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Why Are Fantasy World Accents British? 516

Posted by Soulskill
from the consolation-prize-for-losing-the-colonies dept.
kodiaktau writes "An interesting article from the BBC News Magazine explores the reasons why most fantasy worlds use British as their primary accent. Citing specific examples from recent and upcoming shows and movies like Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit and Game of Thrones, the article concludes British accents are 'sufficiently exotic,' 'comprehensible' and have a 'splash of otherness.' It would be odd to think of a fantasy world having a New Jersey accent, or even a Mid-West accent, which tends to be the default for TV and movies in the U.S., but how do UK viewers feel about having British as a default? More specifically, what about the range of UK accents, like Scottish, Welsh, Cockney? The International Dialects of English Archive shows at least nine regional sounds, with dozens of sub-regional pronunciations in England alone. In the U.S., there have always been many regional accents that might be used in interesting ways. Filmmakers should consider looking at speech accents from other areas of the world to create more interesting dialects."
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Why Are Fantasy World Accents British?

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  • Abstraction (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bigtomrodney (993427) * on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:48PM (#39527065)
    I have to agree with this article, I've always assumed it was just the American preconception of "old worlde". Different enough to be remote but still in the same language.

    On the other hand as an Irishman I often find it hard to find escapism in Irish TV and to a lesser extent, film. The familiarity of it all doesn't work as well while on the other hand so much of our media is American that even when I visit the USA there is an element of otherworldliness about the whole experience.
    • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:52PM (#39527163)

      Imagine The Lord of the Rings where all the Hobbits had Brooklyn accents.

      Other enough to be unusual but still understandable but evoking an entirely different genre (mafia crime drama).

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:11PM (#39527475)

        Remember Rome [imdb.com]. They used accents from all over the place (mostly UK variants it has to be said) to give a feeling of being different, but still understandable. It worked really well.

        British accents tend to used for villains too... which could be seen as insulting... but actually is quite flattering when you think about it. Really scary villains are intelligent... really intelligent... and Americans associate British accents with being smart (wrongly, but there it is).

        • by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:16PM (#39527559) Homepage Journal
          There's an air of traditionality about it, as well, I think; it's as if to imply that American accents are divergent from the original core. (Although this is somewhat in question, as the evidence says that English pronunciation was rhotic in the 18th Century, like the General American accent and not like Received Pronunciation.) It was particularly peculiar to hear Americans making movies about Russians [imdb.com] where they all had English accents.
          • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Friday March 30, 2012 @07:39PM (#39530819) Journal

            As a Russian, I can tell you that I vastly prefer American movies about Russians where they all speak English (and I guess at that point they have to use accents to make it sound "foreign") over those where they actually try to put Russian in there - because I haven't seen a single movie where it wasn't hilariously wrong in both accent and sentence structure.

            Remember that scene in "Red Dawn" where a Soviet soldier tries to read the sign (in English) at the national park, has to make most of it up because of his poor command of the language, which results in a hilarious "translation"? Well, that scene is doubly hilarious if you're a Russian, because his actual speech is about as close to the English subtitles, as the subtitles themselves are to what's on the sign...

        • Remember Rome [imdb.com]. They used accents from all over the place (mostly UK variants it has to be said) to give a feeling of being different, but still understandable. It worked really well.

          In the Eagle [2011], I found that the Romans with American accents was an instant immersion killer. I cannot explain why considering giving them English accents should be just as wrong. I guess its something we have grown used to and now expect. Perhaps Romans should have regional Italian accents. Would Italian accents make for better or worse Romans? On a side note it was nice to hear Gaelic in a film even if it was largely Irish Gaelic used.
          Certain accents go well with certain types of films. Unleas

      • by NEDHead (1651195) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:16PM (#39527557)

        Imagine Romeo & Juliet set in NYC with singing & dancing street gangs....oh, wait

      • by PatPending (953482) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:18PM (#39527611)

        Imagine The Lord of the Rings where all the Hobbits had Brooklyn accents.

        Fah gedda boudit [youtube.com]

      • by Tassach (137772) on Friday March 30, 2012 @04:18PM (#39528535)

        As I said in an earlier comment, Tolkien was a linguist and as such was extraordinarily sensitive to linguistic nuances like accent and the effect of social class on speech. If you render the common tongue as English, and keep in mind the history and social status of the various characters, choosing an accent becomes pretty obvious.

