It was witnessed countless times at the Oscars recently. Kiera Knightly has one. Madonna sometimes tries to imitate one. Ed Sheeran sings with one. Are we talking an Oscar here? A designer outfit? No, we are talking about the British accent. It seems that whenever someone was speaking at the podium at the Oscars, they had a British accent. As a Brit now having lived in the U.S. for almost fifteen years, never before have a heard such an invasion of the British accent in popular culture in the U.S. Being a Brit, it seems, is cool! This got me thinking, is it a positive to have a British accent in the U.S?
Although reactions to my accent have most always been positive, I have been told a few times “You speak good English for a foreigner!” or “How long did it take you to learn English?” I usually laugh politely and gently mention to the person that luckily I didn’t need to learn a new language. I also get remarks alluding to the fact that I should have “lost” my accent by now, as if it’s something temporary or as if my accent is a choice. My experience is that children who come here at a young age often lose their accents rapidly, perhaps due to peer pressure at school, but people who come here at an adult age (I was 22) generally tend to “keep” their accent. In fact, I have known British women who have been here for fifty years or more, but still sound resolutely English.
But what is an “English” accent? Just as the U.S. has distinct regional accents, so does the United Kingdom. In fact, accents are so regional, that in some areas you can go 100 miles or so and the accent changes. In my research of accents and according to www.dialectblog.com, I found the U.K. has nine or so regional accents. These range from Received Pronunciation or RP (closest to a “standard accent” and derives from London English, , think the BBC or “Downton Abbey” accents) to Cockney (an accent derived from the East End of London, with its own rhyming slang) to Geordie English (Spoken in the Newcastle and Sunderland areas of Northern England) to Scottish English (spoken in Scotland and around the border). See below for an example of a “London” accent and a “Geordie/Newcastle” accent.
Growing up in the South London suburbs (but with parents who came from northern England) I would say my accent is most closely aligned with RP, but I can switch it up depending on my peers and can incorporate elements of Estuary English and American English into my conversation. I have noticed I do often change my voice depending on the company I keep. I’m also convinced that my accent has most definitely been of help to me in my life here in America. I’m sure it has helped me get jobs, which I perhaps wouldn’t have got without it. People think I’m smarter than I am, and people have even commented they have done things for me, just because they like my accent. British comedian/actor Stephen Fry remarks in his autobiography:
“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.”
However, there have also been times when I have been frustrated by it, times where I just want to “fit in” and not have my accent be a constant talking point, especially if I get up to speak to a crowd or want to grab a quick cup of coffee at the gas station without getting into a detailed discussion as to where I’m from.
Of course, accents are not fixed. With time and effort they can be changed, if the speaker so desires. Ultimately however, we should all be proud of the accents we possess. Like a birthmark or tattoo, it’s an indelible mark on you, something you carry around which points to your history and origins in this vast world full of diverse and colorful accents and languages. My own accent may mark me as British, and for a little while at least, I will bask in the fact that it makes me seem a little cooler, smarter, or hip than I really may really be.