all sounded British enough to me, but what do I know? I'm an American.

  36. Ray Girvan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

    Josh G. – The pronunciation of "idea" as "idear" is not just a lexical quirk.

    It's interesting. There's a moderately common UK joke that hinges on rhoticity.

    "What do you call a deer with no eyes?"
    "No idea."

  37. Ray Girvan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

    dr pepper – ike me not pronouncing the 'l' in "walk", i can, i just don't

    Ah, but can you? I have on occasion … errm .. interesting conversations with my wife on this kind of topic. She was brought up RP/Birmingham. I was brought up Southern Rural/Estuary/RP. I can't pronounce "walk" to her satisfaction. It's "wawk" to me. I've tried, on coaching, to pronounce the "l" unobtrusively. but it comes out as "wall(glottal stop)k" or "wollk" and similar. It just doesn't work. And don't even get me started on "doll"; I'll call one a mommet or baby effigy rather than try to say the word in front of her. :)

  38. David said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

    In Australian English at least, a lack of "intrusive Rs" sounds very odd indeed: in a phrase such as "law and order", any pronunciation other than "law[r] and order" sounds quite foreign/stilted.

  39. Joshua said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

    I was struck by the idea that the BBC's Radio Times would ask its readers, most of whom are British, which British actors do the best and worst American accents.

    I can't help but think that they should have teamed with an American publication to ask Americans which British actors do the best and worst American accents instead.

  40. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

    @Ray Girvan: Are we talking light-l (as in "lit" without context) vs. dark-l (as in "till" without context), or is there something else?

  41. Clare said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 10:28 pm

    Am I the only one who can't help thinking of Riff-Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show (played by Richard O'Brien), who refers to his sister as "Magenter"? It never occurred to me that O'Brien might be trying to imitate an American accent, but I suppose it's possible.

    Now I have to analyze the movie again and analyze his "r"s.

  42. Alexandra said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 11:08 pm

    Does anyone else find it odd that Stuart Smith chose a sentence completely devoid of r's to demonstrate an American accent?

    I agree that where actors usually fail in doing Boston accents is in the vowels. They usually end up sounding Brooklyn or New Jersey to my Bostonian ears. The worst Boston accents I ever heard were in the movie Blow. (Awful movie, don't watch it unless you're doing research on bad imitations of Boston accents.) The main character was supposed to be from Weymouth, a town south of Boston, next to the one where I grew up, which has a distinctive enough accent that I could identify that that was exactly where my neighbor in western Mass was from as soon as I met her.

    Yet despite the fact that Johnny Depp's accent in Blow failed to impress me (though it wasn't as bad as his those of the actors playing his parents), I found his Scot-living-in-London accent in Finding Neverland totally convincing. Which makes sense, since I have a lot less experience listening to real Scots-living-in-London than people from Weymouth, Massachusetts.

  43. Jonathan said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

    I think that I pronounce merry, Mary, and marry all the same, with the dipthong of the word "say," and I'm from California (not Californiar.)

  44. dr pepper said,

    July 22, 2008 @ 11:52 pm

    @ Ray Girvan

    > dr pepper – ike me not pronouncing the 'l' in "walk", i can, i just don't

    > Ah, but can you? I have on occasion …

    Yes. i can, actually. "falcon" "Malcom" "bulk", "welcome", i don't have a problem with any of them.

  45. blahedo said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 12:03 am

    A few people in this thread have made observations about rhotic children of non-rhotic parents having outlier pronunciations for words they've only heard from their parents. It's not unique to the child/parent relationship, of course. On at least three occasions at the last ACL conference, I heard people with otherwise unremarkable North American English say the word "parsing" as /'par.zɪŋ/ in all three cases, they were grad students whose advisors were either British or Australian, and presumably the vast majority of the times they had heard the word it was from their advisor. It was never /'paː.zɪŋ/, though, presumably reflecting an at least subconscious understanding of the "follow the spelling" trick in using a different-accent informant in judging how to pronounce a word according to your own accent.

    All this is also reminding me of Geoff Pullum's classic LL post on dialect translation, of course.

