Saturday, June 03, 2006

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.

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Blogger Maureen said...

Quite true; wonder where we get that prejudice? Cultural hold-over from our colonial days, when Great Britain was the Mother Country? Of course, that still doesn't explain the general overgeneralization with regard to accents. I think most of us are referring to "BBC English" or "Received Pronunciation" when we talk about being fond of an English accent.

I lived in Yorkshire for a year and used to love shopping in the high street in my little village, taking as much time as I reasonably could just so I could listen to the Yorkshire English all around me. I still remember chatting with a neighbor after he helped me dig my car out after a blizzard. He was a Yorkshireman born and bred and I think I understood little more than about 50% or 60% of what he said, but I sure did love listening to him say it. I also spent a weekend in Peterlee, just outside Newcastle, and had a fascinating discussion w/ my friend's husband. He had recently left his job as a local bus driver but had held that job for so long that he could still tell what village someone was from based on that person's accent. In general, the Tyne/Tees/Wear accent had me listening not so much to what people said as to how they said it. Definitely an English accent, but not one most Americans would think of when they think of an English accent.

And how many of us can tell (or have ever heard?) the difference between the accents of Edinburgh and Glasgow, or even Scotland and Wales? (The 2 or 3 Welshmen I've ever heard sounded Scots to me, which made me VERY glad I hadn't guessed their accent out loud.)

10:49 AM

Blogger Mark said...

British accents! One thing that I really love as a Brit is our accents. I'm not particularly proud or ashamed of my country and nationality, but I do love our accents.

Maureen makes a very good point. I think you refer to specifically the more upper-class English accents. You probably wouldn't say the same thing about Liverpudlian or Brummy!

Marueen: It's interesting that you find Scottish and Welsh similar. Most people say that they find Welsh and Indian very similar (or at least when English people try to imitate Welsh, they invariably sound Indian and vice versa).

The Economist made a very good point regarding the British education system. Certainly, a lot of people I have spoken to regarding their education say that studying their degree subject removed any interest they once had in it.

4:38 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

When I was in Brighton, I found the multiplicity of British accents to be a major problem, creating a kind of sensory overload that was making me nuts. One day while walking the streets of the town, I heard some American English and rushed up to them to talk for a few minutes to regain my sanity.

The 2+ months we lived in Edinburgh was long enough for me to grasp the local "street" dialect well enough to understand prices for things. It seems that when people tell you what you owe them, they use casual speech, which makes sense because they recite prices all day long. This was before the conversion to the decimal pound. One one occasion, I was buying carryout beer at a pub with an Englishman coming along. The bartender quoted the price and I paid it, using exact change, which proved I had understood what he said. The Englishman was impressed. Unfortunately, this was a skill that died out a few months later when the monetary conversion took place.

I watch a fair amount of BBCA shows and often the characters in a drama will have all sorts of dialects and I sometimes stuggle to understand everything. Right now I am watching The Thick of It. Crazy funny.

9:05 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Hugh, thanks for your comments. Your reference to a Southern English dialect having some prestige resonated with me. I recall a reference to "ain't" coming into vogue in SE England at one time and becoming briefly a part of RP. I think this may either be due to the fact that a lot of very wealthy people lived south of London. Also, I seem to recall that some king lived in Brighton at that very odd, interesting palace that has a strong oriental presence if I recall. I think he was a boozer and feminizer and liked being out of sight of Londoners during his escapades. My memories could be quite wrong on this latter point.

I can't open the files in any program I have. What program are you playing them in?

10:11 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few years ago I was working with an Englishman colleague on a project that lasted a few months. I thought we had been getting along quite well up to the point that he, some of our coworkers, and I ended up in a meeting together. During the meeting, some of the others made some comments that suggested that I might be less than totally reliable as a source of some information or other. When they said whatever it was they said, my Englishman 'friend' apparently decided to join their attack by saying "...you might suppose, after a decade of experience in his field, that he might have learned something about [whatever it was we were discussing]...".