        Actually if you wanted to Americanize LOTR, the Hobbits would have Southern accents (country bumpkins), the Rohirrim Texan accents (close to the Hobbits, still country but a little more refined), and the Gondorians a neutral General American/ Received Pronunciation accent (educated middle/upper-class).

        I'd give the Elves a French accent (refined and a little snooty) when speaking the Common Tongue. Quenya played the role of Latin in Middle Earth (dead language used for formal purposes), and Sindarin was an everyday language evolved from it, so a Romance language would be the closest social analog to it. To an American listener a French accent would best convey the extreme refinement and cultured history (not to mention snobbishness) of the Elves. If you wanted to get even more specific I'd give Elrond and the Rivendell elves a French Canadian accent and the Galadhrim a Parisian accent. Linguistically, a Welsh accent would be most appropriate, as Sindarin was patterned after Welsh, but it just doesn't have the same social/class implications that French does.

        If anyone had a Brooklyn accent, it would be a Dwarf. Tolkien explicitly equated the Dwarves with the Jews, and based Khuzdul on Hebrew... so a Brooklyn accent would be extremely appropriate for working-class Dwarves like Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur. Dwarvish nobility like Gimli and Thorin would have a milder, upper-class Jewish accent.

        • by idontgno (624372) on Friday March 30, 2012 @04:40PM (#39528859) Journal

          If anyone had a Brooklyn accent, it would be a Dwarf. Tolkien explicitly equated the Dwarves with the Jews, and based Khuzdul on Hebrew... so a Brooklyn accent would be extremely appropriate for working-class Dwarves like Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur. Dwarvish nobility like Gimli and Thorin would have a milder, upper-class Jewish accent.

          So, for real authenticity, Dwarvish should be Yiddish? The only problem with that is that Yiddish has been a comic language in Western pop language for so long (thanks to decades of awesome Jewish-American comedians) that it would reduce the Dwarves to comic relief.

          Oh, wait, we're talking about the LOTR movies, where the dwarves WERE reduced to comic relief. Right. Carry on.

    • Here's another thought: Think about Vikings specifically. Most often, they are portrayed with either English or Scottish accents (usually the more brutish characters get Scottish) and occasionally Californian (particularly children or teens). Why?

      Please take a moment, and imagine Mighty Thor making his presence known in a bouncing, Swedish lilt. Not one that necessarily does the Swedes justice (many speak English in a very near British accent), but something more like the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Sh

      • by stjobe (78285)

        I dare you to watch Hrafninn flýgur (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087432/) then come back and say that Vikings in movies can't speak anything but English or Scottish.

    • Re:Abstraction (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jellomizer (103300) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:28PM (#39527803)
      Well a lot of the fantasy films have a medieval themes to them. So it make sense that they would have an English accent. Because American, Australian, Canadian... Accents are post Medieval times, so you want to have an accent from an area that experience the medieval culture. You could use an accent from an other nation however. Their accent is more from not naively speaking the English language and putting their native languages inflections into the language. So for a movie that is in English British English will seem the most authentic.
      • Re:Abstraction (Score:5, Insightful)

        by snowgirl (978879) on Friday March 30, 2012 @04:16PM (#39528501) Journal

        But British accents have undergone enormous amounts of mutation as well. In some ways, they have made more changes than American English since Victorian times.

        So, while Americans associate a British accent with what should be appropriate for medieval times, because they're living where the language was spoken during medieval times, the accent being used is still anachronistic, and just as inappropriate as a Jersey accent.

      • by identity0 (77976)

        Yes, but why does it have to be a native English-speaker's accent at all?

        The most logical choice would actually be a French accent, as that was a very commonly understood language even in Britain, where the Norman French-speakers took over. Modern French is different than medieval French, of course, but so is English, and if we're making it English anyways, just adding a French accent will do.

    • Re:Abstraction (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Tassach (137772) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:30PM (#39527847)

      I have to agree with this article, I've always assumed it was just the American preconception of "old worlde". Different enough to be remote but still in the same language.

      This is exactly why Tolkien chose to render Rohirric as Old English -- Rohirric had roughly the same old-but-understandable relationship to Westron (common speech) as Old English has to Modern English. (Incidentally, this creates one of the biggest challenges in translating LotR to other languages)

      Tolkien was a linguist above all else, and as such was incredibly sensitive to linguistic nuances, something that's lost on most casual readers. Nevertheless, his work has had a huge influence on modern fantasy and sci-fi. Writers (consciously or unconsciously) mimic elements of Tolkien's style without necessarily understanding why he did it that way.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dhasenan (758719)

        Old English? Yeah, I liked it when Theoden-king stood up and said "Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum, eodcyninga rym gefrunon, hu ða æelingas ellen fremedon!"

