The Great British Accent

I am starting to feel like somewhat of a celebrity here in Hamburg. It seems no-one has ever met a Brit before, let alone someone that speaks the Queen’s English. I am, therefore, somewhat of a novelty over here. ‘Wow, you sound so British’ and ‘I love your accent’ are things I hear on a daily basis. I am also frequently asked to repeat things I have said as they sound so ‘quaint’ or ‘British.’ Well, I must say I am enjoying the flattery, though I am also starting to feel somewhat like a parrot. The astonishment at my accent is not only amongst my fellow interns who mainly come from further afield than Germany, let alone Europe, but also my German flatmates.

Although the white cliffs of Dover are a mere 800 km away, and it will only take you 90 minutes by plane to get to London, very few people have actually crossed the channel and have had little or no exposure to ‘British’ English . Many of the Europeans I have spoken to blame it on the fact that most of the films, music and television series they watch are American and they don’t have ready access to British television channels. In Europe, the only places you can watch the BBC are Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands. Admittedly, these countries are all close to the UK, but then again so are France and Germany where MTV and other American channels are widely available on satellite television. It seems the only ‘British’ accent anyone seems to have heard is that of the foppish Hugh Grant in films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Don’t get me wrong, I love nothing more than a Hugh Grant romcom, but it seems a terrible shame that this is the only type of English that foreigners are exposed to. While I must admit, my own Oxford English accent is doing nothing to quash the image of the plummy English accent, I am doing my best attempts of Geordie, Brummie, Welsh, Scottish and Scouse, amongst others as there are so many regional accents in the UK.

While I am flying the flag for British English, I cannot help but feel somewhat distressed that children in Europe are growing up learning American rather than British English. Of course, as a Brit I am disparaging of the American drawl and consider American English to be ‘improper,’ but I realise that American English is bound to be more widespread in the world as America is much bigger than dear old Blighty. I do, however, find it astonishing that children in Europe are learning American rather than British English in school, not least because the UK is on the same continent as mainland Europe. One reason why American English is more popular and more readily taught in schools than British English could be that it is much easier to ‘sound’ American, and therefore fluent. American spelling is also simplified (eg color for colour and program for programme), therefore easier to learn. By watching Hollywood films and listening to American music you can easily copy the accents, parrot fashion and develop a convincing accent. On the other hand, it is much harder to get English accent accurate. Even if you were to watch all of the British films ever made and copied the accents it would be hard to get it spot on – it can easily sound very fake.

If you would like to improve your British English here are some tips –

A cell phone is a mobile phone
We walk on the pavement, rather than the sidewalk
In the UK you hang your clothes in a wardrobe, rather than a closet
We wear trousers rather than pants
Chips are called crisps and fries are called chips

This article was not written to cause offence to our American friends. The article is discussing the teaching of English in Europe and informally broaching the subject of American and British English.

Your opinions are welcome and we encourage discussion on the topic, however any insulting comments will be removed.

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17 thoughts on “The Great British Accent”

  1. Which children are you talking about? At least here in France, everyone is learning British English and all of the teachers were trained to speak and teach British English. Students are marked down if they use anything but standard British vocabulary or pronunciation, which is extremely unfair. Even if the students watch American shows or movies, they watch them dubbed in their native language anyway so they don’t actually get exposure to the American accent that you find so improper. Perhaps you shouldn’t be expressing your biased views on accents on a blog that is supposedly designed for those who love all languages. I am offended by your anti-American English sentiment and I have no desire to read this blog anymore if these types of entries are considered acceptable.

  2. Hello Jennie,

    I am sorry that you feel offended by my post and hope that you will continue to read our Lexiophiles blog. I did not mean to demean American English in any way, I was just writing about the experience I have had here in Germany with other foreigners remarking on how rare it is to hear a British accent. Many of the Europeans I have met, from France as well as Germany, have told me that they were taught American English at school. This may not be the case in all schools in Europe, and as you have pointed out, where you live in France the children are taught British English. Perhaps I was too general with my comments, however I was only writing from my own personal experience.

  3. “American drool” … did you mean “drawl”?