  46. DRK said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 12:14 am

    Bob Hoskins in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" had a great American accent, although he did have a problem with the word "been", which Brits always want to pronounce "bean", but Americans pronounce "bin." For some reason, that's a hard one — Lucy Lawless's American accent is not bad, but she has a hard time with that word also. So I guess it affects kiwis as well.

    The problem with the 'r' sound is the most noticeable pitfall, certainly, but intonation and syllable stress can also trip actors up. Putting a rising stress on a interrogatory sentence can "Britishize" even the most American-sounding accent, for instance. Albert Finney did a flawless American southern accent in "Big Fish", in marked contrast to his costar Ewan McGregor, who couldn't get the intonations (or vowels) right. Just to give an example, he says "thank you" with an even stress on both words, as opposed to the American stress on the first word. His performance was charming, but his accent was execrable.

    Having said all that, I am sure American attempts to do British accents are usually just as awful….

  47. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 12:28 am

    "Law[r] and order" would definitely appear in Massachusetts English too. It reminds me of a commercial for a personal injury lawyer that used to run a lot on Boston-area TV: it involved many phrases such as "law[r] office" and "The law[r] is written to protect you!" At the time, I hadn't lived around here for long and it sounded odd to me.

  48. allison said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 12:49 am

    I watch a lot of BBC America these days – learning to distinguish between different region within the UK for the firs time.

    I was watching an episode of Hotel Babylon (perhaps the first?) A guest star was playing an America record company executive. Her accent wa by no means convincing, although it was clear she was going for a West Coast dialect versus the somewhat muddled NE accent I usually hear. But she uttered the line, "Can't a person get any privacy in here?" and every word was American until she said "privuhsy" rather than "prai-vahcy." Now I'm pretty sure this is a well known distinction between the pronunciation of this word here and across the pond and although this woman didn't seem to be an expert in the American dialect, I found it amusing that no single person on the set heard her and screamed "CUT!"

    Likewise, John Barrowman on Torchwood, in the first line he utters on the show – he says "eostrogen" – which is of course "estrogen" in American English. Barrowman, although born in Scotland, spent most of his dialect forming year in the US, so he ought to know better. Has he been working in the UK so long he's forgotten? Did he read the line, argue with the writer or the director and get overruled? The writers don't seem to write in American dialect for their American characters.

    Like the bad translations in Chinese, you'd think a single American could come through and say – um, we don't say privacy like that and we don't say eostrogen. As for the weirdo vowels – y'all er on your own.

  49. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 5:33 am

    Mr Punch: Rob, the reason British actors can't do a (coastal) Massachusetts accent is the vowels.

    Yes, I know the vowels are odd. But they're very similar to an English, Norfolk or West-country, accent that many an English person could fake quite convincingly. If someone told the actor to think 'Great Yarmouth' rather than 'New York', they might end up more convincingly American — they might at least get a shot at playing Kennedys.

  50. Kate said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 6:30 am

    Whoo, lots of weird remarks here!

    Mr Punch: "minimal" English accent compared to what? Hugh Laurie is English, his accent is English. It's not upper-class particularly, like the one he fakes to play Bertie Wooster, but it is English. Presumably you mean to imply that English people lay on different degrees of Englishness over some "neutral" accent?

    Skullturf Q. Beavispants: many Yorkshire accents are in fact rhotic, like my own father's. Presumably your father spoke more or less RP, rather than having a more specifically Yorkshire accent.

    Alexis: mmm, mocking the accents of other people, what a delicious parlour game! Yes, Scots rhoticity is different to American. How good is your Scottish accent?

  51. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 6:43 am

    Matt McIrvin: Her accent is mostly Bay Area Californian

    When I lived in SF, people used to say there was no special Bay Area or Californian accent, that it was more a Dan Ratheresque midwestern. Is that wrong, then?

  52. Ray Girvan said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 7:33 am

    Ran Ari-Gur – Are we talking light-l (as in "lit" without context) vs. dark-l (as in "till" without context)

    That's more or less the problem. I can't do RP dark-l. It either comes out vocalized or as light-l.

  53. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 8:01 am

    Rob G.: You might want to check out Penny Eckert's page on the Northern California vowel system.

    (And I'm not sure what's meant by "Dan Ratheresque midwestern," considering Rather is from the Houston area.)

