Many Brits make it in the US - not all keep their accents
A cut glass English accent can fool unsuspecting Americans into detecting a "brilliance that isn't there", says Stephen Fry. So is a British accent - of any variety - the route to success in the United States?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine
"Gee, I just love your accent."
Any Brit crossing the Atlantic will have heard that line many times. Like the rest of us, Americans are rarely immune to the charms of an accent different from their own.
There's the amusement value of listening to someone who sounds like they might just punctuate their sentences with "oh, behave". And a British accent can conjure up a stereotype of a polite, droll, self-effacing race.
Go on, say "shagadelic"...
But very few Brits are like Hugh Grant (Grant himself has kicked over the traces of his Four Weddings and a Funeral persona), and Stephen Fry speculates that Americans may be dazzled by the British accent.
"I shouldn't be saying this, high treason really, but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting a brilliance that may not really be there."
Fry - who puts his own melodious tones down to having "vocal cords made of tweed" - made the suggestion after seeing a "blitz of Brits" scoop many of this year's Golden Globes and Oscars.
His comments come as a new generation of British stars are trying to prove themselves in the US, while staying true to their regional roots (and more are landing plum jobs in US hit shows with accents other than their own).
About to try their luck are Ant and Dec, who will record the pilot of a new ABC game show - not a bad score in a country where they are best known for a brief cameo playing themselves in Love Actually, and as tone-deaf American Idol contestants playing a joke on judge Simon Cowell, currently the US's favourite pantomime limey baddie.
The network hopes they will enjoy more success than previous imports Anne Robinson and Johnny Vaughan - his 2005 game show My Kind of Town was cancelled after four episodes, with entertainment industry paper The Hollywood Reporter describing the Londoner as "heavily accented (and equally heavily annoying)".
America's most wanted
Another Brit currently feted in the US is Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen, who gave Rolling Stone a rare interview as himself, rather than in character. The magazine was much taken with his "deep, genteel British accent", which in the UK might be described as educated north London.
"For most Americans, there's no distinction between British accents. For us, there's just one sort of British accent, and it's better than any American accent - more educated, more genteel," says Rosina Lippi-Green, a US academic and author of English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States.
Brits playing, respectively, two Americans and an Iraqi in hit shows
"It's a way of speaking that is all tied up with the Old Country, the Queen."
This perception extends to any UK accent, she says, divorcing the voice from any regional or class associations it might carry for a fellow Brit.
"There was a sitcom called Dead Like Me with a Brit [Callum Blue] in it. He was a scruffy, 20-something drug dealer. Even he had that sort of patina - his was not an RP accent, it was a working class London accent."
As for Parminder Nagra, plucked from Bend It Like Beckham to star in ER with her soft Midlands accent intact: "Oh, she's thought to be very, very classy, very Oxbridge."
And Simon Cowell, minting it as an American Idol judge? "He's the classic stereotype of a stuck-up Englishman - and stuck-up is something that goes with that perception of Britishness." Little wonder he's found success - the British baddie is a Hollywood staple.
Master and servant
As is the English butler. Henry Pryor, the founder of primemove.co.uk and the Register Of Estate Agents website, worked for Savills International in the late 1980s and early 90s, helping wealthy US buyers purchase flashy dockside apartments, gracious town houses and country piles in the UK.
"Our accents added a huge amount to what they thought they were buying into. This was the age of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Brideshead Revisited - and Arthur, in which John Gielgud played a butler. They approached having an English broker in the same way as having an English tailor or butler - it was a trophy of sorts."
Four Weddings did wonders for British men
And with a classic public school accent, Mr Pryor played up his Englishness. "It added cachet - you were buying a piece of English real estate from a guy who spoke just like Hugh Grant, and might look foppishly like him. I suspect it's the flipside of what my mother's generation found during World War II - the English seduced by American accents."
Katharine Jones, author of Accent of Privilege: English Identities and Anglophilia in the US, says Britons are unusual among immigrant groups in that when an American can't make out what they're saying, the reaction is generally positive.
"They might say 'cute accent' or 'say something else'. Anyone else would be told 'speak English'."
Then there is the air of authority such a voice carries, hence the number of ads that use English-accented voiceover artists for products such as insurance and mouth wash.
Whereas UK expats in Australia tend to lose their accents quite quickly, those in the US are less likely to, Ms Jones says. "They don't have as much incentive to change because of the perceived benefits - leaving a message in a 'posh' accent about a sought-after apartment and the landlady rings you straight back; the ripped-up parking tickets..."
