It’s a linguistic truth universally acknowledged that any story worth telling must be in want of a very British villain. It’s a familiar trope, as evidenced by this US-made Jaguar ad in which Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong, and a tea-sipping Tom Hiddleston embrace the inevitable dark side of their national identity.
Whether it’s Nazis, Romans, countrymen, or other bad guys of yesteryear (regardless of actual country of origin), it seems the prestige accent of villainy (unless it’s a terrible death whinny) has typically had something in common with the Queen: namely, the Queen’s English, a dialect that is at the same time both terribly posh and deliciously evil. As Julia R. Dobrow and Calvin L. Gidney point out in a study of villains in children’s animation, American programming in particular seems to have a general ambivalence about British English, as “speakers of British English are portrayed dichotomously as either the epitome of refinement and elegance or as the embodiment of effete evil.” This crystallizes the love-hate part of the two nations’ special relationship. Considering other studies have shown that American speakers might have a mild inferiority complex about their own dialects compared to British English, this is telling. (But things are slowly starting to change in Hollywood. Now other British accents are getting a turn; in Deadpool the accent of villainy is Cockney).
Why is this so? Is there something inherently villainous about British-inflected speech (at least to Americans)? Are they just more capable of dastardly deeds than the rest of us, through the magic of their plummy accents alone? Who would have thought mere accents could be so powerful? It’s actually a curious fact, according to Davis and Houck, that speakers of the prestige Received Pronunciation (RP) accent (otherwise known as the Queen’s English or BBC English) are regularly evaluated by non-RP speakers as more educated, intelligent, competent, physically attractive, and generally of a higher socioeconomic class. At the same time, in terms of social attractiveness, those same posh RP speakers are consistently rated less trustworthy, kind, sincere, and friendly than speakers of non-RP accents. Sounds like a good start for a villain.
Meanwhile across the pond, there’s also a different prestige accent at work in many forms of popular music. The desirable accents of pop, rock, country, R&B, hip-hop and so on, as many have noted, are almost always some flavor of American English. Not even the most British of villains would try to deny the power of pop, as countless Brits, from Adele to Led Zeppelin (among others) seamlessly code-switch into American accents when performing and then back into their regular speaking voices when not. When non-Americans perform in regional accents (sometimes not even their own), such as Billy Bragg or Mockney artists like Kate Nash, Blur, or The Streets, it’s definitely marked and can even sound “off” to some listeners.
Many who consider accent as a marker of authenticity and personal identity may wonder why some would “fake” an accent, but many performers may not even realize they’re code-switching, as they unconsciously adopt the language stylings of the modern song—it’s just the way you’re supposed to sing in that particular genre. (Similarly, consider the early pseudo-British vocal work of American pop punk bands, such as Green Day, following the lead set by the Sex Pistols or the Clash). So is it weird to change your authentic accent to fit in with your day job?
This is not to say that pop singers have to sound American and villains have to sound British, but that accents, seemingly a habit of mere sounds, have an insidiously powerful effect in our daily lives and we often don’t even notice it.
The truth is people really love accents. Whether listening to accents, learning about their oddities, or sometimes even imitating them in front of complete strangers, the different ways to say the words that we’re so familiar with has us all fascinated. Do you say “PEE-can” or “pe-CAN“, “caramel” or “carmel?” Do you speak Oirish or Strine, Scouse or Brummie? Or are you one of those blessed few who “have no accent?” But there’s more to it than a simple enjoyment of the ways people speak the same language. We often share the same language attitudes. Some accents we love and some accents we love to hate with a passion (and for no particular reason). Some are mellifluous and others ugly, harsh, or grating. We hold tightly to what we’ve learned about different accents and what they might mean for us. Accents can say so much about a person, some of it good, and some of it rather dubious, and depending on where you’re from, it changes. We start absorbing this information early, as children, often through depictions of the accents of different characters and archetypes we experience in children’s shows, before carrying it over into real life.
British villainy as an amusing stereotype for entertainment is one thing. How about your regular, everyday criminal? Can we, Minority Report style, predict and weed out the criminals in our midst as soon as they open their mouths? What about detecting other personal characteristics, such as how often someone bathes or brushes their teeth, from the way they talk? Can you tell how physically attractive they are, how tall, how smart, how funny or how friendly, just by their accent alone?