      • by asc99c (938635)

        Rohirric had roughly the same old-but-understandable relationship to Westron (common speech) as Old English has to Modern English.

        Huh? Old English is not even vaguely understandable - I don't even recognise most of the letters. I thought to myself that reading Beowulf in it's original format would be interesting. It would be, but I'd need to put serious time into learning a new language.

      • Re:Abstraction (Score:4, Informative)

        by JSG (82708) on Friday March 30, 2012 @05:13PM (#39529331) Homepage

        Have you ever tried to read Chaucer? That's Middle English. As for Old English - trust me you (nor I) stand a chance! Modern English dialects are much closer together than what might have be termed dialects back then but there is still a huge difference in accents and many terms and words even today across regions. Then throw in Cumbric, Kentish and many other old languages into the mix. Cumbric was still in sporadic use in the 20th C. That's just in England. Then you have Welsh, Irish and Scots with all the same complexities that exist and existed in England with dialects and probably outright different languages in different regions and ages.

        The UK and Eire are a small area landwise but a fair diversity in culture still remains - and long may it continue (IMNSHO).

        Have a look at this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaucer [wikipedia.org] there's some samples from his writings with translations. I'm a native en_GB speaker and I find it tough going.

    • by cream wobbly (1102689) on Friday March 30, 2012 @04:09PM (#39528397)

      So... the New Zealander accents in the LotR movies are "old[e] worlde"? The casting team actually did a very good job of regionalizing accents, considering the constraints of comprehensibility, without following the general trend; but emulating Tolkien's lead.

      When I read The Hobbit to my son, I followed that same lead, used a range of Scots accents for each of the dwarves (Edinburgh for the "family tree" dwarves, Glaswegian for the rank & file, and one or two with Highland and Island accents); a Welsh lilt for Gandalf; for the Lakelanders, Brummie in the main, but Kentish for those with Dalish heritage; Cockney for the Goblins and Wargs, but Essex for the Goblin King; Antipodean-Finnish Rivendellers and Welsh Greenwooders. Beorn was just loud like Brian Blessed (so, Welsh). Hobbits were Little Englanders, but more Northern, because I'm a Tyke, myself.

      I didn't use American accents because I can't sustain them yet; but I used them in Charlotte's Web. Watership Down is just like my Hobbit characterizations, but the rabbits from the Warren of the Snares are Kentish; and El-ahrairah is a Chicago gangster (see? I'm getting better). My point is you don't have to be very talented to use a range of accents.

      What were we talking about again? Oh yeah, screen actors. They're not very talented at voice acting. That would be voice actors, dammit.

    • by PRMan (959735)

      I think it started to a large extent with Star Wars. George Lucas wanted the "Rebels" to sound American and the "Empire" to sound British, to evoke the "Revolutionary" feel of the American Revolution.

      Many other movies have used this (Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance).

      Also, don't forget that George was completely vilified for making some characters sound Asian [wikia.com] and Jamaican [blogspot.com] in the Prequels.

  • by msheekhah (903443) on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:48PM (#39527079)
    Lots of places have a north.
  • Obvious... (Score:5, Funny)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:49PM (#39527089) Journal
    Do we even need to be asking such an obvious question? British is the foreign language that Americans are most likely to understand...
    • I've heard some of those British shows. I find it easier to understand Spanish. And I don't even SPEAK Spanish.

    • by gnick (1211984)

      I know you're making a joke, but my preschooler's teacher (English but in New Mexico) was going to visit her family and was asked whether or not they spoke English in England... When she told me that my response was that they may know a version of English, but they certainly don't speak American. I think I'll go smoke a fag and hit the loo. Bloody hell. Bullocks.

    • by geekmux (1040042)

      Do we even need to be asking such an obvious question? British is the foreign language that Americans are most likely to understand...

      Perhaps the more obvious question is why do you consider "British" a foreign language? Or one that Americans need to "understand"?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Brannoncyll (894648)

        Do we even need to be asking such an obvious question? British is the foreign language that Americans are most likely to understand...