And the job offers. Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman is currently recording his fourth series of the US version of the BBC show, Dancing with the Stars. He describes his own voice and choice of phrases as Cockney.
"Part of the reason they wanted me was my accent. Along with Bruno Tonioli, who's Italian, it lends the judging panel a cosmopolitan edge."
But he has modified the way he talks. "I do have to speak more slowly, and I play up to it. I might say 'that wasn't my cup of tea' or 'give it a bit of welly'. They love those quirky phrases."
As one who could never be described as sounding like the Queen, Goodman finds that his regional accent often confuses listeners. "I get asked if I'm Australian."
So does Liverpudlian Alison Walters, an immigration lawyer in Los Angles. But she enjoys feeling unique, and says that people are more friendly, and treat her with respect. "You do get preferential treatment and more of people's time, but I do think that is also down to our manners - saying please and thank you."
Then there's the perception that a British accent equals a brain the size of a planet - a perception reinforced by the not-uncommon belief that for the British, English is a second language. "From time to time I was complimented on how quick I was to pick up the language," says Mr Pryor.
Ms Walters adds that as the average American has a hard time following what she's saying, "perhaps the perception of being more intelligent comes from the fact they only understand 50% of what you are uttering".
With planeloads of Brits relocating to the US - not to mention three million tourists who visit the country every year - the stereotype of floppy fringes and plummy vowels must surely be due an overhaul.
Below are a selection of your comments:
I attended Harvard Business School in Boston, where a large part of the grade is awarded on spoken contributions to the classroom. Brits generally did better there than other nationalities. I have no doubt that a large part of this was just the natural brilliance of the British. However, if I'm honest, Americans' perception that the accent was indicative of brain-the-size-of-planet intelligence was also a factor. I'm afraid that dear old Mr Fry has given away the game away.
"May I have 12 slices of salami, please?"
"I love your accent. You're English, right?".
"No, I'm Welsh."
"No, Welsh. I'm from Wales."
"Oh, whales [with a very strong 'h']. That's part of England, right?"
"No, it's..." At this point I feel tempted to give a made-up explanation of what and where my homeland is. Somewhere off Greenland, perhaps? Reminding myself that I am an ambassador for my country I give an all-too practiced explanation. Blank faces. My accent, rather than being a benefit, is an almost constant reminder that my country, of which I am justly proud, is an unknown entity to at least 99% of the people I speak to. Frankly, I find it all a bit disheartening. I console myself with the notion that the American education system is lacking in the geography department and move on. "May I have 5lbs of potatoes, please?" "I love your accent. You're English, right?"
Paul Beckerton, Georgetown, Kentucky, US
Who wouldn't prefer a British accent to an American one? It just sounds better, no matter what the UK region or class it comes from. American accents are so much hard-edged and more nasal. It seems to me that most American accents make you seem like either a thug or a junior high school drop-out. I am an American but definitely acknowledge this.
Sanford Santacroce, NYC, US
I work in Strategic Planning at a major advertising agency in New York. Having been born and bred in India, I have what I would call a "leftover English" Indian accent. In this politically correct country, it's both funny and sad to see how people who have only spoken to me on the phone, react when they see me in person. I've also been told that I can get away with a lot of outrageous stuff because of my accent. About that, I'm not complaining.
RP Kumar, New York
Being Northern Irish, I find people, whether it be in the US or in England bemused by my accent. It's not just Americans who lack a good sense of world geography, English people are similarly shocking when it comes to the geography of the UK. Like the guy who said that when asked, he says London rather than Shropshire, I find it easier to say Belfast, rather than the country or the town. I've found myself dumbing down my accent and changed the idiomatic phrases that I use in order to stand out less and be patronised and laughed at, with the inverse of that being when I go home to NI having an anglicised twang on my accent.
Philip Kee, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire
I grew up bilingually, speaking with an English (generic southern) accent at home with my family and the US accent I learned at school. Neither one is perfectly sound, each having a twang that sets it apart from a native speaker and my vocabulary, slang and spelling are more American. The change between the two happens subconsciously based on who I'm around. American friends get a bit nervous the first time they hear me talk to relatives, they think I've got a split personality. It can be quite convenient though to put one or the other on in certain situations. Any other English-born kids who grew up in the US have a similar situation? I've lived there since I was seven, about 15 years; my parents' haven't changed at all, but my younger brother's is far more American-slanted than mine.
