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Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Can anyone American explain this?

I was watching TV the other day, and a question struck me that I ask myself at intervals, namely: why is it that when an American actor is trying to sound English and making a very poor fist of it, they say 'oi' instead of 'I'? As in 'Oi'm going to talk about cloimate change,' or 'Foine, you're hoired!'?

It's totally, totally wrong. It's not just a poor imitation or odd exaggeration of something in the accent, it's just wrong; nobody does that. Or at least, there is an accent in England that does, but it's West Country, which is to say, rural. Chew on a straw, poke a pig with a walking stick and say 'Ar, thaat'll make a foine bit of bacon,' and you might get away with it (until the pig decides to express its opinion, at least), but your standard Southern English accent pronounces 'I' very similarly to your standard American accent. So do Northern English accents, come to that. The West Country 'oi' is unusual. Putting 'oi' in a regular English accent is like saying 'y'all want any grits?' while pretending to be from Brooklyn.

Where the heck did American actors get this idea? I've only got two possible theories.

One has to do with pirates. Your movie pirate with his 'Arr me hearties' accent is, at least this is my theory, doing an accent that's evolved from the Bristolian one - Bristol having been a major port in the nineteenth century, including a thriving slave trade, hence a natural place for sailors and pirates to hail from. And Bristol is in the West Country.* (I've just looked it up, and apparently Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach came from Bristol, so maybe there's something in it.) I've yet to hear a pirate saying 'Cheers then, my lovely,' though it'll make my day if I ever do, but possibly some dialogue coach somewhere saw a pirate movie and thought all English people sounded like that. Seems a bit far-fetched, though; pirates aren't exactly ambassadors.

The other one is Dick van Dyke, because it's a national tradition to blame him for every bad English accent perpetrated by an American. (His Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, to be precise, where he tries to sound like an East Ender and only manages to sound like he's got a cold.) But I'm sure he's a nice man and he can't be responsible for everything, so that theory is a bit shaky as well.

Can any genuine Americans explain this? It's very confusing.

*(For the record, Johnny Depp isn't doing a Bristolian accent in Pirates of the Caribbean; if anything, he sounds North London. Geoffrey Rush's accent has more of the West Country drawl: 'Oi'm disincloined to aacquiesce to yuur request...' It's rather a pleasant accent, the West Country one, soft on vowels and usually spoken more slowly than most; people in surveys tend to assoicate it with stupidity, unfortunately, which might drive anyone to a life of buccaneering. Oh, and Bill Nighy as Davy Jones, incidentally, sounds Scots, in defiance of all logic, as 'Davy Jones' is an incredibly, entirely Welsh name. I like those movies, though. They are much fun.)

For some reason, they also always restate their intentions, they do.
It's also interesting that often genuine English people who appear on US tv also sound fake. Is it because of the direction? Or because they've been in LA for too long? Blimey, it's bloody weird, mate.
The worst fake English accent on record is that of Keanu Reeves in Dracula.
One thing I have observed is that Americans can't distinguish between English and Australian accents, incredible though that may seem to us ;). I've heard many an actor with an accent that veers between bad English and bad Aussie.
It's simple. Just watch "My Fair Lady."

I think that Eliza somehow became the standard voice track for bad imitators. Also realize that often people who are using foreign accents don't likely care much if the accent is accurate to the land of origin, but more just that they sound funny and can become the center of attention for all their unaccented friends.

Of course, then they actually visit England and wonder where all the flower ladies are. Much disappointment and disillusionment occurs, and they then go home and rethink their entire approach to life (especially those spontaneous dance numbers they keep trying to inspire, yet fail every time) and eventually become a better person for it all...or at least someone without a bad, fake accent.
Oh man, the theme park attitude. I used to work in a toyshop in a tourist hotspot, and I have to say ... well, I'm sure Americans are nice people on the whole, but our hearts did sink when we heard that American accent. Sometimes it presaged perfectly normal people with charming manners, but sometimes it presaged the following:

