The linguistics of Disney: What if Mowgli spoke with a Hindi accent?

Disney Films. They will present a whole new world to you now that you’re not 6 any more – you might not even need to focus on the accents to realise that many jokes are based on a character’s way of speaking. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be a bare necessity for all French characters to sound like they carry a baguette under their arm. So how then does Disney play with its characters’ accents?

American vs. British English

A major feature in most Disney films is the opposition between American and British English. Disney is an American company and as such, it is not surprising that many of its animated heroes speak Standard American English (even if they live in France (Beauty and the Beast, The Aristocats), somewhere in the Middle East (Aladdin) or India (The Jungle Book)). However, given that English has a long history of being spoken world-wide, the use of different accents can provide the audience practical information. Both the 101 Dalmatians and Peter Pan’s friends live in England and, logically, speak British English. In The Jungle Book, a group of military elephants speak British English, probably in analogy with the former British presence in India. On the other hand, accents can also convey strong social statements. The female kitten Marie from the Aristocats speaks British English, but interestingly her 2 rougher brothers speak American English and her posh mum has a French ring to her speech…

Evil versus Good

A special case of British vs. American forms the choice of accents for heroes and villains. Look at a good guy/girl and the corresponding bad character and you might come to the conclusion that those Brits are simply evil. Only a few examples are Scar vs. Mufasa in the Lion King, Jafar versus Aladdin, Lady Tremaine and Maleficent versus Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty respectively, and Captain Hook versus Peter Pan.

Foreign accents

The vast majority of Disney films are set either abroad (i.e. not in England or the US) or in mystery kingdoms. Still, ‘local’ accents are carefully used. For example, in Aladdin, there’s only few Arabic sounding people, like the minor character of the narrator/merchant. In Beauty and the Beast we find several French accents, most notably among the living furniture. Most human (or beasty) characters don’t sound French.

Other language versions

English knows so much regional variety and is such a common second language that any accent (whether foreign or not) used in the original will be understood by its audience to be socially significant in some way. But how easy is it to translate such social understanding into another language? I can only comment on Dutch, but even for this small language some funny choices can be found. Thomas O’Malley, in the original Aristocats a street cat with a labourer’s accent, is a Flemish cat in the Dutch version. In my opinion that gives his character an almost exotic touch and an extra bit of swag that he lacks in the original! Same goes for The Lion Kings’ Timon and Pumbaa, who also sound Belgian. On the other hand, in The Little Mermaid they found a perfect alternative for the Jamaican English spoken by the crab Sebastian: in Dutch he has a Surinamese accent.

Conclusion

If we believed the world according to Disney then someone who speaks British English could be a villain, posh, or simply British. Speaking with a foreign accent would label you as dumb, funny or in the best (French) case, distinguished. Only speakers of American English seem to get off the hook here.

What do you think of the (linguistic/cultural) stereotypes Disney entertains? And are the same stereotypes conveyed by means of accents in your language?

[Nederlands]

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