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Monday, June 20, 2011

The Joy of Hearing an American Accent Butchered by British Actors.

I have spent most of my life not giving any thought to what American voices sound like. Nor have I considered the challenges inherent in producing one if you are not a native speaker. That has all changed recently when I began watching the wonderful English TV program Spooks, known as MI-5 here. I notice so many bad American accents now. I think the American-accent-factor springs so dramatically to life in that show because Americans are portrayed as such assholes. It just draws attention to all their irritating ways to hear that flat, awful consonant-y approach to the English language.

My favorite bad American accent comes from CIA agent Sarah Caulfield (played by Irish actress Genevieve O'Reilly). Here's a nice little snippet of her. (Unfortunately, embedding is disabled, so it won't play here. You have to click on the link to You Tube)   http://youtu.be/u3CSFM0PbCQ

And by way of apology to the British people, this voice makes me realize how incredibly distracting Gwyneth Paltrow's accent in Emma must have been.
 
But I digress. The weird thing is that she (Sarah Caulfield) gets a lot of American pronunciations right. Overall, most of her words sound passable with a distinctly American sound. The problem is she mixes dialects in a way that no American voice would ever naturally do. The result is a voice that is shockingly schizophrenic. Some of it is Brooklyn, some Midwest, some Southern.

I am not criticizing the actors like O'Reilly who play American roles. I enjoy the experience of hearing "my" accent butchered. Its fun for me to try and determine which actors are really Americans and which are Brits. I can usually tell.  Even the really good accents just don't quite sound right, an observation on the complexity of the elements that go into making up a pattern or tone of speech.  There is some intangible factor at work that gives away the truth when it is hard to put a finger on why.

This giveaway plays to the subtlety of culture, and reminds me of how, when we were in the Netherlands, people stared at us everywhere we went. Even without opening our mouths, we stuck out. I still have no idea why.  We were all fairly fair-complected; we were not dressed in any dead-giveaways like white tennis shoes; we weren't carrying cameras and video equipment around our necks. Some slight differences in stance, body language, clothing, hairstyles, etc all combined to create a vision that simply said "American" to any Dutch person in the vicinity. I found it fascinating.

Another factor is going on too, in addition to the subtle things that make the American accents sound not quite right when attempted by non-native speakers. And that is that American voices really do just sound ugly and wrong next to English ones. I realized this when watching Elizabeth McGovern in Downton Abbey. At first I thought I was listening to a fake American accent because her voice sounded so bad, before I realized this was an American actress. Duh! Unless Americans' subconsciously alter their speech patterns once they are surrounded by Brits (it could happen), the American voice just sounds out of place when everyone else is speaking British English.

I am going to try an experiment which should involve a bit of research and a lot more watching of period drama. I hope. I will see if all American accents sound equally bad next to English ones. In other words, does a southern accent sound OK? Does a Midwestern one seem more out of place than a Californian? We'll see.

If anyone from the UK would like to weigh in, tell me which performances by American actors and actresses in English accents were most offensive to the ear? And which were good?


The Joy of Hearing an American Accent Butchered by British Actors. LostinBritishTV

46 comments:

  1. AMY! Reading your posts is like we've been sharing a brain. When I first heard this lovely woman's attempt at a Texas accent, I had no one I could share my smug, superior reaction with because no one I knew was watching SPOOKS. Thank GAWD I can finally vent here (or enjoy your quasi-vent) because it used to drive me crazy. Loving your blog.

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    1. Well, I have to diagree. I've seen this series twice, and I thought that she was very good. I'm from New York, and I know that there are a vast array of accents up and down the East Coast. Some are blended, some are the result of class. Some are the result of being raised within a select culture.
      I thought that she reminded me of several very smart East Coast women,with an underling New York back ground.

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    2. M. Hayes, I think you were blinded by her pretty hair. Initially I thought she was Russian (she pronounces cabinet "kyebinet") and then I thought she was Northern Irish. Then she sounded a little like Scarlett O' Hara (where "can't" has two syllables) with a hint of Brooklyn when she can't decide whether her accent is rhotic or not. This is hands down one of the most awkward and poorly executed American accents I've ever heard, made even more comical by the seriousness of the scenes she appears in.

