Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sounding Smart

And now for something completely different:

“I shouldn't be saying this - high treason, really - but I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there.”

Stephen Fry



When it comes to accents its great being a Brit in the States. Although many of us have different British accents, they are usually all very popular with the natives. Having grown up with British-sounding people I never really thought about us coming across as particularly intelligent or sophisticated, apart from the real boffins* that is. Indeed, there are some UK accents that sound positively brainless, even when the individual has a triple digit IQ (not naming any of course.) Americans however, don’t seem to make the same distinction, or at least I’ve never heard a British accent being denigrated.

From my own experience in the States, I have to agree with Fry’s statement. I’m quite often asked to read something out at school parent meetings for example, and when I ask why, I’m told it “will sound better with a British accent”. Personally, I think your average American has such a smooth, confident delivery on anything from the cafeteria menu to international diplomacy, I’d never dream of questioning them, but apparently I’m in the minority.

Not that I have much of a potty mouth these days, (three kids), but we Brits can usually deliver some fairly colo(u)rful language and get away with it over here. Dropping the “F” bomb usually has people in hysterics as they tell you it never sounds quite as good when they say it. And of course, if you use British swear words such as bloody and bugger (excuse me) it delights them. (Unfortunately my favo(u)rite one, “sodding”, is completely unknown here so it has disappeared from my lexicon.)

So yes Brits, if you fancy a quick IQ boost, pop across the Pond and just talk for a while!

(*boffin – seriously intelligent person, usually a scientist).


As an American, I have to agree with both Mr. Fry and Toni. British people just sound smart. I don’t know why, they just do. And beyond sounding smarter, we, as a nation, just love the way they talk.

My wife is forever being asked to “say something British” when she visits the States, while in the seven years I have lived here no one has ever requested me to talk just to listen to my accent. Would that it was so; I’d love the idea that people assumed I was a genius just because I accent the second syllable in “Baton” and leave the superfluous ones out of “Aluminum.”

As it is, I don’t think the Brits regard Americans as particularly smart. And when we try to imitate a British accent, well, that makes us sound particularly stupid.

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  1. I posted on my facebook about being chuffed that I'd bought a cardy with a 30% off voucher - it had Americans in hysterics.

  2. Toni might be too polite to name them, but I'm not! Brummie,estuary English, west country and Welsh valleys accents sound incredibly thick! And I used to have a Welsh valleys accent - I got rid of that pretty fast when I moved away from there.

    I've never thought about British accents sounding intelligent, but I'd have thought only fairly well spoken English (RP/ "Queen's English", or slightly less posh variations thereof) would sound intelligent. Or perhaps posher/milder versions of other accents. Eg a middle class Edinburgh accent sounds very different to broad Glaswegian!

  3. When I moved from Lancashire when I was eight years old many years ago, I was ragged about my accent by the Bristolians who had never heard another dialect before....... that I got rid of the accent within the year.
    When I look at the multicultural population now...... it seems incredible!

    Nuts in May

  4. That's funny Maggie, especially as the West Country accent is seen as one of the ones that sounds thick. I remember there was a poll of some sort a few years ago and the Brummie accent came out as top of the thick-sounding pops. I felt sorry for intelligent Brummies!

  5. And I've just noticed an interesting UK/US difference in this post's title (which I think Mike might have inserted). "Smart".
    When my elsest son was little, he would only wear t-shirts. Americans all thought it was cute because he said he wouldn't wear "Smart shirts". As a Brit, I used smart to mean more formal, whereas most Americans use it to mean intelligent.

  6. A favourite children's book of mine is "The Smartest Giant in Town", which over here has become "The Spiffiest Giant in Town". I love that word: spiffy.

    I've been told many times that an Engish accent makes you sound intelligent to American ears. Just as a Scottish accent makes you sound romantic to Engish ears.

    I think accent preferences are soft racism, honestly. I mean, if you said that you thought people with different coloured hair or skin looked more intelligent, you'd be shot down, and rightly so. So why is it acceptable to say - even jokily - that you think people with a different accent sound more intelligent?

    I've blogged about this once myself, and I don't think I got anyone to agree with me. But since I missed out on the green bean debacle (we were away on vacation), I'm happy to lob something potentially contentious into the comments at this point to catch up. I'm still on my post-vacation high, though, so be nice to me...