    As an American, I have to say this was pretty offensive. I’m well educated, I have a job in advertising, and I live in New York City. I don’t have a “drool” or a drawl – I speak with the standard American accent. I’m obsessed with the French language and take every opportunity to speak it; in fact, I spoke to some French tourists in Central Park yesterday. Why does there have to be this America-bashing amongst most Europeans? If you just came here and spoke to us, you’d realize we’re a very nice people. I hope you realize that growing up, you’ve probably unknowingly taken in a lot of anti-American propaganda and press and accepted it as “fact”, and I think that’s a major problem that is prevalent in other countries. Hatred of Americans/American culture is learned, not innate.

    Congratulations to you for speaking the Queen’s English. If I were born there, I’d speak it too. But I was born in NY … so sue me for not speaking your beloved accent. I understand your gripe with European children being taught the “Yankee” accent – it’s true. You guys came up with the language and you’re in the same continent, they should learn it your way. But don’t call American English “improper”, that’s just ludicrous. Are all offshoots of languages “improper”? Bastardizations? Oh, I’m sorry, “bastardisations”? (I guess because my country spells certain words with a “z” rather than an “s”, we’re rather improper).

    So, keep patting yourself on the back because you’re so proud of your accent. Pride in one’s country is a common thing amongst most people. But just remember, arrogance is very unattractive and does not at all equal intelligence.

  4. The “American drool”, do you mean “American drawl” or is this Freudian slip indicative of your personal feelings about Americans and American culture?

    Languages evolve and change over time. What was popular and widely used yesterday, may not be true tomorrow. If a variant of a language is easier to write and speak, it is only natural that people would try and learn this variant. I know I had a pain of a time trying to learn French, and would have loved it if I found some shortcuts that allowed me to quickly be understood.

    I understand your underlying point with this post, but it comes across as pompous and rude. If you are concerned with the lack of British influence in Europe, I suggest you spend your time writing letters to your government asking them to flex their “media-muscle” to put more British movies and TV shows on the screens in front of Europeans. Otherwise, America is going to continue to reach them. In the meantime, this forum should be used to appreciate languages and their variants … With this post you are coming across as judgmental & opinionated … and as an American; I am quickly losing interest in what you have to say.

  5. Wow. Just. Wow.

    I have no idea what to say. IMHO GA or general American is as much of a ‘proper’ language as Bris**t English [spelling intentional].

    This is exactly the “hoity-toity” attitude I have come to expect from Brits. I have lived in England and can honestly say that there are probably more people in North America who speak a more educated and proper version of the English language than there are in Britain. I mean it’s all accents and colloquialisms – in’nit.

    …and you feel distressed that people learn to speak English!!! I wouldn’t care (much) if the whole world grew up speaking with a Canadian accent. At least they are learning a foreign language, which is more than I can say of most English speaking people.

    I think you need to get off your high horse. Up the Rebels! Down the British!

  6. I’m not American or British and honestly I found the article funny, I think you’re taking it too seriously. I think the problem here was cultural, Brits have a kind of sarcastic humor that not many people get. It is obvious that no language or dialect is better than the other, so why are we even discussing that? I learned American English and I like it, I love the pronunciation and the colloquial expressions you use over there. If I’m allowed to state my opinion about American English why a Brit cannot state hers? Again, don’t take this too seriously, breathe in, breathe out 😉

    p.s. You guys complain that it is offensive but you reply with another offensive remark? Don’t get it.

  7. I don’t get the tone of all your comments… Come on, the article is funny and there is nothing offensive in it! I think you’re overreacting, she’s talking of her own personal experience!
    I am French and I completely agree with her, almost all my English teachers were either Americans either French speaking with an American accent… I had an Irish teacher last year at the university and we were all very confused and had to make her repeat a lot of things. Actually, we French are not all dumb, we happen to watch movies or series which are not dubbed, and since most of them come from the US, we got used to the American accent. When a British person talks to me, I find it harder to understand! And that’s a shame, because the British accent is very pleasant (well, this is my opinion and that does not mean I hate Americans and their accent, just to be clear).