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    3. M. Hayes speaks as a true narcissistic American.

      "I have."
      "I've seen."
      "I thought."
      "I'm from."
      "I know."

      I. I. I.

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  2. Worst. Accent. Ever. I find it hard to believe that "Genevieve O'Reilly" is even human. There is butchering and then there is O'Reilly. She is OMFG awful. UnFbelievable. I've never been worked up by a bad American accent. Hell, I'd never heard one until watching O'Reilly in Spooks a month ago. Since then I've done some research and have heard plenty of bad American accents but none approach O'Reilly's. Really, she put on a post-doctorate class on what not to do. It is unreal just how much hearing her accent puts me into a rage. There is no way O'Reilly will ever be able to convince me she can act regardless of how many shows, plays or movies I see her in within my life. No way, no how. She'll never live this down. UnFnbelievablyawful. F.

    P.S. The guy playing Russell Price? Obviously, he asked Genevieve how to go about doing a bad American accent.

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  3. Haha!, agreed, Russell Price is really bad too. But, you know who I thought is pretty good -- Brian Protheroe who plays Samuel Walker.

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  4. Elizabeth McGovern's accent sounds very strange to Americans as well. Perhaps she has been affecting British accents for so long due to her work in England that she has forgotten her own native lilt. But though I think she is lovely and wonderful in Downton Abbey, I have found her accent, which does not sound normal, distracting. I am a lifelong citizen of the U.S.and found this site because I googled her to see what nationality she was since her accent definitely does not sound like a native speaker of American English.

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    1. Elizabeth McGovern's accent is hard to listen to. She's been mostly in British stuff for the last two decades, so I don't think her American accent comes naturally to her anymore.

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    2. This is crazy, connie! Its 4 a.m. and I'm on the internet searching for "Elizabeth McGovern's natural accent"! I just watched her in "Chasing the Moon" with Sean Penn; I only watched that because I recently got into Downton Abby,and having previously seen her on "The Scarlet Pimpernel" I just HAD to see her In something
      else to hear what she sounded like! I am an American, and her American accent in Downton is downright fake sounding. She sounded so natural as a Britt in Pimpernel. Interestingly, she sounded a tad off (but just a BIT) on her American accent in Chasing, too-and that was back in the 80s. Strange how one's accent morphs... But, goodness, isn't she gorgeous?! ;-)

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    3. Elizabeth McGovern's accent sounds very strange to me too, an American who has lived in Ireland for more than 20 years, from a very young age and yet who retains an unaffected American accent. I can say from knowing many other American who have lived in the UK and Ireland for many, many years, that I have never before heard an accent quite like Ms. McGovern's, except in those who wish to affect the mannerisms and speech patterns of the upper class. Even then, this manner of pronunciation lasts only a short while.

      A mystery!

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  5. I googled Sarah Caulfield expressly to see if anyone else thought her "American" accent was as awful as I thought. I am an American from New York and almost couldn't watch Season 8 of MI-5 becasue I couldn't stand her accent. Thank you for writing about it!

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  6. Another interesting accent transaction to listen to is Emma Thompson taking on Hillary Clinton in Primary Colors. She nails the American accent, the sounds, but her mouth makes so many complicated maneuvers to get there that you can't help being reminded that it's a performance. A good one, but still a Brit talking American. (Found your site via Spooks. And I agree, that Northanger Abbey production is an odd one. Still own it on videotape!)

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    1. Thanks for the tip! I haven't seen Primary Colors. Now I'm dying to hear her "do" American! Glad we agree on Northanger Abbey too!

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  7. I'm not American and don't know much about accents. But yes, her American accent(s) vary in my mind so wildly I don't know how Lucas doesn't break up with her for that.

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  8. I'm American and have loved watching MI5, right up until Ms. O'Reilly's character, Sarah Caulfield, came to the show. It's difficult to watch her while her weird accent morphs from a caricature New York borough/goombah accent that makes all New Yorkers sound positively melodic in comparison , a feat I would never have thought possible, to a bad southern accent, and often all within same sentences. It's just painful and so distracting. One wonders if all the British people on set were thinking she was doing a really good job? I often wonder why Hollywood doesn't just hire British actors to play British parts because so many of them can't pull of a decent Brit dialect either( most notably Keanu Reeves in F.F.Coppola's Dracula - ugh, so painful even Reeves himself said he was awful in the film) , and now I suggest the same to whatever Britain's equivalent to Hollywood is: Hire Americans to play American parts!

