Even after two decades of living here, Patrick Bailey is surprised by the reaction he gets when he opens his mouth.
“I’ll be paying at a gas station,” he said, “and people will come up and say, ‘I love your accent.’ ”
That would be a British accent, the often-haughty kind heard in “Downton Abbey,” Oscar-bait films and countless local stage productions. The kind that makes Colin Firth seem sexier than Jon Hamm and BBC newscasts sound classier than CNN’s. The kind that prompts many Americans — hello, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna and Amy Adams’ character in “American Hustle” — to take a stab at adopting the dialect.
But this one-sided love affair has deep, semidark roots: It’s part of a long-standing inferiority complex.
“The association we have with that [dialect] is high status,” said Amy Sheldon, a University of Minnesota linguist and professor in the Department of Communications Studies. “We have looked to Britain to consume what we perceive to be high class. The style of talking is kind of like a magnet that pulls to it the available prejudices and symbolism.”
What’s more, our near-fawning esteem for this refined way of speaking has been wired into our psyches since colonial days.
“It’s sometimes hard to remember that for the bulk of our history we were considered a cultural backwater,” said James Dawes, an English professor at Macalester College in St. Paul. “It was only after World War II, when we emerged as a superpower, that we ended centuries of considering ourselves hinterland country bumpkins compared with the metropoles of London.
“There’s a long cultural history of it, the struggles in American culture of trying to distinguish itself from perceived superiors. I’m not sure we’ve shaken it off, really.”
Dawes, who teaches literary and language theory, compared it to a transition familiar to all too many of us. “Take a metaphor from adolescence,” he said. “If you felt awkward and stupid back then, even if you become very successful, you still bear the wounds.”
Quick character study
It’s little surprise, then, that these symbolic associations are almost part of our DNA — or at least get ingrained in us early on, as entertainment purveyors from Pixar to PBS well know.
“Someone making a movie or TV show has just seconds to manufacture a character,” Sheldon said. “A Disney movie, for example, can immediately establish [a character’s] social position through how they talk. Even a young child can pick up on it instantly and subconsciously. How they talk provides instant clues to who they are.”
That holds true whether we’re hearing Maggie Smith’s bons mots (and bons mals) in “Downton” or Eliza Doolittle’s jarring Cockney intonations in “Pygmalion”/“My Fair Lady.” In the latter, it’s infinitely easier for the imperious Dr. Henry Higgins to dress Eliza properly and get her to hold her tea cup just so than to elevate her elocution from working-class to upper-crust.
“That’s why actors really want to nail the dialect down,” Sheldon said. “They’re creating character through the talk. And the more authentic their talk is, the more believable the character will be.”
That’s Bailey’s domain, as an actor and a dialect coach for thespians and singers, especially in “British plays with people running around being terribly genteel to each other.”
One of his toughest tasks: training a Bloomington Civic Theatre cast in “My Fair Lady,” with its many and varied vernaculars.
“You could fit all of England into Minnesota, and yet there are so many really different dialects,” said Bailey, who traditionally tells his charges, “You have to learn how to do it and then forget it. Just drill it and drill it and drill it until it comes out and you don’t have to think about it anymore.”
Easier, uh, said than done, especially for Americans (think Kevin Costner and his ever-changing accent in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”).
As it turns out, Brits generally can master an American accent much more readily than Americans can speak good Brit, Bailey said, largely because “we grow up with a lot of American TV, American music, American movies.”
Whatever the factors, this much is true: It’s difficult to fathom an American actor ever portraying Winston Churchill or Queen Elizabeth, while last year Britain’s Daniel Day-Lewis captured a best actor Oscar for playing the quintessential American president, Abe Lincoln.
The history of dialect associations goes back not just centuries but millennia. In the Book of Judges, Hebrews identified their enemies, the Ephraimites — who could not make a “sh” sound (as in “shoe”) — by asking them to say “shibboleth.” Today “shibboleth” actually means a pronunciation used to identify members of different groups.
In recent centuries, as immigrants poured into the United States, local dialects emerged and evolved. “Each generation reinvents the language,” Sheldon said, “and they reinvent it as a local phenomenon.”
What hasn’t changed much, she said, are our perceptions and prejudices.
Sheldon grew up in a part of New York with “what we call an R-less dialect that ties me to certain dialects in England. We drop our R’s in certain instances and add them in others. … If you listen to announcers on BBC radio, you’ll often find them to have the same feature.” She cited pronunciations of “idea” [or “idear”] with an added r and “water” without the r at the end.
But, she said, “the same feature that I have in my speech in American English can be stigmatized, whereas in Britain, when it occurs in the high-status dialect, it symbolizes something positive, that the speaker is upper social class and has more education.”
In the end, then, the speaker has as much to do with our perception as the speech.
It has to be a jolly good fit, old bean.
“I have friends who lived in England for a period,” Dawes said, “and one of the great worries one has is coming home after picking up some of the expressions and accents, and you’re instantly marked as a pretentious twit.”