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A Yank is bloody confused 'ere.
April 16, 2007 4:53 AM   Subscribe

Been watching early episodes of The Office (UK version). The lead character, a vain, self-important white-collar middle manager, speaks with a Cockney accent. This Yank is damn confused.

Yeah, I know that The Office is situated in a bedtown on the outskirts of London, hence the Londonspeak. But even so, I would have thought that David, the main character, would speak in a slightly more upperclass dialect. He seems to drop h's and swallow consonants with aplomb, though perhaps not to the extent of a true, born-and-bred Cockney speaker.

Even more confusing to my Yank mentality, none of the characters speak in "posh" British English. After watching Monty Python, in which John Cleese, when playing MPs or even mid-level bureaucrats, invariably spoke with a posh accent, I'm stymied.

Has the outlook on posh accents changed since the filming of Python (and Fawlty Towers) in the seventies? At the same time, have Cockney accents and other regional accents gained greater acceptance? What's the state of British English as a register of class these days?
posted by Gordion Knott to Writing & Language (55 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
David Brent's accent isn't Cockney; it's some kind of generic Estuary English iirc.
I don't know what possesses you to think that posh people in the UK take jobs as middle management in stationery suppliers - if they work at all it will be in prestige jobs like the media or the really high-powered stuff in the corporate world.
Attitudes to accents have certainly shifted. The BBC will now use announcers with (mild) regional accents, and has done so consciously for some time.
One curious factor left-over of the class system is the number of posh people in the UK who try to pretend they're not, hence the term mockney.
posted by Abiezer at 5:07 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


That second para above sounds a bit arsey, sorry
As to the decline in received pronunciation (your "none of the characters speak in 'posh' British English"), there's been plenty of discussion of that too, which I think generally concludes it's to do with the currency of the idea (illusion for my money) of a meritocracy. Tony Blair went to some of Britain's poshest schools but conceals any evidence of this in his speaking voice.
posted by Abiezer at 5:30 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Python lot were all educated at Oxford/Cambridge, can't remember which. Those were their real accents.

The actors in the Office weren't. They're a hodge-podge of London, Wales, Devon/Cornwall, and a smattering of other more neutral accents. Again, all their own accents. It's a mockumentary, and therefore reflects reality, with all its accents.
posted by sonicgeeza at 5:31 AM on April 16, 2007


This is an awesome question.

Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin were all Oxbridge-educated. Representative of the establishment. The accents you hear in British media aren't a typical cross-section of the country, and were even less-so in the 70s.
posted by Leon at 5:32 AM on April 16, 2007


Also, David Brent's accent is pretty much Ricky Gervais's own, and it's not as if Gervais was cast in the role by someone else; the character and the show are his creation, and he just talks like himself. This isn't the case for eg. Mackenzie Crook, though.

But don't feel bad: you're way less confused than this Yank, who wrote a whole recent New Yorker 'Shouts & Murmurs' piece under the mistaken impression that taxi drivers in York speak Cockney.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:35 AM on April 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


That New Yorker bit is priceless, game warden. Oh dear.
posted by Abiezer at 5:42 AM on April 16, 2007


The Pythons were Oxbridge types but I there's also an element of parody in their posh voices sometimes, in the same way that people didn't wear bowler hats to work much by the time they were doing their thing either.
posted by Mocata at 5:57 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


PS That New Yorker thing is extraordinary.
posted by Mocata at 5:58 AM on April 16, 2007


I think part of it is how we Americans are conditioned to respond to British accents.

Once upon a time I was in Paddington station in London. The man behind the counter, well, imagine a first Raiders of the Lost Arc movie that didn't suck where the Nazis are looking for something somewhere on the south side of the Himalayas and are being followed at a distance by three or four locals on horses. At some point the Nazis dig something up, and one of the horsemen rides day and night to a telegraph station where he exchanges some rapid words with the man behind the counter. Cut to someone telling Harrison Ford something. Cut to a map of the world and a dotted line.

Take the actor playing the long distance horseman, give him a shower and a clean turban, replace his outfit with a British Railworker's uniform and you have a pretty good picture of the man behind the counter. When he opened his mouth the sound that came out was something like, "It's now ten past the hour and your listening to the BBC. Today in Japan the prime minister..." only it had more to do with activating my rail pass and getting to Victoria station. If you're used to people from certain parts of the world tending to be recent immigrants and speaking with heavy accents it's a kind of cool cognitive dissonance.

