The Effortless Superiority of the Brits
In the sports pages of my daily paper, there was a story on the use of foreign voices on golf broadcasts, headlined "British voices add panache to coverage." One reason for the story is that the Muirfield golf course, named for a British course Jack Nicklaus, the course designer and owner, admired, had more rain on its grounds than golf yesterday and so writers had little golf to cover. But I found it interesting that the American prejudice favoring those with British accents is alive and well though the writer gets this wrong -- it is English accents specifically that we favor.
Years ago, I was asked to evaluate a talk by an Englishman in connection with his application for a position in another department by that department's Chair, who purported to be a linguist. I was stunned. I expected, per my Anglophile prejudice, to hear an urbane, highly intelligent speaker giving an excellent talk but what I got was a guy reading an idiotic paper. I was faced with an instance of genuine cognitive dissonance: Englishman's voice = worthless talk. It just didn't compute.
In fact, as The Economist, a British publication, pointed out in a very interesting story a couple of years ago, American higher education, especially education in graduate schools, is superior to that in Britain and, for that matter, in Europe, both in quality and diversity. The US has every kind of higher education one could want from business schools to junior colleges to community colleges (if different from junior colleges) to four year colleges which are incredibly varied in their nature, to universities offering undergraduate and graduate trining in which one can study anything worth studying and some things that are not, I suspect. And the best schools in the US (Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and CIT, etc). are as good as or better than anything to be found anywhere else. Moreover, as the Brits go through their schooling, it gets increasingly more specialized and does so at a much younger age than here. This is especially true of the Ph.D., which can be earned by someone studying almost exclusively with a single professor. That happens in the US typically only at the tail end of one's Ph. D. training though I suspect there is significant variation here.
Let me illustrate the effects of the British model of doctoral training, as I understand it, with an anecdote. Some years ago our department interviewed a very bright, already published Brit for a position as a psycholinguist. The problem with him was that he didn't have the linguistic training required to teach our introductory graduate survey course, something any of our advanced graduate students could do. How he would have fared teaching general graduate level psych coures I don't know. I have a prejudice favoring breadth in education until the last stages of the Ph.D. Sadly, I fear the US is heading in the direction of increased early specialization.
The article that prompted this blog quotes a CBS producer who said of London born Peter Ousterhouis,
"He brings us the voice of tradition, the voice of knowledge."I have heard Mr. Ousterhouis a number of times and his accent is the epitome of the sort of accent that Americans feel they should genuflect before. A more popular person is David Feherty, an Irishman, and it is he along with South African and other Commonwealth commentators, I think, that led this article in the direction of British, rather than just English, accents. In fact Americans do not take the Irish or their accent very seriously and Feherty feeds into that with his less than reverential comments. And, in any event, the home of golf is the Royal and Ancient golf course at St. Andrews, Scotland, and so the real "voice of tradition" would be that of a Edinburghian. I would be surprised if 1% of Americans would recognize an educated Edinburgh accent.
Tennis broadcasts too are filled with British accents, including frequently Australian accents. In this case, the poor English who, I believe invented tennis, haven't had a great male or female tennis player in a very long time, whereas the Aussies have had numerous great male tennis players over many years so I am not sure what Englishmen are doing populating American tennis broadcasts. Our soccer broadcasts, not surprisingly, include people with a variety of British accents. This is well-justified. Indeed, I am somewhat dismayed at the prospect that two Americans I have not heard say anything interesting yet will work many of the World Cup broadcasts in the US. (By the way this blog may go dark during the World Cup, partly because of a family reunion and the World Cup. I am a WC junkie in part because I love international competitions.)
Some years ago I read of a effort by American businesses to hire women with English accents to serve as receptionists. Maybe its just me but women with English accents invite the presumption that they are statuesque, very sexy beauties. Naturally, they aren't any more desirable than American women but it is hard to fight the prejudice.
My last comment in this post, a post that is surely as unworthy of me as it is rambling in nature, reflects a discussion I had with an English woman with whom I went to graduate school. (Yes she was very attractive and well-built and smart.) I mentioned to her that I had read a reference to the "effortless superiority of the British," and she relied, "You wouldn't believe how much effort goes into achieving effortless superiority." I think this perception of effortless superiority may go back to a trick I have heard a lot of educated Brits employ which consists of responding to assertions, not with counterarguments, but with put downs like "I wouldn't have thought that" or "You really think so?" -- replies that don't force the speaker to stick his own neck out by defending a position himself. (I'm not getting the wording of these put downs right, I'm sure.)
I know that I have gored a sacred British ox or two and I hope what I have said will not be seen as mean-spirited though it probably is. I am tired of thinking that the Brits disdain us. We can be pushed around these days because we have elected Bush as President twice but the Brits have a Prime Minister who even Bush could dupe.