Like many HBO subscribers, I’ve become a fan of John Oliver, a British comedian who brings journalistic rigor to the “news parody” genre. He particularly excels at trans-Atlantic humor, injecting British wit into American jokes (“you’ve constructed a straw-man so large you could burn it in the desert and hold an annoying festival around it”) and conversely satirizing his native Britain in an American register.
Some years ago, I claimed that Oliver (then a Daily Show correspondent) had a Birmingham accent, a statement which prompted some quibbles in the comments. True, Oliver attended secondary school in Bedfordshire and distinguishes pretty strongly between the vowels in “strut” and “foot”. But I actually pegged Oliver as a Brummie before looking up any biographical details, so I don’t think the attribution is totally off.
I largely based my judgment on two features. First, Oliver uses a diphthong in words like “kite” and “ride” with an open, back (and sometimes rounded) first element and a fairly close second element. In layman’s terms, that means “kite” sounds rather like “koyt” to an American, with linguistic descriptions tending to describe it as something like ɒi. Oliver also uses a diphthong for the vowel in “goat” with a very open first element, so that the word sounds a bit like “gout” to an American (ʌʊ ~ ɑʊ). I find that Birmingham comes out a fair amount in this clip:
(Having watched this video after writing the preceding commentary, I’ve noticed at least two other cues that are more obvious in Oliver’s informal English than in his scripted anchor banter: an occasionally tenser vowel in words like “kit” that is typical of, say, General American English and a broad, open diphthong in words like “face”.)
Both sounds can be mistaken for classic Cockney diphthongs, but I find that neither is quite as extreme in contemporary London English. My reason for attributing Brumminess to Oliver is that any time I’ve heard one of these sounds in the mouths of someone under forty, they’ve almost always been from Birmingham (or at the very least the West Midlands)1. Mine is not a scientific observation, especially since I don’t encounter Brummies daily, but neither is it a wildly inaccurate one.
I find it telling, though, that I had to stretch somewhat to find a younger Brummie speaker (I’ve also cited the not-terribly-Brummie TV host Cat Deeley). The fact is, I just don’t readily find examples of the accent in its purest form among people under 40. This recent Conan O’Brien interview with actress Felicity Jones is telling in this regard:
The irony being, of course, that it would probably take even a Briton some time to guess Jones is from Birmingham. Yet she’s typical of most young Brummies I’ve met (admittedly not many) or encountered in the media. Whether this is even remotely a representative sample or not I have no clue. But it’s hard not to worry about the health of an accent that served as Britain’s 20th-Century linguistic punchline.
1. Actually, though, I find another feature of Brummie English more telling. That would be the Dublin-esque vowel which Brummies tend to use in words like “mouth”: ɛʊ. This vowel similar to vowels in London, Australia and Philadelphia with the crucial difference that the second element remains mid or semi-high (those other accents generally lower the second element to ɔ, ə, or ɜ or somewhere thereabouts). This occurred to me yesterday (coincidentally) while watching “The Mind of a Chef” with April Bloomfield. I guessed Bloomfield was from Birmingham after a sentence or so, largely on the basis of this vowel. A big caveat here, though, is that most of these features have traditionally been found in a large swath of the Midlands.