Do you sport a fake British accent? If so, why?

Over the past month, several people have mentioned to me their annoyance with Americans who rock a British accent.  I’m talking about people who don’t know each other, bringing this up in entirely different contexts.  I had no idea that faking an accent was the latest form of pretension, so I obviously need to get out more.  I haven’t run into this sort of thing in decades, and thought it remarkable that I was suddenly hearing so much about it.  Particularly since one guy sounded well, almost wistful and a tad jealous that he couldn’t get away with doing the same due to the nature of his job. I goaded him to give it a welly anyway, thinking this had to be a joke.  It wasn’t.

Then I stumbled upon Alex Williams’s piece in the New York Times, “Americans are Barmy over Britishisms” which has drawn over 600 comments.  The article is not about accents.  It’s about the American media sporting Britishisms in speech and writing.  Why is there a seeming deluge of American journalists now referring to individuals being “in hospital,” assessing everything as “brilliant” or “clever,” and calling all customized products “bespoke”?

Williams suggests that “maybe it’s just pretension, an instance of long-simmering Anglophilia among the American striver classes bubbling over into full-fledged imitation . . . .”

Ya think? 

OK, maybe it is pretension.  If it weren’t for pretension the American striver classes wouldn’t have a reason to get up in the morning.  By the way, I love pretension when it’s done right, which it almost never is.  The best sort of pretension isn’t easily detectable because a true master of the form makes it look so easy and natural that you can’t immediately tell it’s there.  Part of the pleasure, I suppose, is eventually finding it out.  And then pointing it out.  To others.  But I digress.

Using British phrases in speech and writing isn’t necessarily pretentious.  Sometimes it’s the case of a particular writer finding a Britishism a better way to express a particular thought.  I see no reason for writers to restrict themselves to one variation of English, when almost nobody speaks one variation of anything anymore, but it does leave me cold when an American uses a British phrase solely for the sake of sounding British without enhancing the meaning of the sentence.  Whether that’s pretentious or sloppy or trendy or a new requirement to get your striver class card I don’t pretend to say.  It is annoying.  It insults both varieties of English. That’s enough.  If you are using American English, please don’t refer to a crazy person as “barking” or call two weeks a “fortnight” unless there is some shade of meaning in the Britishism that you a) need to convey and that b) the American word lacks. Then go to it.  And only then.

I’m old enough to remember when you sometimes could tell by a person’s accent and vocabulary what Massachusetts town they came from.  Nobody came from the central Massachusetts town of Webster – people came from “Webstuh”or possibly “Webstah.”That’s all but vanished now.  There was and is a unique vocabulary for certain common objects here: a water cooler is a “bubbler,” a pencil eraser is a “rubber,” a submarine sandwich is a “grinder.” You buy candy, newspapers, and sundry small items at a “spa.”  You also buy “tonic” there.  “Tonic” is an eastern Massachusetts word for soda.  A “pisser” (pronounced pissah) is an unfortunate circumstance, a “real pisser” is an epically unfortunate circumstance, but both variations can also be used as intensifiers to indicate a rare but superbly enjoyable experience.  “I got the flu and missed the game – what a pisser.”  “I heard he lost his house – that’s a real pisser.” The latter is usually said with a somber shake of the head followed by a few seconds of silence.  “That party was excellent!  It was a pisser.” This is usually said with several vigorous nods of the head accented by body jerks and a large smile.  Sometimes it’s used to describe somebody you either really like or really don’t like. “She’s a real pisser” can describe a hero or a bitch or possibly both at once.  It can be used as an adjective: “That was a pisser party.”  This means that party was great fun and an excellent time.  Or that the party was an unmitigated disaster.

Should a writer from New York never use English words that mean something different in Massachusetts?  Yes, I know “there’s a pisser grinder with a box of rubbers on the bubbler, grab yourself a tonic” suggests something radically different when you cross the state line – you need to be very careful of intended audience here – but that’s what living languages do.  They morph and bend and play tricks on you.  That’s supposed to be half the fun.  Besides, “there’s a first-rate sub sandwich with a box of pencil erasers on the water cooler, help yourself to a soda”  lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

Even the declination of pronouns in English varies from northern to southern US states.  Northerners make do with the same pronoun for second person singular and plural, although I’ve occasionally heard “yiz” or “yuhz” used informally as the plural near Boston. “All a yiz ready?” Southerners frequently differentiate second person plural.  “Right y’all?”  It’s all “American English” but there is no single pure form of American English, and Carolinians understand New Englanders just fine.  Mostly.

The reality is, there’s no such thing as British English, or American English, or Canadian English, or Massachusetts English – every English speaking area of the world has a multitude of regions where varieties of English are spoken and swapped around and we English speakers – all 375 million of us – still understand each other.  No worries.