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    1. Thanks for your comment! which is really funny and spot on as far as I'm concerned.

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  9. Wow! I'm so glad I found this, it was driving me crazy too! I live in South Carolina, and I hate to hear Southern accents butchered in TV and movies. Actually, any accent poorly done is painful. I also found this site because I Googled to see where she was from because her accent was killing me. It's nice to know others feel the same way.

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    1. Thanks for commenting! I can't believe how many people feel the same way.

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    2. I love this post (and these comments) so much. I got about 9.5 minutes into the first episode of series 8 of MI-5/Spooks and realized something in the milk wasn't right with that chick's accent. After 10 seconds or so I thought it was a poor imitation of a southern accent. After 30 seconds, I knew she wasn't even American, so that's when I hit pause, went a-Googling, and ended up here.

      Although I was born in a northeastern US state, I was raised largely in the south, so I also strongly hate bad southern accents. I mean it almost causes me physical pain to hear them at this point. I will say that a bad accent doesn't affect my opinion of a person's acting ability, though. I've heard some really heinous accents come from actors who've done some amazing work in other roles, so I just take it for what it is: a bad choice (hopefully never to be repeated).

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    3. I'm also from "Down South", and every time I see Steel Magnolias, I cringe as soon as Olympia Dukakis opens her mouth. Even Julia Roberts (who is from Georgia) overdid the southern drawl.

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  10. Have you been reading my mind? I also try to guess if the "Americans" are played by British or American actors. Even the British actors with a decent American accent don't sound quite right. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but I think you have come up with a plausible explanation.

    And yes, Cora in "Downton Abbey" sounds strange and jarring even though I've known all along she's American. In the last MI-5 series, the CIA guy who gets killed is really American, judging by how he sounds in the "extras". But in the show, even he sounds a little off, like he's using "'in" endings for "ing" when he normally wouldn't.

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    1. Thank you for your comment! I think I know which CIA guy you mean in Spooks - and yes, I noticed that too!

      Bolstering the idea that American's just sound bad next to British English, I just saw Debra Winger in Shadowlands the other night, and she sounded really strange too. I kept trying to decide if it was because she was trying to affect a Brooklyn accent or something, or if that was the way she always sounded.

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    2. Are you speaking about Jim Coaver ? He is played by a Canadian who is trying to sound like an American, that's why it sounds odd :)

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    3. Yes, I think that's the guy she means. Well, that would make sense then : ) Those crazy Canadians and their accents...

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  11. I think Genevieve O'Reilly has an amazing voice. I watched/listened to her on Episodes. Her voice is an ASMR trigger for me.

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  12. The first time I heard Sarah Caulfield speak, I told my husband, "she's Irish". Too bad she couldn't have spoken her lines in a beautiful Irish accent. Her horrible American accent was so distracting that it made me dread when she was on the screen. Can't remember when I've been so glad to see a character get it through the forehead.

    As a southerner, nothing makes my skin crawl like hearing someone try (and fail) to do a southern accent. I read somewhere that there are at least 47 varieties of southern accents.

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  13. Just found your best of Ruth and Harry list, thanks for that. There are Brits sounding perfectly American on American programs, Hugh Laurie and Damien Lewis top the list. And yes Sarah Caulfield got lots of sympathy from me when she sounded a little or a lot off.

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    1. Charlie Hunnan on Sons of Anarchy had me completely fooled and I still can't believe he pulls off that role, which is much more than an accent.
      The "American" accents on Spooks are horrible --- laughable, torturous, although the scripts are pretty good "American", with the odd blooper e.g. no American of the type portrayed would say "you were meant to ….".
      Downton is full of anachronisms and class errors too, which does not make the series less enjoyable.
      I often spot the Canadian actors on American shows because they say "mum" instead of "mawm".
      I am used to Cora on Dounton Abbey

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  14. Oh my God, vindication at last!! After just watching the latest episode of Spooks (MI 5 here ) I simply had to google the actress playing Sara to find out her nationality. In one scene with Lucas, her accent went from Southern to Brooklyn/Boston to Irish, and it was painful to hear it. So glad I'm not alone in picking up the variances in accents. P.S I love the show, just wish they would quit killing off the best people/roles on the show!!!!