1. Use of the word 'cute' to describe anything that wasn't American, like it was all funny and dinky to be foreign.
2. Demands for 'typically English' products, and refusal to purchase objects they actually liked on the grounds that they were made in China or Taiwan. I occasionally tried to explain to them that this is typically English, but they weren't having it.
3. A preference for stuff involving postboxes, royalty, and all that other tourist tat that an actual English person wouldn't touch.
4. An assumption that we'd be ever so grateful for being told that we should rearrange the furniture, revamp the lighting and bring in the builders to knock down walls. They came from the country that knew how things were done, you see, and if you couldn't impress a passing American, you were clearly failing as a business.
5. A general conviction that they knew what 'typically English' was and we, the actual English people, didn't.
6. A habit of talking to you as if either you were slightly stupid, or they were.

The overriding ambience of these people was that America was the real world, other countries were a theme park and every shop there was the gift shop. And you had to be nice to them, because they spent twice as much as any other clients.

I hasten to add that I have an American brother-in-law and an American niece and nephew, all of whom I am very fond of, so it's not the whole nation I have a problem with. Why, you yourself, Josh, are a shining beacon of charm and intelligence, and I'm sure all the other Americans reading this are as well. But there's something about that cute-little-country attitude that makes me grit my teeth and mutter about upstart Colonials.

I'm going to go and lie down until the feeling passes.
Sadly I think English people are guilty of exactly the same thing while abroad. I know that I sometimes have to fight it. I would never actually say anything but it's all going on in my head. Luckily I'm usually more preoccupied with trying to find the locations featured in computer games I have enjoyed.
See, this is why I'm so glad I cured my habit of singing, "It's a small world" while traveling. Unfortunately, yes, I am ashamed of most Americans who do treat the wide world as something to be marvelled at on the same level as a new puppy...something that might widdle on you if you get too close, however, and don't forget to keep it in its place with a good newspaper swat should it get too rambunctious. Other countries are there for entertainment value, get our table scraps, and should beg for our attention.


All I can say is I remember far too well my trip to Israel a few years back. We came across a tour group, where the average age group was "rich and retired" and I went away with the image of a man wearing hat that actually had a miniature fan built into the brim, whirring away at his face to keep him comfortable since his pink floral shirt caught every single ray of sun within a mile and turned him into a living solar energy cell. This, of course, and he couldn't walk five feet without getting out of breath. It saddens me that this is the type of image the U.S. gets overseas.

And, Kit, a beacon? That's the kindest thing anyone has ever told me. I'd thought I was still at the sputtering candle in a fog stage. I think I'm putting that on my resume with you as a reference if you don't mind.
Because people who speak one dialect -- say, American English -- don't hear the vowels the same way as speakers of the actual dialect. Which is why Americans swear up and down that Canadians say OOT and ABOOT (which we don't -- it's a different vowel entirely. No idea what they think they hear for words like ice and light): they hear those vowels for two reasons.

1. They know the vowel is different from the specific one that they use in that context.
2. The vowel they replace it with is the closest one (in some sense that I don't really know enough about) that they have in their dialect to the one that is actually used, excluding the vowel they would use in this spot.

So even if the sound [aj] is the closest, phonetically, to what is said in England (maybe [Aj], not really sure), Americans use [oj] because they use [aj] and the next closest vowel they've got is o.
Lol, shortly after Christmas my husband came back from a visit to the Post Office with some Christmas cards packaged with a model of a postbox. On my enquiring into its purpose, it soon became apparent that it was entirely useless.

His excuse? It was on sale!
Interesting post, thanks Wolfa. I have to say, based on my own amateur ears, I think the English 'I' still sounds pretty similar to the American one; with really bad accents, it can sound as if they're substituting 'oi' for 'I' and ignoring more obvious differences. Hm.

What were those phonetic thingies? I'm often frustrated by my inability to work those out...

'Out' in Canadian sounds more like 'oat' to my ears, rather than 'oot'. Is that closer? (Although, thinking about it, to Canadian ears, it probably sounds like 'out', really.)

With regard to the postbox - my advice is to pack it up and ship it to any overseas relations you have. That way you get rid of the darn thing but can play all innocent about it. 'I was trying to be nice, darling! Why are you glaring at me?'
Uh. Accents are not my thing.