I was completely taken aback by this surprise attack in front of so many others--I had no idea why he would suggest that I had learned nothing after a decade. For the rest of the day I fumed, trying to understand what precipitated this duplicity...

Thank God I didn't say anything I would have regretted, because it was only that evening that I realized that he was actually defending me. I finally realized that he was actually putting them down ("...you might suppose...") for not seeing the obvious. But something about his accent and very English delivery misled me into misinterpreting his intentions.

7:52 PM

Blogger Maureen said...

And then there's the whole problem of a given word or expression having different meanings on different sides of the Atlantic. There's the classic "to table" ("to present for discussion" or "to postpone"), "pants" (either trousers or what you wear under them), and my favorite, "to knock up".

I had a colleague who enjoyed telling the story of his farewell party after being stationed in the UK. As he tells the story, he was dumbstruck when a female (British, probably English) colleague came up to him and insisted that he knock her up the next time he was in the UK. Once he recovered his composure, he carefully informed her that it was perhaps better not to use that particular expression with American colleagues, especially male Americans. She was horrified that American English had so perverted a perfectly innocent turn of phrase.

9:18 PM

Blogger Maureen said...

Oh, and for those who may not be familiar with the US and UK meanings of "to knock up", in the UK I believe it means to knock on someone's door when you stop by to visit, whereas in the US it means "to get someone pregnant out of wedlock".

9:20 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

During the time I was in Brighton, I learned not to use the American phrase "Fanny pack" to refer to the pouch like purse worn around the waist the hard way. Interestingly, whereas "fanny" means "rear end" or "butt" in American English it refers to the opposite side of the same general region of a woman.

There were so many differences between how I referred to common things and how my British students did that they started creating a special dictionary of my usage. I knew there would be differences but I never expected so many. Of course, Churchill did once say something like "The US and GB were two nations divided by a common language.

9:13 AM

Blogger Maureen said...

Funny you should mention the increasing specialization of education - heard a blurb on the radio just yesterday that Jeb Bush, governor of Florida and brother of George W, has proposed making Florida high school students declare a major. Which strikes me as ridiculous, given how many avenues there are to explore in academia that you don't get exposed to until college, not to mention all the subjects most high schools don't have the luxury of offering (anthropology, engineering, linguistics, to name just a very few).

12:02 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Sorry I've been gone so long. It seems this place hasn't lost its spark without me, but I'll bumble in nonetheless.

Ptarmigan: excellent story.

I thought the specialization point was the most interesting. As someone who got a liberal arts degree, I agree that a broad education is the most beneficial. They tell you these days that in most fields all you need is a bachelor's degree, not a bachelor's degree in the field. The ABA recommends that law schools should not require any particular undergraduate courses, so that the field of law is filled with a variety of different backgrounds. I think it's better that way. How is an 18-year-old (or anyone younger for that matter) supposed to know what area he or she wants to work in for the rest of his or her life? Many of Asimov's books and short stories also fill me with the fear of over-specialization (although perhaps in the sciences some specialization may be necessary). I like the idea of the Rennaissance man, the person who is not only a great artist but a great author, musical composer, and scientist. Why is this not a goal to which we should strive?

Maureen, it sounds like Jeb Bush is totally off his rocker in regards to education. There is no reason why a high school student should be specialized. That might be a useful idea if college was something only a few people do, but as long as we have college and we want most students to go to college, then what's the point of specialization in high school?

10:37 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Language Guy, for a linguist, you don't write well. I cannot make sense of your first few sentences. Any chance you could rewrite them in a coherent manner please? I don't mean to sound superior, but as an accent and dialect coach and phonetician, I am interested in reading what you have to say. Cheers old chap.

And m'ghandix naghmel, "pikey" is a racist word, very bad! Good luck in your drama GCSE, been there.

12:47 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Well said Luke. Language Guy writes very poorly and I would have thought he'd check his blog for spelling errors prior to posting it.

2:50 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Luke, what I wrote early on in the blog is perfectly comprehensible for those of at least average intelligence. Not great style, I admit.

Spelling is for those who aren't very good at thinking. Such people have to have something they are good at.

7:14 AM


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