        Perhaps the more obvious question is why do you consider "British" a foreign language? Or one that Americans need to "understand"?

        As a Brit living in New York I find that alot of people find it very difficult to understand me (especially people with South American or Chinese descent), and even my girlfriend (native New Yorker) often has difficulty. She said that for the first 2 months after we met she understood about 20% of what I said. My accent is pretty standard for southern England and should therefore be pretty easy to understand. I often get the feeling that British English really is a foreign language.

  • Old World (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SJHillman (1966756) on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:50PM (#39527113)

    For Americans, I would assume it's because we associate fantasy with the Old World because that's where most of our myths and legends originate. And they have castles. And among the Old World, England is our closest tie (as well as speaking the same language). The majority of fantasy settings are basically just medieval-Europe-plus-wizards-and-dragons even if a location isn't given (or it takes place on another world)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:50PM (#39527117)

    Of course the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit use British accents -- they're written by an English author and are fundamentally ABOUT England (a.k.a. the Shire).

    • by SJHillman (1966756) on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:52PM (#39527157)

      One does not merely walk into Parliament.

      However, one can try to merely tunnel under Parliament with a good bit of gunpowder...

    • That was my immediate response to this. Lord of the Rings is a book written by a British author, inspired by old English (i.e. Celtic/Norse/Germanic) mythology, set in a world that is based on England. Why would you not have English accents? It's not quite as bad as asking, "Why do do the characters in 'Gone With the Wind' seem like they're from the American South?" but it's close.

      I'm not as familiar with Game of Thrones, but I assume it's based on similar stuff. Tolkien is the grand-daddy of a lot of

    • by gbjbaanb (229885)

      whilst there is a good analogy between the little British people (hobbits) kicking the stuff out of the evil empire of Sauron (Hitler), the entire world is based around anglo-saxon myths, so technically it includes Britain, and the northern Germanic and Scandinavian countries.

      Dwarves come from the north part of Middle Earth, so it's natural they got Scottish accents, but they could so easily have been Norwegian instead.

      The shire, BTW, is Warwickshire (that's wa-rick-shire), there's still a 'tolkien trail' [telegraph.co.uk] a

  • Age (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    It's a question of cultural depth - America is largely a cultural offshoot of the UK. So when you want a voice for a 'centuries old' sort of tale, you go British. Conversely, the American accent has an association with Modern.

    • by gnick (1211984)

      That's what I was thinking - England is old school compared to the US. And for a large part, big budget movies are tailored for American audiences and the rest of the world is a secondary market that will contribute any way.

      For example, last time I was in Europe I stayed with my father in Vienna - His apartment was a couple of hundred years older than the United States. My duplex in the US is ancient because it was built all the way back in the 50's.

      Dragons and wizards are from a long time ago - English.

  • Medieval times (Score:3, Insightful)

    by neonv (803374) on Friday March 30, 2012 @02:51PM (#39527125)

    Most fantasy settings are based in medieval times, and America didn't have English, let alone feudalism and other aspects common in fantasy novels. British accents just fit the real world time period we associate with fantasy settings.

  • Any why are Dwarves always Scottish?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Of course another main reason is that general fantasy is most closely linked with the European medieval period. In that period English speakers were generally going to be speaking with an accent from Great Britain. It would strike us as strange to hear someone in a historical medieval period using a NJ accent for much the same reason that it does in fantasy.

  • Good SciFi / Fantasy is filmed outside the US - Game of Thrones and Dr. Who in the UK, and LotR in NZ.
  • Well, I know in Star Wars: The Old Republic, the British accent is to emphasize the Empire part of the Sith Empire. The Rebellion, or Republic, side uses an American accent. That, and the original Star Wars used a whole lot of British actors.
  • by Baloroth (2370816) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:00PM (#39527297)

    It might have something to do with the fact that the fictional country Game of Thrones is set in (at least in the TV show, not very subtly either) is based off of England. The politics and geography bears an extremely striking resemblance.

    And Tolkien (British) created the Shire in The Hobbit and LotR based off British countryside. Fantasy, in particular, is almost universally set in a Middle-Age-England-type setting and is often based heavily off of their mythology. It almost wouldn't make sense not to have a British accent. Don't blame the Americans: the British were doing that a long time before Americans were (hell, before America was even a colony). And of course Narnia (by C.S. Lewis, British) is actually set partly in England as is Harry Potter (again, a British writer).

