How Accents Work


Accents Go the Movies
Audrey Hepburn walks with a book on her head, as part of her training to be 'a lady' in a scene from the 1964 film 'My Fair Lady.' Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Audrey Hepburn walks with a book on her head, as part of her training to be 'a lady' in a scene from the 1964 film 'My Fair Lady.' Warner Brothers/Getty Images

You've probably seen more than one film featuring a snooty Brit or a rude New Yorker. Accents are often a short-hand way of ascribing characteristics to someone way beyond just their place of origin. Movies have played a big role in associating certain accents with certain types of behaviors.

The 1930s and '40s saw a proliferation of actors and actresses speaking with what's known as "Mid-Atlantic English," meant to describe a hypothetical birthplace somewhere between North America and England. The "classy" accent, made famous by such actors as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, was eventually abandoned as more regular Joes became moviegoers and wanted to see actors who talked like them on the silver screen [source: Taylor]. Still, for those who weren't around back then and don't know any better, the accent is synonymous with the time period, despite its apparent phoniness.

Arguably the most famous bit of pop culture ever to deal with the importance of accent was the classic film "My Fair Lady," based on the play "Pygmalion." "The more privileged classes, with greater access to education, sometimes used accent or educated ways of speaking to differentiate themselves," explains dialect coach Fox. In the play and film, professor Henry Higgins attempts to pass off working-class Cockney speaker Eliza Doolittle as an aristocrat by training her to speak with an impeccable upper-class British accent. It works.

As a result of this and other films featuring highbrow Brits, the English accent remains today entwined with poshness, at least in the minds of Americans. Their fascination with the British Royal family probably helps with that perception as well.

Ironically, the English accent is also associated with the bad guy, at least in Hollywood. "Small-time criminals always have strong New York accents [while] criminal masterminds have very clear and lean English accents," notes linguist Canino, adding, "Characters with Southern accents are often racist and closed minded [while] police officers mostly have East Coast accents, even in LA!"

Some believe that mass media might be homogenizing accents, in America at least. But that's not necessarily happening. Some regional accents, like the Appalachian accent, are dying out but it's because of people leaving the area, not the media. Other accents, like the Pittsburgh accent, are thriving — as a way of giving people who live there a sense of identity [sources: MacNeil].

One thing that does affect the number of people sporting an accent is migration. The Southern accent is now considered the largest accent group in the U.S. because so many people have moved to the area in recent decades. But some think the Southern accent itself may be dying off, thanks to all the Northerners who have moved below the Mason-Dixon line.