  54. Matthew Austin said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 8:11 am

    @DRK: "Bob Hoskins in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" had a great American accent, although he did have a problem with the word "been", which Brits always want to pronounce "bean", but Americans pronounce "bin." "

    Really? I'm a 'Brit' and always pronounce 'been' as 'bin' (and I'm sure I'm the only Brit who does). It certainly doesn't strike me as odd/difficult.

  55. Matthew Austin said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 8:13 am

    Of course, that should have been: 'I'm sure I'm NOT the only Brit who does…' Gggrrrrr (Rs pronounced, despite the non-rhotic nature of my own dialect).

  56. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 8:39 am

    When I lived in SF, people used to say there was no special Bay Area or Californian accent, that it was more a Dan Ratheresque midwestern. Is that wrong, then?

    It's pretty close. My impression is that there are very small differences, but I couldn't name them off the top of my head.

  57. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 8:42 am

    …However, Southern California accents are definitely different from what they speak in the Bay Area–there's an LA-area accent that has a sort of clenched-teeth quality combined with rising, question-like intonation on some declarative sentences. The "Valley Girl" stereotype speaks an exaggerated parody of this.

  58. Kyle said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 9:00 am

    I remember several years ago on the TV show Alias, the American actor David Anders was playing a British spy pretending to be American. I don't know how good his British accent was, but he did a solid imitation of a British person imitating an American accent! Of course now I can't remember what it was that was so great about it. It may have been something to do with rhoticity.

    @allison — That "eestrogen" bit stuck out like a sore thumb for me. I also wondered whose decision it was. I've noticed in the Doctor Who family of shows American characters often get lines that no American would ever say (specifically I'm thinking of one episode where American characters called Daleks "pepper-pots" and "little tin robots"). Often these are Americans OF THE FUTURE, though, so I rationalize it by saying that perhaps the pronunciation and vocab have changed over the years.

  59. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 9:11 am

    Benjamin Zimmer said check out Penny Eckert's page on the Northern California vowel system.

    Thanks, that is very good. How clever she was to have figured that out. In those vowels I can hear people's voices from over 25 years ago.

  60. vanya said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    I first noticed this hyper-rhoticity phenomenon in Monty Python sketches with Graham Chapman or Eric Idle trying to sound American. Idle was better at it than Chapman, but they both put superfluous Rs at the ends of words. I remember not quite knowing whether it was some sort of hypercorrection or just some uncorrected feature of their normal dialects.

    I always assumed they were exaggerating for effect. It was a comedy show after all.

  61. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

    @Kate: I know Yorkshire is big. My father is from Sheffield, which I believe is generally non-rhotic. It is true, however, that my father moved around a lot (educated in SW England and the Midlands, and has now lived in Canada for almost 40 years) so his accent has probably either drifted toward RP and/or consciously or unconsciously lost certain features that could be perceived as regionalisms.

    @Matthew Austin: I had reason to wonder about this recently. Do speakers of non-rhotic English generally pronounce the R in the onomatopoeia "grr"?

    @Blahedo: I once noticed another example of the phenomenon you described. I was in a third-year undergraduate mathematics class in abstract algebra, taught by somebody from Poland. In the class, the technical term "coset" was used, which comes from the prefix "co" and the word "set", so native English speakers pronounce "coset" analogously to "coauthor" or "copilot". However, this instructor pronounced the first syllable like that of "Cossack", and some students in the class, although native speakers of North American English, copied the pronunciation of the Polish instructor, not having encountered the term anywhere else.

  62. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

    @ Vanya, Graham Chapman's wasn't for effect, he was just as excruciatingly bad at American accents as he was good at upper-class old fart accents. Eric Idle was probably going for the British 'tv game-show host accent', actually Canadian, of Hughie Greene (as was Michael Palin).

  63. mollymooly said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    I had no idea Connie Booth was American till I read Brett's comment!

    Although calling her British accent "flawless" is nevertheless too strong: I had always thought it was strange that a lowly chambermaid should speak so posh. Bridget Jones Zellweger has a slighter case of the same problem. Class is still important in Britain.
    "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him." – Shaw

  64. Spectre-7 said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    "Benjamin Zimmer said check out Penny Eckert's page on the Northern California vowel system.