I'm just guessing that his great grandfather wasn't the earl of anything. I'm also guessing that they don't go out looking for "voice talent" when they staff the railroad. Tell me where he grew up and I'll bet I can tell you the accent you are identifying as "posh" British English.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:03 AM on April 16, 2007


Neil and Jennifer are posher than the rest of the characters in The Office, and I think are a reasonable reflection of what you might expect their characters to sound like - basically the modern version of received pronunciation.
posted by teleskiving at 6:04 AM on April 16, 2007


Chapman: Cambridge (Leicestershire)
Cleese: Cambridge (Somerset)
Idle: Cambridge (Tyneside)

Jones: Oxford (Wales)
Palin: Oxford (Sheffield)

Gilliam: Minneapolis
posted by Chrysostom at 6:04 AM on April 16, 2007


OK, it's the second Raiders of the Lost Ark movie that sucked, but is first in chronology. You know what I mean.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:06 AM on April 16, 2007


Please don't take the New Yorker and its pathetic, moronic stab at humor as representative of the media's ignorance. Said rag is insular and parochial, confined to the four corners of Manhattan. Most Americans are more sophisticated than that.

If the trend toward meritocracy in Britain is so strong that Blair suppresses his upper-class background to gain street cred, what's the take on this situation by the peerage? Does lady so-and-so suppress her posh accent when discussing her prize fox terriers in a BBC interview?

Presumably, the aristocracy feels that "meritocracy" is a bunch of bollocks. You'd think they'd be the last ones to adopt Estruary English or what have you. . .
posted by Gordion Knott at 6:20 AM on April 16, 2007


Yep, gordian, I'd say you're about right with your last. Obviously, unlike Tony, they don't put themselves up for election by the oi polloi. They just keep on owning the place.
posted by Abiezer at 6:26 AM on April 16, 2007


There's a British drama series about a "lower-class" girl becoming a model where I found the accents of her family impenetrable. And I watch a lot of British TV. I wish I could remember the name of it.
posted by smackfu at 6:27 AM on April 16, 2007


You would not expect an upper class Oxbridge educated gentleman to be working in David Brent's position.
posted by fire&wings at 6:36 AM on April 16, 2007


Hello,

I worked in and around the area that The Office is set (Slough, Reading, i.e. the Thames Valley) and Gervais's accent is pretty much spot-on for that area. I can't watch it, because it takes me back (it was a fairly miserable time work-wise for me).
posted by Happy Dave at 6:38 AM on April 16, 2007


Mild aside: can someone identify the accent Gareth has in the BBC Office? He's a strange little man with an accent I can't place. Of course, I'm from Texas, so what do I know.
posted by Bud Dickman at 6:41 AM on April 16, 2007


Most Americans are more sophisticated than that.

Oh, really?
posted by oxford blue at 6:50 AM on April 16, 2007


Wow, great post!

As a brit myself, you might be interested in these two articles from earlier this year in The Guardian newspaper here. A tad off topic, but both about dialects in the UK etc.

This one is in reference to the British Library launching a map of the UK displaying regional dialects and then talking about how they've changed in recent years.

This one is an interview with Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman, who has quite a thick Scottish accent and still battles with prejudices in the industry, and has a bit about how unacceptable regional accents are in some quarters.
posted by philsi at 7:01 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Bud Dickman - Gareth's accent is West Country. The stereotype this calls to mind, to British ears, is of country bumpkins, ie hicks. Obligatory Wurzels link.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:03 AM on April 16, 2007


Gervais' accent is Thames Valley not London - it is quite distinct (certainly to an English ear). It is essentially estuary english tinged with west-country. Absolutely perfect for a middle manager for a paper manufacturer in Slough. Gareth has a more pronounced West Country accent - this is deliberate as it leads him to be perceived in a particular way by other english people. The West Country accent is widely regarded as being likeable but indicitive of a lack of sophistication/bumpkinhood.

"According to Gervais: “We wanted him to have a slight West Country accent because he had to have that wide-eyed, innocent thing. There’s almost a cuteness about him”. According to Mackenzie, his part was originally written for the series co-writer Stephen Merchant, who does have a very similar accent to Gareth if you’ve ever heard him on XFM with Gervais."

I guess the US equivalent would be from the mid-west??
posted by zemblamatic at 7:13 AM on April 16, 2007


I might point out that none of the actors in the US version of the show seem to attempt any sort of rural Pennsylvania accent. It would probably be too much to ask most actors to maintain an accent over the run a weekly TV show. No one on Cheers had a Boston accent.
posted by octothorpe at 7:29 AM on April 16, 2007


No one on Cheers had a Boston accent.

