Anatomy of an Accent (Or How I Learned to Love the Brits)
Photograph: Courtesy of one of our favorite Brits, Nicholas Crowe; Story by Anne Walls
It started in childhood, of course. Everything does.
The year: 1987.
The film: THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
Starring: Cary Elwes…and his steamy British accent.
Oh that melodious British accent. It was scintillating. It was fatal. It was official: I was obsessed with accents. From that moment on, I’ve considered myself an accent connoisseur (pronounced with the proper French intonation which evokes thoughts of sweet nothings whispered in a chateau). I love accents both thick and light, both guttural and pleasant-sounding. European, Australian, even Southern. Accents are music to my ears.
Technically speaking, everyone has an accent. I mean, we Americans who think all non-Americans have an accent are considered the ones who “talk funny” to, say, the Irish. A very official (ahem, Wikipedia) search confirmed my theory. Groups of people develop accents because of geography, ethnic makeup, and social class. One interesting factoid I unearthed from Wiki: “It has been theorized that the accents of certain groups in the USA today resemble the English spoken by the settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries more than it does the English spoken by most Britons today.” Sweet. We speak the same English with which John Smith seduced Pocahontas.
But let’s get to the nitty gritty: American accents, fair as they may be, are old news to my wanderlusting ears. Ever since I heard Cary Elwes utter, “As you wish,” to Princess Buttercup, I was done. Sign me up. British, Australian, French, whatever. I loved them all. In junior high, a British foreign exchange student named Christopher charmed me (and all the other girls) when he read a poem to the class about his parents meeting in “Smelly New Delhi.” But Southern California in the 1990s was not hot-accent central, unless you swooned at inappropriate drive-by catcalls from Hispanic guys. I needed more, I needed bigger. I needed the real thing.
My junior year of college, I had the opportunity to study abroad. First choice: England, naturally. I nearly made myself dizzy when I first got there, drowning in the wide variance of British accents that London had to offer. Everywhere I looked, cabbies (English-speaking cabbies were shocking enough) were calling each other “cheeky bastards” as they raced through the London streets (on the wrong side of the road!). Surly bartenders were calling me “Love” but somehow not really meaning it. Groups of intoxicated, track suit-wearing rugby fans on the street were constantly yelling “Tosser!” at each other and asking me if I’d “Fancy a ride, sweetheart?” And since they, unlike the cabbies, were without means of transportation, their offer could only mean something else. But I loved the accents nonetheless.
When I got settled in my exchange house in Oxford, I was a bit disappointed to discover that my three male roommates were all from America. Borrrrrrring. But when I finally immersed myself in the dining halls and common areas of Hertford University, which was actually pronounced HART-ford (I think Oxford dons did that simply to test who really knows what they’re talking about and who’s just bluffing), I discovered the most pleasant-sounding accent of all: received pronunciation. Translation: that hot, snotty British accent. I know, I know. Snotty is not good. Trust me, I found that out the hard way.
These British boys, always named Alistair, Duncan, or George, came to Oxford from moneyed families older than my home country, wearing gold rings on their pinkies stamped with their initials, which were also their fathers’ initials, and their fathers’ before them, and their fathers’ before them, and you get the idea. These boys drank and partied like nothing I’d ever seen, and I soon realized why: because their whole life was already laid out before them. They had gone to the best secondary schools (high schools, in Brit-speak), passed their A levels (the Brit equivalent of SATs), and now were living it up at one of the most prestigious universities in the world before moving to London, getting a top job at a bank, and marrying their equally-rich (and very bitchy) female counterparts.
This is a generalization, of course. But it was disheartening to learn that the majority of these golden-tongued males were only out for one thing: slags (translation: hooches). And this American slag wasn’t so down with that. Sure, I may have made a few social blunders that made it seem like I was playing their game. Who knew that “knob” doesn’t mean doorknob in Brit-speak? So when I said, “What? I was just reaching for his knob!” it was very, very well received. As was my declaration that I liked Duncan’s pants. Pants were underwear. Trousers were what you wore on the outside, I was told. Oops.
Even after being pursued by a Jason Statham-look alike whose real name was- I kid you not- George Burns, I started to miss American boys. American men, I mean. Our country grows them nicely, I realized longingly from 3,000 miles away. And I had never appreciated them as I should have. After an exciting (and educational) year abroad, I was happy to come home to a country where the men played real sports (cricket does not a real athlete make), dressed like males (nary a pink sock or shirt in sight), and loved passionately. Take that, wankers!
Sure, sure, I still swoon a little when I see a movie starring an actor with a deep and intoxicating British accent (Alan Rickman, Jeremy Irons, and the ephemeral Johnny Depp have the best accents in the business today), or hear an Australian accent in a bar (and trust me, they’re always in bars). But the accent I’ve come to love the most is one I never thought I’d hear, let alone be obsessed with: a little bit rough-and-tumble Maryland, with a twist of New York by way of Florida. This accent caught my ear with the very first words it uttered: “So, uh, what are you doing right now? We should get a drink.” And it continues to bowl me over day after day. It’s the first thing I look forward to hearing in the morning and the last sweet, comforting thing I hear at night. Come to think of it, maybe it’s not the accent so much as the person speaking with it that I’m obsessed with.
And that is true music to my ears.
Anne Walls is a writer/director as well as co-founder of a writing website called WordHustler.com. A member of the Writer’s Guild, Anne has been a staff writer on Fox’s “Saints and Sinners” and creator of a YouTube series called “Mookie and Sam,” which has received over 2 million hits. Anne began her career working at Creative Artists Agency, Paramount Pictures, and Time Inc., after graduating from UCLA with a degree in English Literature. She lives in Los Angeles with her insane terrier.