Accents past and future

I came across an interesting article on the BBC News website today about the predominant use of British accents for characters in fantasy worlds, such as the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones is apparently aimed at American audiences, adapted from books by George RR Martin, an American author, but almost all the characters speak with British accents. Also for historical dramas in English the default and expected accents are generally British. The article suggests that British accents add a “splash of otherness” to such productions, at least for American audiences.

On the other hand for fantasy films and TV series set in the future, on other planets and/or in space, American accents are probably more common than British accents. Although there are exceptions, such as Red Dwarf and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and some characters in Star Trek.

In plays, particularly those by Shakespeare, the default accent is RP (posh), although quite a few of the puns and jokes don’t work in that accent. Some productions in original pronunciation (OP) have also been staged, and were well received. In other English-speaking countries do Shakepearean actors speak in the normal accents, or do they use RP?

Are different regional or national accents associated with particular time periods in films in other languages?

8 thoughts on “Accents past and future

  1. It’s also worth pointing out that in Shakespeare or epic theater or the like British accents are a lot more effectively for quickly signifying class differences between characters.

  2. Shakespeare in the U.S. is typically presented in an American accent. Unlike the U.K., there are only a handful of prominently distinguishable regional accents in the U.S. I live in the Southeast, which has one of the most distinct accents — but I would be very surprised (albeit pleasantly surprised) to hear Shakespeare done in a “Southern accent”.

    But your question makes me wonder what they would do if some of the actors were American and other were British. It would be jarring to hear some of the actors speak in a British accent while others speak in an American accent.

    I heard a story on National Public Radio recently ( ) talking about Shakespeare presentations in the original pronunciation. The first example they gave sounded Scottish to my ears. In the second one, I thought I was hearing an American accent. (It sounded so naturally American to my ears that I thought they were setting up a contrast, with the first reading using an American accent and the second using original pronunciation. But it should be noted that others have described it as “Appalachian”, a variation of the Southern accent; my exposure to the Southern accent on a day-to-day basis may have deafened me to subtle distinctions that would be notable to Americans from elsewhere in the country.)

    In sci-fi shows produced in America, it is almost cliche to have at least one actor with a British accent and at least one with a non-English accent.

  3. Also, it may amuse you and your U.K. readers to know that many of us in America often have trouble distinguishing the accents from the rest of the English-speaking world. As for myself, I often conflate Scottish and Irish accents. And I’ve mistaken Australian, South African, and Hong Kong accents for British. I (and I am by no means alone in this) think that Canadians sound just like us — but they perceive a great difference between the Canadian and the American accent.

  4. I can’t comment anything on English accent cuz I’m not a native speaker. All I can tell is British accent is more touch and serious, and a bit harder for me to understand sometimes.

    For Chinese language. Almost all movies or TV episode that tell stories happened at least 100 years ago are recorded in standard mandarin. Only contemporary movies or TV episodes reflect regional difference in accents and dialects.


  5. I’m a big fan of sf and fantasy. I think part of the reason for fantasy having so many British accents is that so many early giants of the field were British authors writing about British characters, and the adaptations of those works set the pattern that other adaptations are expected to follow. (Even though Middle-Earth is not strictly our world, it’s supposed to be an earlier age of our world, and the Shire is pretty clearly meant to represent England.)

    On the sf side of things, don’t forget Doctor Who! The revived series is probably the most popular sf series in the US at the moment.

  6. I believe my brother once noted that in all the documentaries about Rome you ever see on TV in the US, the narration is invariably in a British accent. He even satirized this in a short video he made when he and his wife went to Rome…by identifying the buildings in a British accent while his wife was filming! (The video is less than 2 min. long, but I don’t think it’s available for general public viewing).

  7. In Australia Shakespeare is done without any particular accent, although a slightly more formal register – that might be the effect of the language, though.

    I saw a production of Richard III recently, with Kevin Spacey, and the actors – British and American – used their natural accents. I only noticed it for a few minutes, and then it seemed quite natural.

    I wonder if it’s related to the origins of fantasy: Tolkien, Lewis, et al? The harder SF seemed to originate in the US, but perhaps the English countryside that is reflected in Middle-earth and Narnia influences the genre to this day.

  8. This has always bothered me about any film set in ancient Greece or Rome – even those that are American produced, where the “Greeks” and “Romans” are blond and speaking in UK accents.

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