So I come down on the side of – if it’s English and it’s the best English for a particular thought, use it.  And if it isn’t English, but it’s still the best way to express a particular thought, use that too.  Le seul mot juste.  But mixing up regional dialects solely to sound cool is highly annoying, and I don’t know why some media types do this, or why anybody does this. Of course, doing anything solely to appear cool is highly annoying, and Bob’s your uncle. But there’s something so primal about language that gratuitously mixing phrases from different regions truly grates.

But as to fake accents.  For me, self-consciously adopting an accent, any accent, to make an impression, is just weird.  I’ve met people who’ve done this. Not many, and not in a really long time, but the few I’ve met were memorable. It’s off-putting, emotionally sketchy, and an obvious attempt to scam some sort of unearned prestige and attention from the listener.  It also lacks charm.  Unless you are an actor playing a character who would naturally have an accent different from your own, just shut up.  For your own sake.  Really.  Otherwise you just come across like a major jerk.  Or should I say a Richard the Third (uh, that’s rhyming slang – go look it up).  Or let’s just say, a tosser?  Pillock? Because it’s beyond naff to treat other people like a mug; and that’s what you’re doing, jack.

Sorry, I’m just having a bit o’ fun here.

But the same goes for the other side of the Pond.  Apparently there are Brits who like to pony up American phrases and no shortage of other Brits who find this annoying.  This BBC News Magazine piece got more than twice the number of comments as the one in the New York Times.

But as to Americans using British phrases in writing and conversation, I can’t say it’s purely pretentiousness or necessarily objectionable in every situation.   Sometimes it is just fun, and sometimes it is just irritating.  But here’s the thing – an awful lot of American writers first learned to love language from the British canon.  If you grow up in America but read British writers, you can develop a writing style that feels more British than American.  It’s there in the rhythms of your sentences, in the inflections of a character’s voice, maybe even in your own literary voice, and certainly in an occasional turn of phrase.  That’s because you hear English on the page that way.  And if you are being true to your own relationship with the language, the tones and inflections creep in.  And creeping them back out solely for the sake of avoiding cries of pretentiousness is just as destructive as intentionally using them solely to sound cool. 

More than one reader from the UK has told me my novels “sound British,” and I’ve no doubt that’s true.  I wrote them after immersing myself in the mother tongue as written in that part of the world, and that beautiful mother lode of the language sticks in ways that will never unstick.  It’s part of me, and I’m loath to exorcise it solely because there’s some kind of coolness factor that drives other people to swag certain Britishisms around.  Some of my fictional languages sound vaguely British to my inner ear (Helan Sunna does – kinda sorta), Sarana as spoken in Anda sounds American – kinda sorta) – and I’ve read them that way in public to the best of my ability.  I assume I’ve been accused of pretentiousness, because that goes with the territory.  But now it’s merely trendy, so I might only seem guilty of trying to be cool.  Stone the crows!

Write what you hear between your heartbeats.  It’s so much work getting that right you shouldn’t have energy to truss up your style in anything else.

N.B.  This is hysterical.  American accents are actually older, and closer to the way English was spoken before the Revolution, than contemporary British accents.

This is awesome.  Because the American twits who need to phony up their vocal style to make an impression should just stick with their natural voices, and they’d be closer to the source of the British style they need to copy.  And the Brits who phony up as Americans, well maybe in some sense they are reclaiming their traditional speech patterns, despite their intent.

I love it!  Some folks don’t even understand how to be pretentious according to form!  Seriously, dude, how cracking is that?


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12 Responses to Do you sport a fake British accent? If so, why?

  1. StrangeAlien says:

    I’ve had it up to hear (pun) with fake English accents.
    Yeah, I’ve heard it so much, in my area *(southern Califonia) there
    are several that have the Brit accent, even though they were born right HERE and have never ever been to Europe.

    All this snobbery is getting on my nerves.

    California should be renamed Cali-phonia, because it is phony.

  2. Greetings, StrangeAlien.

    I’m dumbfounded as to why people adopt fake accents, particularly around other people who know that their accent is fake. Since it appears to be more common in your area than in mine perhaps you have more insight into this than I do. I mean, if someone wants to “be British” that badly, I suppose they could move to the UK and apply for citizenship.

    My guess is that a lot of Americans love British accents because of how they are used in the media. And so there are some who think that if they fake an accent the listener will somehow accord them the same prestige that they (the speaker) accord real accents. It’s a kind of status theft. Like all status thefts, it doesn’t work or it doesn’t work for long.

    • Kass says:

      Lots of people do want to “be British” so badly that they move to the UK and apply for citizenship. They are mostly from middle eastern countries.