    Thanks, that is very good. How clever she was to have figured that out. In those vowels I can hear people's voices from over 25 years ago."

    Really? I was born and raised in the SF Bay Area, and when I listened to Eckert's interview on All Things Considered, virtually none of what she reported sounded even vaguely familiar. Her own accent (reportedly from New Jersey originally) sounded far less foreign than her imitations of pre-teen girls.

  65. Alexis said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

    @Kate: Trust me, the mocking (such as it was) was mutual and in good fun, and we weren't mocking each other's accents (accents aren't funny to me; they're fascinating) but rather our non-native imitations of those accents. And I stated clearly in my post that I can't do any type of British accent to save my life unless I have recently heard or thoroughly practiced the exact word or sentence I'm meant to be saying, so I am not claiming any particular skill at the accent game.

  66. Jason said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

    Re: Penny Eckert's page on the Northern California vowel shift

    I grew up recently in semi-inner suburb of San Francisco (graduated high school in 1999), and all the examples sound to me like how younger girls might have been parodied, though perhaps some of them actually spoke like that. I asked some of my (male and female) friends a few years ago whether "think" had the same vowel as "teen" or "thin", and they were split on their perception of it, but there seems to be a common phenomenon among American speakers generally where "ing" is perceived as having /i/, but if you get someone who thinks this to sit on the vowel, they will in fact produce something much closer to /I/ than to /i/. So even among relatively young speakers, the shift she describes was not common at least to my dialect and that of my acquaintances.

    As regards the differences between "newscaster Midwestern" and the Bay Area, most of my friends from home have the poor/pore merger, though some historically /Ur/ words, particularly those spelled with a u such as cure and sure, usually come out to rhyme with fir rather than for. For me, and I suspect for some others too, but I haven't even conducted an unscientific survey, the merger is incomplete: gourmet and boor have /Or/ (I didn't realize, in fact, until I just looked up words with -oor-, -our- and -ure to test myself, that gourmet and boor were /Ur/ words rather than /Or/ words), but tour usually doesn't. Plural doesn't *quite* rhyme with pearl, though it's certainly a far cry from the vowel in look. Thinking about it, the rarer words are more likely to have the merger (suture and Europe do) than the common ones–is this a general phenomenon in historical phonetics?

    The people my age who I knew also were "lambdic" in -alm words and unfamiliar -alk words: No one I know says [t(ɑ/ɔ)lk] or [w(ɑ/ɔ)lk], but I remember learning in P.E. that a pitcher making a motion as if to pitch but then not following through was a [bɔlk], and that in the computer game Oregon Trail, an option for crossing rivers was to [kɔlk] the wagon and float it across. We laughed at our teacher who said what sounded to our ears as "cock the wagon", since for us there was clearly an l.

    Speaking of the cock/caulk merger, which supposedly hasn't happened fully in San Francisco, unlike the rest of the West, it's probably close to complete if not complete among twenty-something semi-inner-suburban Bay Areans based on my memories of there being uncertainty over whether [dɑn] was a man or a woman and on students asking what the difference was in dictionary pronunciation guides between "ä" and "ô" was, with no one denying the implicit assumption that Dawn and Don were homophones or offering a constrast between ä words and ô words. My friends from the older, unambiguously inner suburb of Berkeley all had the cot/caught merger as well as, though perhaps younger speakers in the city limits of San Francisco still have (elements of) the distinction.

  67. Spectre-7 said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 4:51 am

    In response to the children of non-rhotic parents posting above, I can assure you that you're not the only ones who've had to deal with this sort of problem. I remember watching Wallace and Gromit in A Close Shave in high school, and at the time, I couldn't tell for sure whether Wallace named his sheep Shaun or Shorn.

    Now, I've come to suspect that the name was a pun intended for non-rhotic speakers, but at the time, I only understood enough to be awfully confused. I do wonder what other puns go over my head while watching BBC America, though.

  68. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 6:04 am

    @Spectre-7, the people I'm talking about were lower middle class boys and girls in their late teens.

  69. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 6:11 am

    … mostly from (if I remember rightly) the Richmond district of SF.

