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.
Author's Note: How Accents Work
Recently, I was playing a friendly (who are we kidding — viciously competitive) game of cards with my husband and some neighbors. The idea of the British pub game is to avoid being the last person holding any cards. It doesn't matter who gets rid of their cards first, you just don't want to be the last with any. I edged closer to laying down my final card, but immediately before that would-be glorious moment my English-born-and-raised neighbor made a move that forced me to pick up the stack, followed by a jovial, "Sorry, mate," which by the grin on his face translated to, "Sorry, not sorry." To that I replied, "See, this is why everyone thinks the British are diabolical." Before you go throwing virtual scones my way, please note that I was joking. Any society that serves teacakes multiple times per day is just fine by me.
More Great Links
- Birner, Betty. "Why do some people have an accent?" Linguistic Society of America. 2012 (July 10, 2017) https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/why-do-some-people-have-accent
- Bryant, Kenzie. "Lindsey Lohan's New Accent, Explained by Psychology." Vanity Fair. Nov. 3, 2016 (July 15, 2017) http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2016/11/lindsay-lohan-accent-chameleon-effect
- Canino, Guy Arthur. Business English trainer and linguist in Stuttgart, Germany. Email interview July 6, 2017. http://www.guyarthurschool.com/
- Conti, Gianfranco PhD. "How to lessen the negative interference of our learners' mother tongue on their target language pronunciation Phonology." The Language Gym. May 19, 2015 (July 11, 2017) https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/19/how-to-lessen-the-negative-interference-of-our-learners-mother-tongue-on-their-target-language-pronunciation/
- Cristia A and Minagawa-Kawai Y, Egorova N, Gervain J, Filippin L, Cabrol D, Dupoux E. "Neural correlates of infant accent discrimination: an fNIRS study." Developmental Science. July 2014 (July 15, 2017) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24628942
- Dackevych, Alex. "The Korean Who Became Famous Doing British Accents." BBC. March 13, 2017 (July 17, 2017) http://www.bbc.com/news/av/magazine-39223758/the-korean-who-became-famous-doing-british-accents
- Dai, Serena. "David Bouhadana Has a Problem, and We Need to Talk About It." Eater New York. June 30, 2017 (July 17, 2017) https://ny.eater.com/2017/6/30/15841234/david-bouhadana-japanese-accent-sushi-chef
- Fox, Melanie. Accent and dialect coach. Email interview July 5, 2017. http://www.speechfox.com/
- Islam, Gazi and Marcello Russo. "Non-native accents: An unacknowledged workplace stigma?" HR Magazine. May 24, 2017 (July 15, 2017) http://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/article-details/non-native-accents-an-unacknowledged-workplace-stigma
- Kaplan, Matt. "Even Babies Have 'Accents,' Crying Study Finds." National Geographic News. Nov. 5, 2009 (July 15, 2017) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/11/091105-babies-cry-accents.html
- Kiester, Edwin Jr. "Accents are forever." Smithsonian Magazine. Jan. 2001 (July 13, 2017) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/accents-are-forever-35886605/
- Lev-Ari, Shiri and Boaz Keysar. "Why don't we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Nov. 2010 (July 15, 2017) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103110001459
- Lingholic. "6 Tricks to Speaking a Foreign Language with an Impressive Accent." 2017 (July 11, 2017) 6 Tricks to Speaking a Foreign Language with an Impressive Accent
- MacNeil, Robert. "What Lies Ahead?" PBS. 2005 (July 16, 2017) http://www.pbs.org/speak/ahead/
- McGlone, Matthew S. and Barbara Breckinridge. "Why the Brain Doubts a Foreign Accent." Scientific American. Sept. 21, 2010 (July 15, 2017) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-brain-doubts-accent/
- Meowsic. "Melody in Human-Cat Communication." Lund University. 2017 (July 11, 2017) http://vr.humlab.lu.se/projects/meowsic/index.html
- Rodríguez-Martin, Regina. American culture coach at Welcome Dialogue. Telephone interview, July 3, 2017. http://welcomedialogue.com/
- Taylor, Trey. "The Rise and Fall of Katharine Hepburn's Fake Accent." The Atlantic. Aug. 8, 2013 (July 16, 2017) https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/08/the-rise-and-fall-of-katharine-hepburns-fake-accent/278505/
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Immigrants' Employment Rights Under Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws." 2017 (July 15, 2017) https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/immigrants-facts.cfm
- Wilde, Katja. Head of Didactics at language-learning app Babbel. Email interview, July 5, 2017. https://www.babbel.com/
- World Heritage Encyclopedia. "Southern American English." (July 16, 2017) http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Southern_American_English