Just like the old school, pseudoscientific methods of phrenology and graphology (feeling the bumps on a head or the flow of a person’s penmanship and tying these to their personal or mental traits), it starts to sound pretty farfetched. How on earth can you tell whether someone’s dirty or clean or tall or short or itching to be a criminal from the sound waves they make? A person’s accent can’t possibly predict all these attributes. And yet, we act as though this is entirely possible—and even reasonable.
It turns out many of us believe, often without realizing it, we can predict social and personal traits about a person, simply by the accent they use. We may be wrong, but we do it anyway. What’s more, we frequently make prejudicial judgements and decisions based on these underlying beliefs and stereotypes about a person and the way they speak regardless of the reality. It’s the “last acceptable prejudice” in part because people are generally not even aware they’re doing it. We may even legislate for and against certain modes of speaking and allow for discriminatory acts based on accent alone that we wouldn’t dream of allowing based on race, say. Yes accents, mere sounds, are apparently that powerful.
Linguists and psychologists have long been aware, through multiple studies on the perception of different dialects and accents, that people’s language attitudes and social stereotypes can affect how certain speech communities and their speakers are viewed, often triggered by just the accent. Since the 1960s these studies have used what’s known as the “matched guise” technique, in which one person or stimulus can present two guises to listeners, such as code-switching between two accents, or using two pictures of different ethnicities as a visual for the exact same audio recording of a single accent. Listeners can then rate and evaluate the personalities of each guise for things such as intelligence, competence, physical attractiveness etc.
Some interesting findings have come out of these studies. For instance, more prejudiced listeners can have a harder time cognitively processing and understanding what was said if the purported ethnicity of the speaker (even if it’s just a photo) doesn’t match the standard accent as they might expect. Similarly, in another well-known example, a university lecturer gave exactly the same talk in a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent (otherwise known as the Queen’s English or BBC English) and again in a Birmingham accent. Students rated his intelligence and his talk more highly in his guise as a posh RP-accented lecturer than the students in the exact same talk he gave using a Birmingham accent.
In fact the poor Brummie accent has been rated as even less attractive and less intelligent for British speakers than just some random person staying completely silent. Even worse, a study has shown that matched guise “suspects” were rated as significantly more guilty of a crime when they spoke with Brummie accents than when those same suspects used their RP voices. So obviously some listeners believe they can predict the criminal element through accent alone. It’s a tough life being from Birmingham, clearly. Yet American listeners, not having access to the same common social stereotypes, often rate the Brummie accent as pleasant-sounding. So it’s nothing innate in the sounds of these stigmatized accents themselves that make them so despised by certain listeners but simply a shared social attitude that as a non-standard accent, they’re somehow less worthy than the prestige accent.
Rosina Lippi-Green’s work on accent and discrimination has pointed out how the ingrained concept of “Standard Language Ideology” has allowed accent discrimination to flourish and thrive, even as there are laws against overt discrimination on other similar bases such as race. While there is certainly an accepted standard form of the language, it’s by no means the only linguistically legitimate form of English. The standard language ideology that we’ve all been taught insists that there’s only one correct form of language. Speakers of the standard form are considered the ones that “have no accent” and any dialect that strays from from that is stigmatized in one way or another. Believing in this concept legitimizes the institutional discrimination of those who don’t use or didn’t grow up with the standard language. The reality is of course that everyone has an accent.
Because of how they’re judged by other speakers, accents have a palpable effect—taught in schools, broadcast and policed by the media and further reinforced by how we work. Thanks to the wrong accent, people have lost jobs or promotions or civil rights court cases, despite being able to perform their jobs perfectly well. Yet to most, it doesn’t seem at all weird that, just like pop stars “faking” an accent, in order to get a job, large segments of the population are being advised to completely change the accent that they grew up with, from Birmingham to Brooklyn. Speakers of non-standard dialects are often assumed to be incapable of learning the “correct” forms and therefore evaluated as less intelligent and so on it goes. Accents viewed as attractive garner attract personal qualities for their speakers, such as height and beauty and intelligence, while speakers of unattractive accents are judged, one supposes, to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Such is the life of accents, a more powerful and villainous social force than you might have imagined.