  8. @ Carina and Julie:

    Thank you for your kind and respectful words! 🙂

    The tone of my comment was not to be taken as combative. I was simply trying to state my opinion as you would in a debate. I had no problem with this article until she called American English “improper”. Our shows and movies and music are very popular abroad, so it always bothers me when people from other countries beat up on us. It’s not fair to make generalizations based on what you read on potentially biased websites or hear on biased news. The US is a country of some 350 million people – how can one possibly generalize that many people? Just my 2¢.

  9. It’s too bad Americans seem to take the various opinions expressed here as a mere sign of hatred for USA.

    It’s not irrealistic to hear such a thing:
    – “I don’t like the American accent”
    – “WHY DO YOU HATE AMERICA, you arrogant, pompous Brits? Stop being so rude!”
    It’s not about America itself, where did you read that? It’s only about the accent, OK?

  10. Dear Miss Anna,
    I would like to express my extreme gratitude for the enthusiasm with which you have spoken of the language with which I converse with my subjects. One was simply thrilled to have it brought to me by the corgis this morning, and to read it over a lovely breakfast of egg and soldiers. You truly are a shining example of what one small country can achieve amongst the lexiographic diversity in this World.
    As for those writing from areas, once colonies of my ancestors, who now speak with variations on the particular dialect that one uses in Windsor, I can only suggest that whilst the evolution of the sounds shows progress, your unnecessarily defensive comments strike the casual observer to events from the palace, as a touch over-sensitive.
    Yours most sincerely,
    Liz

  11. *sigh* … I never get tired of a Brit telling me that I speak English improperly, and then being called over-sensitive when that bothers me. No really, it never gets old! Honestly, nothing brings us closer than your criticism of how I was taught to speak since birth.

  12. It would make more sense to me for people outside of the English speaking world to learn American English since that is the dominant version of English worldwide. In my work the corporate language is US English so that is the variety we use for spell checking. I grew up using more British spellings than US ones (although in Ireland -ize is perfectly acceptable instead of -ise) but it is not so difficult to change to US spellings.
    In terms of accents I think it is a misnomer to speak about a ‘British’ accent. Somebody from Ballymena or the Welsh valleys sounds nothing like an upper class English person. In fact upper crust New England accents (cf. the Frasier type mid-Atlantic accents) sound far more like English accents than UK regional accents.

  13. Hello Aidan,

    Thank you for your comments regarding my article. I agree with you about the regional accents in Britain being varied, and did make note of this in the second paragraph of the article when saying it was a shame that there is just one common perception of the ‘British’ accent, that being Oxford English or as you say ‘upper class’ English. The link I included goes to a video of someone doing 21 different accents from all over Britain, giving a wide overview. Admittedly, they are not all accurate, however it does give you a good idea that not everyone sounds ‘posh.’ Perhaps I should have elaborated on this in the article and it may be something for me to consider writing about in the future.

  14. I understand that what you’re saying was not meant to be offensive. My parents moved over to Australia when I was young and were surprised that, not only were the children’s shows American, but some teachers also taught American spelling and pronunciation in schools.

    It’s not that people may find the American accent unpleasant, it’s just odd to find it spoken in such places. It’s also odd for American to be taught in place of a more region-appropriate dialect.

  15. Well, I agree with Anna wholeheartedly. I finnd that the majority Europeans (apart from some French) do imitate American accents (I know because I’m a recruiter for a multinational that focuses on employing European graduates). The trouble is they don’t do a good job of it and the result is rather disapointing: the accents are non-standard, incomprehensible to even native American English speakers. So you have a project team consisting of a Dutchman, a Spaniard, a Chinese and an American and they don’t understand each other very well, sometimes not at all. If they were to learn a standard accent, either the British Receceived Pronunciation or the General American accent, life would have been easier.
    Furthermore, I spent 2 years at Columbia University in NYC and all, I mean ALL Americans there loved the British accents (Hugh Grant had a lot to answer for) and more than a dozen admitted that it was better sounding than their own accents.
    I suspect that the people that criticised the article are not real American at all. Either that or they are just too insecure to understand humour.

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