[aj] is the sound in the Canadian word I; [oj] in boy. The [a] part has the tongue in the front and bottom of the mouth, while [o] is back and middle (top-bottom). I would guess that the sound in British English has the [a] sound that is bottom and either middle or back. I'd need to listen to someone actually saying the vowel to tell, really, because I have absolutely no idea what the British I sounds like.

The "out" in Canadian has the tongue a little further front than in "oat", but some dialects of English have that particular variation instead of the one we have, so they imagine that the vowel is "really" "oat".

You can hear some examples here: http://www.yorku.ca/twainweb/troberts/raising.html

The general rule, though, is that people hear things based on how they personally say them, and when they fake accents, they only use sounds they have in their own languages.

I feel I am being entirely incoherent here.
Not at all, you're being informative! I like hearing from people who actually know what they're talking about. And you're probably right; unless you have a knack for reproducing sounds accurately, you're likely to just switch your vowels around.

Fascinating website. To my English ears, 'price hike' sort of rhymes with 'place' more than anything else...

The English 'I' ('British' takes in a whole raft of different accents, English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish) is basically 'ah-ee'. 'Oy' is 'oh-ee'. I still think that can't be similar to the 'oy' sound in American English; it just doesn't seem right. 'Oy' is right at the front of the mouth, and 'ah-ee' is deep in the throat. Totally opposite ends of the tongue.

To my ears, the two big distinguishers between American and English are that Americans sound their Rs in words like 'park' and 'stork', while English speakers say 'pahk' and 'stohk', and that Americans use short As where English people use long ones - 'can't' versus 'cahn't'. To make an American sound English, you need to stick a lot of Hs in his speech. American is more nasal than English, English is throatier than American. I was trying to do an American 'can't' just now, and I couldn't get the sound high up enough; I ended up flattening it out in my mouth. I sounded Liverpudlian.

Don't know what all this signifies, but it's quite interesting.

Have a picture of some wolves:

Incidentally, Josh, why My Fair Lady? Audrey Hepburn was Dutch for cryinoutloud. Why not Rex Harrison, who actually was English and who Audrey Hepburn was standing right next to for most of the film? Can it be the tourism thing again, that genuine locals can't be trusted on to know what 'typically local' should be? And come to that, why 'My Fair Lady' at all? Why not Celia Johnson, if you want the archetypal English voice? Or is it that unless someone's leaping around Covent Garden with Ben Ben tolling in the background, you can't be sure this is England?

Sorry, I know this is not your fault. (Unless you've been leading an elaborate double life. Have you?) I just wanted to put my objections on record. Dialogue coaches read this site in droves, I'm sure, and if we don't set them straight, poor things, they'll all be struggling.

In fairness, good actresses nowadays seem to be making an effort. Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors and Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones' Diary clearly at least listened to actual English people. In a way, that's an interesting perspective: an outsider's careful attempt at the accent. They almost get it right; the sounds are all there, they're just a little stressed. Paltrow, for instance, mastered the English glottal stop, but she doesn't always use it in the right places, and both of them sound just a bit posher than their characters - middle-class English Southerners - actually would. They might pass for English, but if I someone with that accent, I think I'd conclude one of two things: either they were English but their natural accent was regional or working-class accent and they'd gone to elocution lessions to learn how to talk proper, or English was their second language and they'd had an expensive education.

Do we really sound that posh from the outside? It can be kind of awkward when you go abroad; some people assume you're pulling rank on them every time you open your mouth. Sometimes I've wished for a T-shirt: I don't talk this way on purpose, and everyone back home sounds like this too

Incidentally, here are three nice words: acrolect, mesolect, and basilect. They're used describing creole languages, but I like them in any context.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrolect (article explaining what I'm on about)

I am rambling because my hair is wet and I'm putting off drying it, which is boring.
Well, listening to random British stuff on Youtube, yes, the English version of "I" (I can't recognise different English, but I can tune out Welsh, Scots and Irish, mostly) sounds like it's somewhere between ours and the sound "oi".