  3. I tend to blame my wife; she’s Australian, and I got used to using her words for certain things instead of American words. Maybe her accent rubbed off, as well, and I don’t quite sound like the New Yorker I am. 🙂

  4. A New York – Aussie accent? Bet you can have a lot of fun with that. Do you get asked a lot where you’re from?

  5. Sasha says:

    What exactly is a “fake accent”? The term suggests that one has a single “authentic accent”. Would that be the accent of one’s parents? One’s childhood friends? One’s teachers? One’s favorite television shows?

    The accusation of a “fake accent” against one who changes and develops their accent is as ridiculous as an accusation of a “fake career” for someone who does not follow the exact career path as one’s parent.

    People can and should be “pretentious”, in the good sense, of aiming to improve themselves in all ways, accent included.

  6. Kiana says:

    I bet Sasha speaks with a fake accent. Anyways, my sister speaks with a phony British accent now. Every time I ask her why, she says it rubbed of on her by her friends. I called bull shit on this based on the fact that she lives in Texas. Every time I speak with her she tries to seem like a smarty pants. I know she’s smart but, damn stop trying to be someone you aint! That shit’s whack!She did this before too when we lived in New Orleans for a year. Only that time she tried to talk ghetto.

    • Frances Flanagan says:

      I am British, from the north east of England, I live in London and I like to fake a Texan accent, but only in the house with my husband, never outside. I like to live in a fantasy world sometimes. I like to imagine I am from Texas. I love songs about Texas and films based in Texas and I love
      Walker-Texas Ranger on TV.

  7. Welcome, Kiana.

    The thing about adults “picking up accents” is that your accent is pretty much set before puberty. You have to study and practice and intend to adopt a new accent if you really want to change after that. Actors do this for certain roles. (I’ve done something like this for readings, as I mention in my post). But those are situations where the audience is consenting to be fooled by the fiction.

    What’s interesting about people who just want to sound different and cool is that few of them will own this, because if they admit to intent it takes away the coolness factor or something. It’s always, “I can’t help it.” (BS) – “I just picked it up from my friends” (more BS, you don’t “just” pick up an accent after puberty). And of course, it’s always the accents presented in the media as cool and desirable that people “just happen to pick up.”

    The joke is, people who really do have the accent you try to fake can tell. Your native accent will always show through, like the man behind the curtain.

  8. Fakey McFakerton says:

    For me, the American non-regional dialect is offensive to American history. It isn’t an authentic accent, it’s the boiled down absence of an accent. And it can be extremely guttural for many people, myself included. One day I was watching some British show and decided to try it while I was alone in my house, and what I found were word endings that didn’t ERRRRrrrrrr in my throat, vowels that didn’t reverberate in my sinuses.

    I never asked to sound like a southern California TV news anchor, and the fact most Americans do is an unfortunate consequence of early broadcast media production. I’d speak with a Georgia drawl, or a Fargo question mark, or even some Brooklyn swag, but I was born in The Non-Region, the one television created… so as an adult I’ve picked my own sound, mostly Estuary English with some other random British isles I’m sure, simply because it’s the easiest dialect for me to hear and it’s quite pleasurable to speak.

    I was entertaining thoughts of suicide throughout my twenties, and I credit my turn around to this one awkward and very difficult change. I don’t use it as some kind of pretentious key to success. I’m not in a business that could grant such a benefit. It’s just a better way for me to be expressive with people. I don’t know what an earnest news anchor sounds like, or a sentimental news anchor, or a romantic news anchor. I was a banal news anchor raised by banal news anchors… but this British dialect allows me to reveal emotions I never could before, and I can choose my words. It’s like I think and feel through my mouth now.

    Regardless, I do hate living a lie since many people I meet don’t know where I’m from, and since I have no reason to run up and tell them, it can be very awkward. But other than having to deal with this constant lie of ommission, I’m a better person for the changes I’ve made to my speech. I’ll never convince any of the people in this comment section or elsewhere who’ve never lived my life, but I’m okay with this. I can take mockery and berating and gossip better than I ever could loneliness.

  9. Hey, thanks for posting this, Fakey. I sincerely mean that. This is a perspective that never occurred to me, and you’ve got me fascinated. I agree with you about the inherent inexpressiveness of the American non-regional accent favored by broadcasters. Blandness appears to be an important part of the point there.

    Is it fair to say that for you – adopting a British accent allows you to express more accurately and authentically who you are than the vocal patterns you were raised with? That in some profound, personal sense your chosen accent isn’t fake?

    Although I’m baffled by folks who clearly adopt fake accents solely for attention and coolness, I respect your reasons for changing your accent as a means of expressing aspects of yourself that your non-regional accent stifled.

    Given your back story, and the serious thought and effort you put into making the change, what do you think when you hear somebody faking an accent solely for attention?

  10. gianna says:

    I agree with Sasha. It’s just like if someone had a real British accent , came here then everybody called them a phony! I mean jeez. And guess what? I speak a fake accent and I don’t care. It’s just fun.

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