· culture ·

While watching House the other day, I was thinking again about the different accents in English-speaking countries. There seems to be a weird non-symmetrical effect in how easy people in one English-speaking country seem to find it to recognise the native accent of another English-speaking country.

For example, Hugh Laurie seems to me to be able to produce quite a convincing American accent (note that my point here is about how easy it is to recognise an accent, not reproduce it, which is much harder). However, as a British-English speaker, it's perhaps not surprising if I can't pick up the subtleties of an American-English accent. But many American viewers find his accent very authentic, and are often amazed to find out he's British. There's a running gag in Flight of the Conchords about Americans thinking Bret and Jemaine are British rather than New Zealanders. When I went to the States, many people I met thought I was Australian.

It doesn't seem to by a symmetrical effect. Dick Van Dyke's wincingly bad Cockney accent in Mary Poppins set a new benchmark for bad accents, but even American actors with reasonably good mimicry skills can be detected^1^. Adam Monroe did a pretty good British accent as Takezo Kensei in Heroes, but I could tell immediately that he was not a native British-English speaker before I knew what his nationality was. Other American-English speaking actors who have attempted British-English accents (like Gwyneth Paltrow), have often been quite convincing, but their accent is still detectable to British-English speakers as non-native. Meanwhile, many Australian actors use British-English or American-English accents, and I can't tell that they are not native speakers.

Note that I'm honestly not getting at Americans here. British people have similar troubles telling a Canadian accent from an American one, or an Australian accent from a New Zealand one. I have particular trouble telling South Africans from New Zealanders, unless the accents are fairly extreme, or the person says particular words ("six" being a handy diagnostic feature). I'm just wondering why -- even between pairs of accents -- there's a non-symmetrical effect in how easy either party finds it to recognise the accent of the other. Is it a matter of exposure to the accent? We certainly get a lot of American TV, films and music in Britain. Or is it because we have a wider range of native accents in Britain (I'm not even sure if this is true), so our ears are more highly tuned to detecting differences? It could even be something to do with the time of divergence of the accents from the ancestral stock.

I don't know what the answer is, but I'm intrigued by the problem.

^1^ I'd be interested to know if his accent sounds reasonably authentic to an American-English speaker, though.