Ok, about ah-ee vs oh-ee. The ee is the same in both, right at the front of the mouth. So the question is, where is the "ah" part. Now, I have absolutely no actual idea, but I would put a lot of money on it being near the back and bottom, rather like the oh, but not the same as the ah in the American version. It is very hard to talk about vowel sounds in text.

In most American Englishes, you can tell the difference in, say, the vowels in cat and father -- one is front, one back. I don't know if you have those two as different vowels, but if you do, you can try to see the difference in where your tongue is.

English and Australian sound more alike to me than any other two sets of accents.

I once ran across a bunch of European drama students in NYC, saying their dialect coaches told them to listen to Texans to get standard American English. I remain puzzled to this day.
Right. Trying the vowels... Ah. O. Oh. Oi. Ahem.

'Cat' and 'father' are very different - more different, I think, than in most American Englishes. 'Cat' is very short and at the front, 'father' is lower down and at the back.

The difference between the American and English long 'a' is one of the most noticeable things, to English ears - correct me if this is wrong, but it seems to get used far less, because American English sounds its Rs - 'Father' and 'farther' are pretty much identical in England, diferrent in the States - and shortens a lot of As - 'pass' would be said with a short A in America and a long one in England. Long American As are a bit of a rarity, compared with English ones.

And that long A, which the English use in all sorts of words pronounced differently in the US, is close to the 'ah' sound you use in 'I'. Possibly Americans struggle with the English 'I' because that 'ah' sound isn't as familiar on their tongues?

'Oh' is low in the mouth, but that's a long 'o', a dipthong. The 'o' of 'oi' is a short 'o', for which you have to purse your lips and move the vowel much further forward in the mouth. Way away. 'Oi' for 'I' is confusing two different 'o' sounds, using a short 'o' where you should use a sound from the same part of the throat as a long one.

I think the Texan thing is that it's very extreme sounding, and to unfamiliar ears seems to exaggerate many 'typically' American vowels. I remember hearing a documentary where various people spoke in a strong Texan accent; I had genuine difficulties understanding some of what they said. (Not that I'm brilliant at deciphering accents; I've been flummoxed by English ones too, on occasion.) Possibly it's seen as 'archetypal' American, along with the ten gallon hat, or some such intelligent viewpoint? But more likely, they were working on the theory that an English speaker, aiming for the Texan accent, may fall a bit short and land in the middle of a standard American accent. Doesn't seem very likely ... but then, what is a standard American English accent? Is it specific to a particular state, or is it like BBC English, an accent that most educated people acquire at school?
I find that, being originally from Colorado for almost a decade (now being a NYC transplant) it seemed to me that few people from Colorado have any significantly distinct accent. I mean, if you're asking for an overarching "American" accent...well, maybe I'd point you there, just because it seemed to my untrained ear that a majority of Colorado citizens spoke pretty clearly, without any twang, nasal twitch, drawl, or whatever. I feel that from my time living in Colorado I speak with a much more neutral accent that could pass for a national midline. But then again, the speaker always tends to feel their voice is the baseline for everyone else's. What say you, fellow Americans? Anyone else want to toss up their state for the Center of American Vocalization?
There are a bunch of different 'o' sounds. You can try to listen to them all online: http://www.phonetics.ucla.edu/course/chapter4/4vowels.html#five

But I can't really say more specifically without actually hearing the sounds you're referring to -- and probably you need to hear mine.

Neutral North American English is sort of a muddle. No one really speaks it -- Canadians speak it, except for the vowels mentioned above, Midwesterners speak it except for some other differences, New Englanders have a different set of changes, etc. If you take a bunch of people who claim to have the standard accent (ignoring people from much of NYC, Boston, the southern states, Atlantic Canada, northern Canada -- the places where most people agree there's a clear, distinct accent that is not standard), then choose the majority sound for every word, that would be it. Newcasters more or less have it, but usually keep a few of their local quirks.
Ben Ben? Are you sure you're English?

Hehe, I have my expat relations visiting this summer--maybe they'd like to take the postbox home with them! A reminder of olde Englande.
I 'ave no idear...sorry, that's my best shot. We watch BBC America, so, yeah, I think I get what you mean...weird.
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