  7. Having lived in Paris for a year speaking in French with an American accent and getting wooed wherever I went, I kind of expected the same in England. But, I agree with Mike. No one seems to care. Perhaps, if anything, every once in a while I get the young kids thinking I'm somehow famous for having an American accent. They are more easily tricked!

  8. My boss is a Brummie and everyone here in CA lives his accent. He and I laugh about the fact he sounds "thick" in the uK. I'm more home counties, and once got a free bottle of wine for my eloquent use of the word "f*ck" in a restaurant!

  9. We're practically on the same page today. See my latest post

    (you'll need to copy and paste of course.)

  10. Iota: I did think about the word "Smart" when I wrote the title, but I thought I'd let it stand. Just so you Brits know, I don't mean "sounding spiffy" ;)

    Geekymummy: I love the Brummie accent. And well done getting the free bottle of wine. how the f*%k did you manage that?

  11. The other thing a British accent qualifies us Brits for is the part of cold blooded villian in any Hollywood movie.

    I always think that outside of America, the American accent sounds really smart.

  12. We have already told our children that when we move to the US people will initially be taken by them and their accents (they are high school aged), and even though they may stand out as new students, kids seem to like new "foreign" students. At least we all did when we had a German foreign exchange student. But we also told them that that will only get them so far, so they still need to think and be smart, because the accent will only get them so far.

  13. And probably a good idea to tell them to remember their sense of humour as everyone will imitate them ad nauseam and usually sound terrible.

  14. Like Brit in Bosnia my English hubby always points out the British villain in Hollywood films.

    Remember A Fish Called Wanda? Jamie Lee Curtis couldn't stay away from Kevin Kline when he started spouting 'Italian' (I think it was those two, right?). And didn't Kline (the American) have an anxiety about being called stupid? And wasn't John Cleese (British) the one to call him stupid? Probably more to do with character than accent but there were a few plays on what accents do to us in that film.

    And finally, I agree with Iota!! 'Accentism!' A very good point made there! But then again, it is kind of like saying 'blonde bimbo' or 'blondes have more fun' or whatever. Not entirely PC but usually accepted as a joke. And to all my blonde friends (even though I dont know who you are on here) I dont think blondes are bimbos or that they have more fun!

  15. I don't know about sounding intelligent, but everyone here says how wonderful our accents are and how our English sounds so much better than theirs. I wonder why Americans have such a downer on their own accents? Some are really attractive. Although I am already learning about accent snobbery here - eg Manhattanites being disdainful of Long Island accents (and I can't really tell the difference, I have to say).

  16. Totally agree with Mr. Fry and Toni, my accent is positively reverred (sp?) where I am and I get some very odd reactions. But then I am the only Brit in a very large area. It's even funnier when I answer the school phone in a tiny town in Oklahoma with a Brit accent! Last week someone thought I was taking the mickey!

  17. I work in Manhattan and answered the phone to someone a couple of weeks ago who said they could tell I was English as I sounded like the "Geico" advert. I wasn't sure if that was a compliment or not....

  18. I remember seeing Gillian Anderson being interviewed by Michael Parkinson several years ago. I was aware she had spent some of her childhood in Britain, but had taken for granted when she was playing Agent Scully she was using her natural voice, so it was a big surprise to hear her speaking with a predominantly English accent. (Don't know if she would have naturally switched to a more American sound on American tv.)

    It was only after a few minutes that I realised I was finding her more intelligent and even more attractive. This was a real shock to me, not least because Scully was hardly a bimbo!

  19. I agree, Anonymous, Scully was hot, and smart.

  20. I partly agree with Iota's comment about soft racism, and admit to being 'accentist'. If I were single, I wouldn't even consider going out with someone with an accent I didn't like. Nor would I go out with someone who said "sumfink" instead of "something"! I just couldn't stand to live with that.

    I don't actually think that Brummies etc really are thick, but I do cringe when I hear Welsh accents on the telly - I am quite Welsh-ist sometimes, despite coming from there. But don't they realise how awful they sound??! (actually, Welsh accents sound fine when speaking Welsh - it goes with the language. It only sounds awful in English.)

    I can't distinguish between many American accents, but don't like southern drawly ones. Again, I tend to like the more neutral accents, same as I do with with the British.

    But then, I'm entitled to my opinions just like everyone else, eh. ;-)


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