Lost in the Pond: 4 Common Mistakes Americans Make When Attempting a British Accent

dickvandyke

During the 5 years I have resided in the United States, I have had the good fortune of occasionally crafting professional acting roles within the theater. One favorite pastime among young American actors, at least those in the company of British thespians such as myself, is attempting some form of British accent.

Some efforts are better than others. Occasionally, you’ll hear a gem – usually from an individual whose ability for mimicry is nothing short of majestic. Then, more often than not, you’ll find those actors whose attempts – enthusiastic though they may be – are so wayward they become ever so slightly uncomfortable to hear.

Those that fall into the latter category typically fall foul of a most egregious linguistic faux pas: the assumption that a rule of speech can be applied to all avenues of pronunciation.

And aspiring actors are not the only culprits in this department. I’ve heard many a friend or work colleague regale me with what they, in good faith, believed to be a sterling impression of the Queen, while others – unwittingly veering on the side of Dick van Dyke – occasionally throw in one or two Cockney phrases.

Of course, it would be unfair to level a charge of this magnitude at just Americans. After all, Brits are not always so adept themselves when the roles are reversed. But that’s a post for another time.

On this occasion, we’re looking at the leading mistakes that Americans make when attempting a British accent. Here are four such mistakes.

1. Going up at the end of sentences

While it has been observed, in rare cases, that the British sometimes raise their intonation at the end of non-interrogative sentences (e.g. “I think Doctor Who is proper good.”), the frequency of such usages is exactly that – rare. However, when an American attempts any form of British accent (usually an English one comprising either received pronunciation or Cockney), he or she will go up at the end of every single sentence. A good rule of thumb for any American readers looking to get this right: try using the intonation you would use in your own everyday speech pattern. While there are some notable differences, British and American levels of intonation are more similar than you might imagine.

2. Using an elongated ‘a’ in words like “have”

One of the most striking features of British English, particularly that of southern England, is that speakers will elongate the ‘a’ in words like “bath” so that it becomes “baahth.” To the uninitiated American, it perhaps seems natural to assume that the elongated ‘a’ can be applied to other such words – like “have”, “math(s)” and “dad.” But this is not the case. A good rule of thumb would be to listen to recordings of British English and take note of those words that elongate the ‘a’, and those that don’t.

3. Leaving the American rhotic ‘r’ in words like “car”

One of the notable differences between British and American English is the way we treat the letter ‘r’ in words like car. In British English, this ‘r’ is not usually pronounced, whereas in most variations of American English it is. To that end, Americans attempting a British accent will sometimes leave this rhotic ‘r’ in, making their attempts sound more like a bad Irish accent (the rhotic ‘r’ is present in most Irish dialects).

4. Over enunciating every single ‘t’

It is very common – particularly among the aforementioned thespians – for Americans practicing British English to place heavy emphasis on every single ‘t’. While this extreme level of diction was certainly practiced by members of the British aristocracy, a lot of modern day Brits generally don’t, for example, pronounce the ‘t’ in words like “can’t”, instead replacing it with what is known in linguistic circles as a glottal stop.


Comments

  1. avatar says

    I think the first mistake is Americans attempting a British accent in the first place unless it’s in a professional capacity. Nothing makes me cringe more than hearing an American pretend to be British.

      • avatarYouLiveYouLearn says

        Ha! The R’s get over-pronounced and everyone ends up sounding like a Texan after one too many trips to the bar *lol*

        • avatarsusan e hunter says

          I agree about some british actors who attempt an american accent but over compensate by enunciating too much and using overly hard “r’s.” sadly, this was rather glaringly apparent in this seasons’ “downton abbey.”

          • avatarBarbie says

            From what I’ve noticed when British actors when they attempted an American accent is that they use a southern drawl and the mix it in with a New York Accent. It can be too funny…

    • avatar says

      Cought in the middle. My Mum was a War Bride, so I grew up in both worlds, but mostly in the US. I speak American English but have picked up some of my Mother’s words, and because I grew up hearing her accent seem to unconsciously begin to pick up some parts of the accent whenever I’m in England more than a week. Not trying to gross any of you out, believe me! And the longer I’m there the worse it gets. Even consciously trying not to gets me tongue tied!

    • avatarServalan says

      Worst thing is when they attempt a british accent at you, and it’s terrible. Try that with any other nationality and see what happens

  2. avatar says

    Attempting any accent is so difficult! I pretend to do this sometimes, but I would never do it in front of a British person …! Do you ever try to imitate an American accent? How well do you do?

  3. avatardw says

    One of the most striking features of British English, particularly that of southern England, is that speakers will elongate the ‘a’ in words like “bath” so that it becomes “baahth.” To the uninitiated American, it perhaps seems natural to assume that the elongated ‘a’ can be applied to other such words – like “have”, “math(s)” and “dad.” But this is not the case. A good rule of thumb would be to listen to recordings of British English and take note of those words that elongate the ‘a’, and those that don’t.