  • by mattdm (1931) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:03PM (#39527337) Homepage
    Westeros is transparently (if not particularly faithfully) based on a fantastic reinterpretation of Britain, right down to the the Wall [wikipedia.org] and the . And all the knights and chivalery (and non-chivalery) and so on are clearly Arthurian legend, which is unquestionably British even if it owes a big debt to France — which, speaking of, is of course right across the "narrow sea". Middle Earth is less literal with the geography, but Tolkien has said (were it not already obvious!) that the Shire is rural Britain in spirit, so of course the hobbits speak with the appropriate accent.
  • by Baby Duck (176251) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:05PM (#39527371) Homepage

    Filmmakers should consider looking at speech accents from other areas of the world to create more interesting dialects.

    It's dangerous thinking such as that which lead to the atrocity known as Jar Jar Binks. In all seriousness, look at the accents of Watto, Yoda, the head honchos of the Trade Federation, Emperor Palpatine, Admiral Ackbar, Jango Fett, etc.

    • by sacdelta (135513)

      And the use of those accents led to accusations of ethnic stereotyping. It's a very dangerous path to traverse in our hypersensitive society and I don't blame filmmakers from avoiding the subject altogether.

  • I'm not an advertising exec, but I bet you there is some study some where that Americans subconsciously associate British accents with greater trustworthiness and/ or authority

    As for fantasy worlds: I disagree, the fantasy worlds cited are specifically medieval in quality, which conjures Europeanness, which conjures Britishness, as Americans don't deal well with foreign languages: no Flemish cave trolls or Hungarian dragons, for example (nevermind Cornish, Welsh, or Gaelic).

    If we were talking FUTURE fantasy worlds, Avatar or Star Trek, for example, there is no association with Britishness. Although, Australian accents and actors figure heavily in that realm. Which is a whole other subject matter?:

    Britain: the past, Australia: the future, from an American perspective.

    (sorry Kiwis, Americans tend to group your accent with Australia, I don't want to step on any issues of national pride here)

  • Next question: (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kwark (512736) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:15PM (#39527531)

    Why are is the evil scientists always speaking with a German accent?

  • by HeckRuler (1369601) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:15PM (#39527533)

    ...Mid-West accent...

    Wait, we have an accent?
    I mean, there are jokes about California "valley girls" and Brooklyn accents, but those are stereotypes and most people from the coasts don't actually talk like that. So... if the universal average of the English language is the "Mid-West" accent... wouldn't that mean we don't have an accent?

  • Obvious (Score:4, Funny)

    by mr_spatula (126119) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:16PM (#39527561)

    Because there's no better fantasy shared by the common public than to escape to than one of rainy weather, bland food, a stifling bureaucracy, and one of the largest surveillance networks concieved of.

    It's obviously a made-up world, with their shillings and their stones - one where cars wear boots... I mean, that's just pure insanity.

  • by markdavis (642305) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:18PM (#39527601)

    I can't wait to hear the answer from our British friends. As an American, I have an odd fascination for the British accent (and Australian accent too) and love hearing it. I even set my GPS to speak British English instead of American English. Seems I am certainly not alone in this, either.

    How about it? Do the British (and even Australians) have any similar fascination with hearing American accents?

  • by fiannaFailMan (702447) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:19PM (#39527621) Journal

    Anyone ever see that godawful film Alexander starring Colin Farrel as Alex the Great? They gave the Macedonians Irish accents! That was even more distracting than the constant jumping back and forth between three different time periods and creepy chemistry between Farrel and Angelina Jolie who was supposed to be his mom!

  • by TheDawgLives (546565) <http://www@suckitdown@org> on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:29PM (#39527817) Homepage Journal
    One of my favorite fantasy movies was The Princess Bride. They had generic/American and Spanish accents. They worked really well for me.
  • by gstoddart (321705) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:35PM (#39527943) Homepage

    Emma Peel, as played by Diana Rigg is the reason why all of my fantasies involve a British accent.

    Oh, wait, did you mean something else?

  • by CosaNostra Pizza Inc (1299163) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:38PM (#39527971)
    "It would be odd to think of a fantasy world having a New Jersey accent" There's already a fantasy world based on that but its not one most people would want to visit or live in...Its called "Jersey Shore".
  • by leftie (667677) on Friday March 30, 2012 @03:56PM (#39528211)

    No. Nobody wants that.

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