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  15. O'Reilly crashed the worst when she attempted to be emphatic or emotional. It was just spellbinding. I've never heard anyone butcher an accent so many different ways. She couldn't even decide what region of the States to attack from word to word and line to line.

    Most of the other non-Americans playing Americans in Spooks are much better, but it was odd how they could sound quite OK for a while and then drop a word in there pronounced in a way that was not even close... like a blind spot.

    I know it's just a silly TV show, but if an accent is part of the role it's part of the actor's job and if they need a voice coach or more practice they should be willing to put the time in.

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  16. I heard Elizabeth McGovern speak in an interview, and she sounds the same as in Downton Abbey. She's married to a British man and has lived in England for years. Her accent must be a confused blend of British and American english.

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  17. Haha. I just did the same thing ...Googled Sarah Caulfield to see what non American nationality she was. Her accent makes me cringe. Russells isn't too bad until he says the word "Secretary". Americans add one more syllable to the word pronouncing the "terr ee" at the end. All in all, love the show. Currently midway thru Season 8 dreading coming to the end of the series.

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  18. The thing about Elizabeth McGovern is that she, like her character, is an American who has lived in England for over 20 years, so the influence of that in the way she speaks is pretty inevitable. Whether it's jarring or not, I think it actually is right for the character of Cora who's in a very similar cultural situation. It would be interesting to see McGovern play a 100% American role and see if she can still pull of an authentic accent. It's quite obvious from interviews that her own accent, though still somewhat more American, is quite heavily influenced by the British.

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  19. Agree with all comments here regarding bad American accents in Spooks, especially those hinting that Ms. O'Reilly really needs an accent coach. That said, nearly all American accents in that show were unbelievable, literally. Somewhere during the show I started checking all "Americans" in IMDB, because they just sounded strange and I suspected that they were not actually American. I was only wrong once (and he still sounded strange).

    Conversely, hats off to Mr. Hugh Laurie (best), Damian Lewis, and Lennie James. Those guys all do American accents in a very convincing way. I watched House for a few years before learning that he was English, and didn't believe it at first.

    I agree with another person above who suggested that both film industries should just hire the correct nationality to play the desired parts. What's so hard about that?

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  20. Excuse me! Canadians don't HAVE accents! (Unless they are native Newfoundlanders) Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, other "colonials" whose first language is English have ACCENTS! Canadians simply speak English!(my tongue is in cheek, btw :D )

    Actually, more than the unconvincing accent Ms. O'Reilly produced, it was the script comstantly interjecting "honey" that got on my nerves. A word meant to scream "I'm" American, can't you tell?? Many Canadians and Americans have "mid-Atlantic" accents, actually, without regional inflection.

    I so agree with anon about Hugh Laurie. And with casting American actors in English production. Or if you're stuck, at least cast a Canadian! :D

    fitzg

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  21. I live in Washington State, and People in BC HAVE accents differnt from us in Seattle (About, boat, produce). What bugged me, more than the bad accents, was the writing. Sarah Cuafield says something like, " I thought you were menat to be good at that." Americans would say, "I thought you were SUPPOSED to be good at that." Or when a supposed American says "I would have done." No American says that. They would add an "it" to the end of the sentence. So the writers ahve no American consultant on board to edit out britishisms in the script. As far as Elizabeth McGovern is concerned, in the story, she has lived as a British Lady for many many years, and her accent is completely appropriate as a mixture of American and British. To the british she doesn;t have that crass American sound, and to the Americans, she is not "Upper crust, what?" She has simply blended in. She would be looked down on (in the story) if she affected a truly british accent, as being a poser.