  70. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 8:02 am

    My wife, who, as I said, has a mostly Bay Area accent with some New Hampshire influences, pronounces "crayon" and "crown" identically, words that are pronounced very differently in my Midwestern accent. It looks as if that might be the result of some elements of this Northern California shift.

  71. Mr Punch said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 8:46 am

    Kate — When I wrote of Hugh Laurie's "minimal" English accent (my quotes in the original) I meant "to my American ear" — of course he's English, but he comes across more clearly to me, in terms of pronunciation and intonation, than almost any other British actor. As Bertie Wooster, he avoided extreme affectation; as Greg House, he sounds (to me) more American than Donald Sutherland (a Canadian) ever has.

  72. Grace said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 5:28 am

    I ADORE HUGH LAURIE and I think his American accent is as brilliant as he is…..which is pretty darn brilliant.

  73. karl said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

    I won't go into technical detail here because I don't know any technical details, but I do know British actors and their American accents. There has been a huge generational change in Britons' American accents: listen to Olivier and his contemporaries — they never got it right, even Sellers and Ustinov teetered on the edge of sounding British (they seemed to be do imitations of Americans, rather speaking as Americans).

    To the younger crowd — having grown up with American television shows and movies — the American sound is almost second nature. In fact, it's almost like another regional English accent for them.

  74. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    July 25, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

    American here. :) There are a couple of things worth mentioning that I don't think have been explicitly mentioned yet:
    (1) "A British accent" generally means to American audiences either "an unintelligible Cockney accent" or "an unintelligible Irewelshscottish accent". See:
    This explains how an American can say "Hugh Laurie has almost no British accent"; his accent is very close to a neutral American accent, compared to, let's say, John Sessions (let alone Billy Connolly!).
    (2) Most of the examples of Britons doing "bad American accents" so far have been in a comedic context. I don't think Eric Idle is always *trying* to do a realistic American accent, you know? So it's not right to claim that Britons simply can't do American accents; it's just that they rarely bother. Mm?

  75. wickedripeplum said,

    July 27, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

    "Likewise, John Barrowman on Torchwood, in the first line he utters on the show – he says "eostrogen" – which is of course "estrogen" in American English. Barrowman, although born in Scotland, spent most of his dialect forming year in the US, so he ought to know better. Has he been working in the UK so long he's forgotten? Did he read the line, argue with the writer or the director and get overruled? The writers don't seem to write in American dialect for their American characters."

    John Barrowman rarely makes dialect mistakes so that one stuck out enough that I remember it better than the actual plot of the episode. The only other one I can think of is an incident or two with schedule. He's certainly given dialogue an American would never say though. Some episodes of DW and Torchwood I like to keep a tally of how many times an American character says "reckon". It's a fun game.

  76. Frank Gerace said,

    November 23, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

    It goes way back to before New Yorkers tried to get rid of their rhotic problems. Sixty years ago, while we were still equating law and lore, we would say "hoo-er" for whore. I wonder why. We surely were not trying to overcompensate. I didn't know I had an accent until I went to college in the midwest and was told I sounded like a gangster.

  77. Charles Smith said,

    December 11, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

    Mark Addy, a British actor who appeared in The Full Monty, also appeared in an American TV series (now cancelled but in syndication) called Still Standing, where he played a dad from Chicago. He portrayed a typical Standard/General American accent pretty well, so much so I didn't know he was British until I looked him up on Wikipedia. He also deserves a mention next to Hugh Laurie.

  78. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 20, 2010 @ 1:10 am

    There's one word where spelling isn't necessarily a guide in American English: sarsaparilla. M-W, AHD, and RHUD all give /sæspərˈɪlə/ (sasparilla) as the first pronunciation, followed by versions with /sɑrs/.

    Also, I think most of us leave the first /r/ out of Worcester(shire), including when referring to Worcester, Mass.

  79. Michael said,

    December 1, 2010 @ 2:33 am

    Jason– Your example of whether 'think' has the same vowel as 'thin' or 'teen' points out an oddity of accent here in Oklahoma, where 'think' is often a homophone of 'thank'. That's always been the way I pronounce it. I suppose it's related to the better known use of 'thang' for 'thing', which is usually considered an element of Black American, but is also common among Whites in this area.

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