Cliff Claven sure sounded pretty Boston-y to me.
posted by Bud Dickman at 7:34 AM on April 16, 2007


I don't know what possesses you to think that posh people in the UK take jobs as middle management in stationery suppliers

Difficulty with regional dialects aside, I think this is the real issue. In the US, at some companies (like the one I work at), becoming a manager is a big deal and it means you've "arrived" so to speak. So we might think of these people as successful and educated - but that doesn't mean they are posh.
posted by cabingirl at 7:36 AM on April 16, 2007


The US equivalent to West Country would most likely be Southern -- perhaps somewhat northern states in the Southern area, rather than deep south.

The midwest has its share of hicks -- oh, God yes, it's deep in Bush country -- but the accent itself is somewhat flat and undistinguished. Doesn't lend itself to TV scripts very well.
posted by Gordion Knott at 7:37 AM on April 16, 2007


Most Americans are more sophisticated than that.
This is my astonished face.

I guess the US equivalent would be from the mid-west??
Perhaps. The midwest is a big swath of the country, with some pretty distinct accents. The stereotypical Minnesota accent (think Fargo) evokes all those qualities of cuteness and bumpkinhood, but easily slips into being a joke.
posted by adamrice at 7:38 AM on April 16, 2007


Cliff Claven sure sounded pretty Boston-y to me.

The jury's out on that. I am a native speaker of New England dialect, and I thought that Cliff Claven (and his mother) had the best New England accent on television. Other people from New England say it was over-the-top awful. (But they are people with pronounced New England accents who don't want to admit that they and their friends sound like that.)
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:45 AM on April 16, 2007


In another aside, I was at some conference where one of the speakers gave a highly erudite technical presentation in a right proper Brizzle accent, which was excellent. Chatting to the lad afterwards, he said while it was his mormal mode of speech, he does sometimes play it up a bit just for the reaction it provokes in that kind of context.
posted by Abiezer at 7:47 AM on April 16, 2007


One issue here is that the US has very few genuinely "posh" accents, and very few people speak the ones we do have.

The divide, where there is one, is generally working-class vs. middle-class. So when there's a few accents available, we expect that even a regular middle-class guy — an office manager, say — will speak the most prestigious of them.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:10 AM on April 16, 2007


Most Americans are more sophisticated than that.

Are you seriously arguing that most Americans would know cabbies in York don't have Cockney accents? Excuse me while I fall down laughing, then become maudlin.

My favorite reaction from Americans in Britain is watching their faces the first time they hear a black guy talk either Cockney or Oxbridge.

And for US posh accents: I lived near Boston for years and never heard anyone but a Kennedy speak like a Kennedy. What's up with that?
posted by poxuppit at 8:16 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


A small note: I think what you're calling "posh British English", is more properly known as Recieved Pronounciation (RP). Which isn't exactly an accent, more a lack of an accent. My accent is naturally RP, and I quite often get told "You don't have much of an accent", when I tell people I've lived in London all my life. (I slightly disagree with the Wikipedia page, I would say the Queen speaks exaggerated RP - it's the difference between saying how-s and hice for house).

On preview - teleskiving is right there.
posted by featherboa at 8:27 AM on April 16, 2007


I lived near Boston for years and never heard anyone but a Kennedy speak like a Kennedy. What's up with that?

That's called a "Kennedy" accent-- the consensus is that Joe Kennedy invented it to sound like a Brahmin instead of an Irishman who started with nothing and got very rich on his own terms because Boston isn't known for respecting New Money. So it's Joe's approximation that he taught to his kids.

So the short answer is "It's an odd cross between an old Boston Protestant accent that almost doesn't exist anymore and the accent now found on the South Shore among Massachusetts Irish."
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:47 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


In a reverse of the process, watching The Wire recently, I was struck by having to sometimes strain to understand a US accent for the first time in years. All a question of what you get exposed to and how frequently, of course.
posted by Abiezer at 9:06 AM on April 16, 2007


There are a few posh US accents, the one I'm most familiar with being the Long Island Lockjaw (mentioned on wikipedia as the Locust Valley Lockjaw) which is speaking without ever moving the jaw. This was detailed in Nelson Demille's "The Gold Coast" among other places.
posted by stovenator at 9:19 AM on April 16, 2007


You would not expect an upper class Oxbridge educated gentleman to be working in David Brent's position.