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    1. Such an excellent point about the writing! Yes! I think I always realized that but never quite formed it into a thought : ) so thank you. That is definitely a big part of the problem and why she sounded sooo grating/jarring/wrong to people. As far as an American consultant, I wonder if that would have helped them avoid blunders like thinking Franklin was an American president. haha

      I also agree on Eliz. McGovern, I have come to appreciate her accent and find that it really suits the character.

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  22. Just watched Genevieve playing an American again last night. It's not just the constant "honeys" but the British-isms, like secretree (mentioned above) and the Brits common reference to a group in the plural "Nightingale are" or "CIA are". She definitely needed a coach, or as said, just hire an American to play the role. Don't think she is much of an actor, either...just pretty.

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  23. Being more at home in the land of British accents and dialects than the variety of North-American ones (though I've arrived at a stage where Canadian, New York, Boston, Southern, Texan and 'general American' start to receive their due recognition on hearing), I was relieved to come across this analysis of what I almost dismissed as a 'what I just heard can't have been a accent glitch' (distinctly Southern in a strange environment). Especially including the detail of O'Reilly's Irish background, this is very insightful. Thank you! I enjoy your writing style and happily scour this blog :). Cheering you on from that small country whose people never fail to spot a visiting American, however carefully dressed.

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  24. OMG!! i have now just discovered this delightful UK show. and i was watching season 8. and i just couldn't take it anymore, where i had to look up to see where the hell the actress who played her was from. and first link i got was yours. which answered all my questions. and it is like what one of the earlier comments made, she wouldn't be so bad, if she weren't so schizophrenic w/it. b/c one could have made the argument that she was 1st gen amer, w/her parents coming from Ireland, Scotland, right?? b/c you do pick up parents' accents as well. take it from a california girl whose parents are from the south.

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  25. Sarah Caulfield was some what passable in the beginning then it went completely off the rails......I too had to stop and google the actress to figure out her true accent!

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  26. Question for the Americans out there. What do you think about Joshua Bowman's attempt at an American accent in ABC'S show Revenge? His accent does sound a but different to everyone else's but I never realised he wasn't American until I heard him in an interview

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  27. Elizabeth McGovern's acting is horrendous. I am embarrassed every time she says something. I just keep thinking that the other actors must put up with her awful acting and pretend that she is equally good. Honestly, she sticks out like a soar thumb. Please take her off the show. She's so bad that I am contemplating not to watch any further episodes (I'm in the middle of season 2) again. I simply cannot stand her monotone voice and lack of acting. She's horrible. Absolutely horrible.

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  28. For years, I've been watching Brits try to affect American accents, with varying degrees of success. One of the worst is Nicola Bryant (a delightful actress, no fault to her) playing Peri Brown in the 1980s run of "Doctor Who". She would regularly drop obvious British pronunciations (e.g. pronouncing "schedule" as "sh"edule instead "sk"edule), but even when the pronunciation was right, her delivery was too nasal.

    Probably one of the better American affectations is Gabrielle Anwar in "Burn Notice". The actress is English, but in the pilot episode, she had a strong Irish brogue, which then softened in the next couple of episodes, before changing to a general American accent (with just a hint of lilt) for the rest of the series.

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  29. I am so happy to find that others think Genevieve O'Reilly's accent is off. I thought perhaps she was doing a Maine accent. It's very distracting.

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  30. so glad i found this page. i thought i was losing my mind listening to o'reilly. she seems to have picked up five different vaudeville versions of how american speak, and mixes them together in paragraph with a bit of british peeking out here and there. no real person in the USA speaks like any of her impersonations. on american television we are used to seeing british actors playing americans to perfection, it is so strange to see this excellent series besmirched by the some of the worst impersonations of americans i have ever seen. matthew marsh was not too bad. the others seem to have been deliberately picked for their totally unconvincing impersonations of americans. of course, americans are such villains in the series that i might have been hard to get real americans to play these parts. it does weaken the otherwise great suspense of the series. the minute you find an actor stumbling around in an "american" accent, you know the whole plot. kind ruins the game. i was disappointed that by the end of the series we still had not discovered who was behind the plot to convince MI-5 that all these impersonators were really americans. sort of makes you worry that MI-5 wouldn't know a real american if they saw one. if it isn't strutting, cursing, waving a gun, making threats and talking in an annoying nasal twang, it can't possibly be american.

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