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