    Absolutely. This phenomenon is known to linguists as the TRAP-BATH split, and it affects southern English, and some Indian, Caribbean, and southern hemisphere accents. The problem is, as you say, that the phenomenon is completely unpredictable, and the only solution is simply to learn by rote which words are affected — hardly a “rule of thumb”, but still unfortunately unavoidable.

    Americans would do much better to try to imitate a north-of-England accent that lacks the split — but that isn’t the predominant kind of English accent they are exposed to through the media.

  4. avatardw says

    4. Over enunciating every single ‘t’

    The reason for this is that most North Americans will weaken many “t”s to something more like “d”s — for example in words like “butter”. Being aware of this, they try to correct for it, and may end up overshooting the mark. I’ve noticed this on American radio news, when the trained announcers sometimes take excessive care to enunciate the “t” in a name like “Clinton”.

  5. avatar says

    Well, IME, British accents are all over the place. A “posh” accent is sound almost American ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zw8FdJmV6NI ), and an Essex accent is different from that ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYiwtBlyCj0 ) a Manchester accent (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDSSSpzb7zc ).

    And Lawrence, I’ve never heard a Brit do a good American accent. Y’all tend to think we’re all southerners….lol.

  6. avatar says

    I would love to hear if you’ve been to New England and listen to the dialect here. There are some huge similarities. I get some of my English friends giving me looks when I say particular words as if I’m trying to imitate them…which I would never do unless we’re joking around! It is quite funny in the end when I explain to them that it really is how we say certain words. (eg: Cah…)(But NOT Southie Boston Cah…LOL If that’s understandable?!)

    • avatarYouLiveYouLearn says

      *blushes* This reminds me of the one time I used a particular four-letter word in front of my English fiance. It begins with a “tw”, and in American vernacular, sort of rhymes with “swat”.
      My fiance thought I was trying to use British slang and corrected my pronunciation *lol*

  7. avatar says

    Some American actors have done really good American accents, but just made a single mistake which gives them away to their British audience. Spike from “Buffy” and “Angel” was excellent, but he was a cockney who pronounced his As as they do in the north. Evidently he was from that London borough north of Manchester.

    The wrong words give them away too. There are two lovely British characters in Agents of Shield (and I must IMDB them to see if they’re actually British or not) but they will keep referring to the “airplane” and say “gotten”.

    • avatarYouLiveYouLearn says

      Something about Spike’s accent bothered me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but in defense of the two MAoS characters, if you work with Americans, you pick up their mannerisms, and vice versa (I’m American with an English fiance, and sometimes I get so used to hearing a particular word that I forget if it’s American or British, so I just use it anyways and hope for the best *lol*) John Oliver has been busted for saying “gotten” many times in his podcast “The Bugle”, and he’s not acting.
      Honestly, were lucky that we’ve progressed to the point where British characters can say things that Americans might not know (but likely can pick up from context). That wasn’t always the case.

  8. avatardixiebrit says

    Laurence, this was a very good article. As an American married to a Brit, I lived in Surrey for 8 years. I very quickly learned that my Utah (Southwest USA) accent was NOT understood well (surprise!) at the grocer’s, etc. I realised that my pronunciation of words like “tomato” were throwing people. I adjusted slightly and NEVER (I do mean NEVER) tried for a British accent. I would say to-mah-to instead of to-may-to and picked up quite a few colloquialisms from my husband and his family (donkey’s years, etc.) but never tried to change. Imagine my surprise on a visit back stateside when all my US family told me they noticed I had a British accent – I wasn’t doing one. I don’t have a lazy t (d) or anything like that, but I never had. People’s perceptions are based on what they want to hear. My husband swears I don’t have and never did have a British accent, just a good command of the language. I blame my English-teacher grandmother for making me look everything up. Incidentally, every time I went in to the chemist’s, the girl asked me what part of Canada I was from.

    • avatarretnavybrat says

      I used to have a neighbor who was quite obviously from Scotland and she told my mom one day that whenever she went home to visit, her family would comment on how American she sounded.

  9. avatarJohn Evans says

    > In British English, this ‘r’ is not usually pronounced, whereas in most variations of American English it is.
    The notable exception in British English is of course the Lancashire accent – just listen to the celebrated actress Jane Horrocks for example.

  10. avatar says

    Putting on a “London” accent anywhere outside of the South-East is a big no-no. Travel to any part of England, let alone the rest of the UK, and you’ll find a different accent and dialect.
    Nottingham (where I live) and Mansfield are less than 20 miles apart, and in the same county, yet there is a noticeable difference between the accents

  11. avatarAlex says

    One problem with this article though is to say that the ‘r’ in ‘car’ is not usually pronounced, whereas this is not actually true. It is pronounced in many parts of Britain, it is mainly parts of England where it is not pronounced. So, it’s not Americans trying to speak with a BRITISH accent so much as trying to speak with an ENGLISH one.

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