And more generally, you would expect neither someone educated at Oxbridge, nor someone from the background where they would pick up an RP accent, to be working in Brent's position.

Not everyone going to Oxbridge these days has or picks up an RP accent, although 3 years in a place with 50% public school/state school make-up can certainly affect your accent. (It did mine, I more or less lost the hint of Kent/estuary accent I had). The RP accent is much more indicative of class than of region, although it tends to be concentrated in upper and mid-middle class households in the South East.
posted by greycap at 9:37 AM on April 16, 2007


Mild aside: can someone identify the accent Gareth has in the BBC Office? He's a strange little man with an accent I can't place. Of course, I'm from Texas, so what do I know.

As others have said, he bases his accent off the accent of Steve Merchant, the co-writer of the show.

Steve Merchant is from Bristol, which I believe in the Northern country.
posted by Becko at 9:44 AM on April 16, 2007


Recieved Pronounciation (RP). Which isn't exactly an accent, more a lack of an accent.

Do people actually believe that? There's no such thing as a lack of an accent, unless you're not talking.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:49 AM on April 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


Bristol, which I believe in the Northern country.
Oh no, my lover, that bain't be where it's to at all.
posted by Abiezer at 10:16 AM on April 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


A lot of people have chimed in saying, "It's unlikely that an Oxbridge graduate would work as the regional manager of a paper company," or words to that effect.

Is an Oxbridge education that much of a ticket out of middle management at boring manufacturers?

It seems like there could be many instances where a public school/Oxbridge type would work in David's job -- as a stepping stone to something better, perhaps, or the result of being sidetracked by alcohol, drug, or relationship problems . . .
posted by Gordion Knott at 10:39 AM on April 16, 2007


There's no such thing as a lack of an accent, unless you're not talking.

Well... a better way of putting this might be that RP is not identified with one geographical area, but with more affluent and educated people across England. It is concentrated in the South-East, but each region of the South-East has its own accent, too.

Note that RP is not the same as the cut-glass aristocratic English accent, in which "house" becomes "hice", round becomes "rind", etc. Utterly ridiculous on the rare occasions you hear it.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 10:41 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


Are you seriously arguing that most Americans would know cabbies in York don't have Cockney accents? Excuse me while I fall down laughing, then become maudlin.

I'm American, I wouldn't know that, and I'm not at all embarrassed about it. How would I know that? I'm succeeding at not letting myself feel stupid or inferior here. ;)
posted by iguanapolitico at 11:14 AM on April 16, 2007


Gordion Knott -- you'd be very surprised to find an Oxbridge grad in a middle management industrial job, unless it's the owner's son or nephew doing an obligatory tour through the branches and plants before being appointed to a C-level spot.

Just like elite school grads do here, Oxbridge grads who want to work in the private sector do so in consulting, finance, law, media, or (sexy) technologies. There simply isn't enough early money -- or glamor -- in being a management trainee in business.

This is actually a democratizing thing, though: if you ever wonder why such a high proportion of Fortune 500 CEOs have degrees from completely non-elite colleges, it's because the elite school's neglect of general management as a career track leaves it fully open to be pursued by those with less blue-chip educational credentials.
posted by MattD at 11:28 AM on April 16, 2007


smackfu : Are you thinking of Drop Dead Gorgeous?
posted by punilux at 12:49 PM on April 16, 2007


In a reverse of the process, watching The Wire recently, I was struck by having to sometimes strain to understand a US accent for the first time in years.

Idris Elba or Dominic West?
posted by mlis at 5:22 PM on April 16, 2007


Heh. I actually knew that MLIS, as Elba got mentioned in the Guardian in an artile on the lack of decent black roles on British telly.
I reckoned the Irish lad who plays the mayor gave himself away a few times, but might have been because I knew about him too. Never heard any Sheffield from Dominic West, and it's an accent I know well through family ties.
posted by Abiezer at 5:39 PM on April 16, 2007


Are you seriously arguing that most Americans would know cabbies in York don't have Cockney accents?

I'm not sure that the average American could tell you where York is. I'm trying to think of what York has that is going to draw international attention. I mean unless you're really into sugar beet processing or medieval architecture York is kind of off the beaten path.

Not to disparage the city. Hell, I wouldn't mind living there. But it's like asking a Britt to point out Kalamazoo, Michigan on an unlabeled map of the state and then asking them what pro football team people from Kalamazoo are likely to root for.