I have two accents, my native Scouse and a straight English accent I use when trying to communicate with people who are unfortunate enough not to come from Liverpool. A few years back I was working in Tennessee as an ICT consultant. I generally used my straight English accent which I found attracted a great deal of attention from the fairer sex. On one occasion while sitting talking to a fellow Liverpudlian at a booth in a bar in Nashville, two very pretty young ladies came up to us and asked if we spoke English to which I replied "better than most". They were totally gobsmacked and sat next to us and one said "wow you speak real good English... but what was that other language you where just talking?" For the first time since arriving in the US, we were speechless!
John Murphy, Liverpool
"Yes - I'm the Queen's cousin."
Works every time with my accent.
Joe, RP London, England
As an expat living in Canada I'm always getting told how nice my accent is. But when people try to imitate it, it always comes out sounding like Del Boy...
Callum, Quebec, Canada
After 25 years here my accent has yet to successfully talk me out of a traffic ticket - but maybe I shouldn't be addressing the men in blue as "constable"?
John Kelly, New York City
I recently started as a consultant at a bank in New York and have since learnt from my co-workers that my CV was put on the top of the pile because I was British. Rolling out the British tones at interview was a formality.
Alex Preston, New York, US (originally Oxford, England)
I'm reading these comments with glee: as a Scot about to move to the US with my American girlfriend I shall expect 5-star treatment and favours everywhere I go.
Chris Evans, Glasgow
Sorry but I am NOT a fan of the "British" accent in any way. Sure, some of my countrymen who haven't travelled outside the US are easily impressed with a bit of cockney, but it doesn't do anything for me at all, except to have me wondering just whom this affectation of erudition and breeding is supposed to impress. I don't buy it - nor does anyone else I know. And yes, I'm an educated, well travelled person.
Johnny Wells, Santa Paula CA US
On my first visit to America I tried to cash a cheque (check!) at a bank in Chicago. The bank teller said "Excuse me?" three times, making me repeat my request. In the end she smiled disarmingly (Americans are good at that) and admitted "I heard you the first time. I just wanted to hear your accent again!" But it can be a two-edged sword as the BBC article points out. Sometimes Americans interpret the British accent as snobbish and aloof and unfriendly (British people cannot talk and smile at the same time like Americans). So it can lead to misunderstandings. But in truth it really is an advantage being British over here (even with a Yorkshire accent like mine). Of course, it is an advantage that evaporates the minute you set foot on British soil.
Pip, Michigan, US
There are some here in America who can discern the lilt of Londoners' accents from the cut of a Manchester accent, for example. But not many. The same can be true for Americans' accents abroad. How many Brits can tell the difference between a bloke from Kentucky and a chap from Montana by accent alone? Not many, I would assume.
Ryan, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
I spent 11 years in California and lowly, I had to modify (Americanise) the way I spoke so that people would listen to what I was saying and not how I was saying it. I, also, had to employ local idioms otherwise entire rooms full of people would burst out in adoring, but patronising, laughter. Eventually, my accent changed and I constantly got accused of being an Aussie. I came back to England in 2002 and found myself stuck with a twang that I'm only just now losing. But, I'll never forget the blank looks I used to get when I was asked the inevitable question, "Where are you from in England?" I soon learned that the only answer really was "London" because "Shropshire" simply didn't register.
Jon Bailey, Shrewsbury, UK
I've been living and working in the States for four years. People constantly comment on my accent and the company I work for like to have me answer their phones because they think my voice sounds professional. I have been asked a few times where I learned to speak English so well before I moved to the States though, despite me saying I am from England.
Sarah, Louisville, Kentucky, US
I work here as a truck driver and always get strange reactions to my Scots accent. Sometimes it opens doors, sometimes slams them hard on my face. I often have to repeat myself as people listen to how I say things, not to what I'm actually saying.
Gary, Morristown, Tennessee, US
Married to an expat Brit, I can tell you he gets preferential treatment at a lot of places, especially during interviews for work. It's gotten to the point where I've thought about affecting a British accent myself (which I can impersonate quite well after ten years of marriage)just so I can get a cushy job as well. Of course on the flipside, he often gets frustrated when the employees a the local McDonalds don't understand a word he says and they get his order all wrong and my order is happily correct...
Ainy, Baltimore, US
Oh how true! and how unfair! My British wife still bowls over the gullible Americans at every turn with her cute Scots-Irish accent. Free coffees, better tables in restaurants, better service, and on and on ad nausea. Our recent four years living in York got me no such treatment in kind with my cute and quiet American accent. Oh well, time to just give up and cheerfully hang on her coattails for the perquisites.
Christopher Kovach, New Albany, Ohio, US
A friend of mine went on holiday to Florida.
In the first week he was complimented : "You speak really good American."
In the second week, he was asked which part of France he was from.
He's from Leeds.
Mark Jones, Plymouth, Devon