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.