On a slightly related note. When I was in London you'd think I had the longer hair than any man in England. In York, while I wouldn't say I blended right in, I didn't feel like I was a unique specimin. Why?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:17 PM on April 16, 2007


Aye but Kid, point is I'd be an arsepiece if I wrote a "comic" screed parading said ignorance of Kalamazoo for publication in a reputed journal, and hence so is the New Yorker author and whoever let it get into print.
Can't think why Yorkies would be particularly hirsute. Too high a percentage of good-for-nothing students?
posted by Abiezer at 6:28 PM on April 16, 2007


Bristol, which I believe in the Northern country.
Oh no, my lover, that bain't be where it's to at all.


I was just going by the Ricky Gervais XFM show. I could have sworn that they constantly refer to Steve Merchant as "a northerner."
posted by Becko at 6:58 PM on April 16, 2007


I was just going by the Ricky Gervais XFM show. I could have sworn that they constantly refer to Steve Merchant as "a northerner."

Yep - I think Abiezer is going by geography. Karl Pilkington is the Northerner on that XFM show, from Manchester.
posted by creeky at 3:46 AM on April 17, 2007


you'd be very surprised to find an Oxbridge grad in a middle management industrial job ... Oxbridge grads who want to work in the private sector do so in consulting, finance, law, media, or (sexy) technologies.

I'm not convinced by this. I'm an Oxbridge graduate working in middle management - public sector, it's true, but that's partly chance, and I know at least a couple of ex-Oxbridge people with fairly poorly-paid middle-management or lower-level posts in industry. Came across this today (on divabat's website: "A 1999 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research by economists Alan B. Kreuger and Stacy Berg Dale found that “students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students"". I know it's a study from the US and that studies here haven't always found the same, but even so it's worth bearing in mind that Oxbridge does not always mean well-paid or glamour.
posted by paduasoy at 3:48 PM on April 17, 2007


Oxbridgers? In the last fifteen years(*), once we remove employees of government departments, political parties, higher education establishments and the BBC/national press from the equation, I have met exactly one.

That's only slightly lower than one would expect.

But there's just no telling them how segregated they are, for reasons I've not quite fathomed.

* (For "last fifteen years" we shall assume I mean "the fifteen years prior to my leaving the country 20 months ago".)

Back on topic,

a) Ricky 'does' a good Reading accent by dint of his being from Reading

b) 'Received pronunciation' describes a particular form of speech which hasn't been routinely used by anybody whose family name isn't 'Windsor' since the late 1950s, and bears no resemblance at all to the description of it above, and

c) Statistically speaking, when I've said 'nobody' here, I mean that when expressed as a multiple of the total population of the UK you'd need more zeros than non-zeros to write it down, which leaves me comfortable enough to report to our USian cousins that

d) "Nobody" talks like John Cleese any more other than by doing it on purpose, and that's been true for about thirty years.
posted by genghis at 7:03 AM on April 18, 2007


b) 'Received pronunciation' describes a particular form of speech which hasn't been routinely used by anybody whose family name isn't 'Windsor' since the late 1950s, and bears no resemblance at all to the description of it above

That's wrong; RP is a moving target, and has diverged from the "upper class" accent (if they ever were synonymous... I'm not convinced of that).
posted by Leon at 8:12 AM on April 18, 2007


This website seems to consider the Queen's accent in a class of her own, and not necessarily considered to be an example of RP:
Received Pronunciation, or RP for short, is the instantly recognisable accent often described as ‘typically British’. Popular terms for this accent, such as ‘The Queen’s English’, ‘Oxford English’ or ‘BBC English’ are all a little misleading. The Queen, for instance, speaks an almost unique form of English, while the English we hear at Oxford University or on the BBC is no longer restricted to one type of accent.
The page has a few examples; it is surprisingly not as stereotypically 'posh' as people here have portrayed it out to be.

Indeed a surprising number of Australian accents follow many of the same qualities, especially the trap-bath split (i.e danse instead of dance--a long 'a' sound).
posted by oxford blue at 7:11 PM on April 20, 2007


I went to university in Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. In some of the traditionally "exclusive" college social groups, it was not unusual (though still quite rare) to find an Irish-born person affecting a reasonably correct RP accent, albeit with giveaway sliding vowels that diverged from the "standard" significantly. Someone not from Ireland or the UK would have difficulty concluding that they were not "British".
posted by meehawl at 9:25 AM on July 22, 2007


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