Great Minds Who Kept their Accents

Open Culture posted a fantastic video of the late Arthur C. Clarke discussing the future.  The clip is remarkable for its prescience (Clarke seems to predict the emergence of the internet), and is fascinating on all levels.  Given my interests, of course, I also noted something striking about Clarke’s speech: he maintained the West Country accent of his upbringing (he was from Somerset).  Here’s the full clip:

Clarke didn’t go to university due to finances, only earning a degree some years later. I can only wonder how different his accent may have been had he gone to Oxford or Cambridge as a young man.  Although Received Pronunciation seemed something of a standard among British intellectuals in the mid-20th century, it’s clear there were some who bucked this trend.

Clarke is one of several great thinkers, writers or other intellectuals who maintained strong regional accents before it was entirely acceptable to do so. The great physicist Richard Feynman perhaps owed some of his charm to his strong New York Accent:

Feynman’s accent, one of America’s more stigmatized, becomes a strength rather than a weakness.  It is a sad fact that we easily underestimate people because of their accents.  But in Feynman’s case, this prejudice becomes an advantage: his students are perhaps disarmed, feeling they are talking to a man on the street rather than a stuffy professor.

Even in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when one might assume the Queen’s English to be at the height of its influence, there were nevertheless those who did not adhere to the ‘learned accent’ of the day.  George Bernard Shaw, despite the Englishness of his plays, maintained some of the rhoticity of his native Ireland:

I’ve long hoped for a world in which we no longer associate certain accents with intellectualism.  And while such a world may never be possible, it’s worth noting that genius speaks in many different voices.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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29 Responses to Great Minds Who Kept their Accents

  1. AW says:

    Well the cleverest person on British TV today is the physicist Brian Cox, who comes from Oldham and sounds like it.

    • trawicks says:

      I almost included Cox is well. He’s quite an inspiring example of how Received Pronunciation is weakening as the unspoken standard for British academics.

  2. Sarah says:

    The way Feynman says experiment is interesting. The stressed vowel sounds quite retracted. This is more famous as a feature of Philly English, but I’ve heard it in NYC too. Actually I think it can be heard elsewhere in the Northeast too.

  3. Josh McNeill says:

    The way Feynman says “satellite” around 6:34 is the part that struck me. I don’t recall ever hearing a New Yorker pronounce an E like that–or maybe I’ve just never noticed–and I’ve lived in NY and NJ my whole life.

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    I think Richard Feynman is a good choice too, as Sarah points out. He has no shame of his NYC accent.

  5. trawicks says:

    @Sarah,

    I noticed that too. It’s almost as if the ‘er’ is treated as the same vowel in ‘nurse’ or ‘fern.’ Curious as to why!

    @Josh,

    What I found interesting about his pronunciation of that word is he has more of a vowel between ‘t’ and ‘l.’ Most American (and perhaps English) speakers, simply treat /l/ as a syllable: ‘satt-l-ite.’ Feynman, here, seems to perhaps make a distinction between the ‘attle’ in ‘battle’ and the ‘atel’ in ‘satellite.’

    @Charles,

    Great clip. Feynman’s writing is such a tremendous; it’s wonderful how accessible he was in person.

    • IVV says:

      I’ve heard the “ex-purr-iment” before (mostly with the word “ex-purr-ience”) as identifying a Sacramentan, as opposed to someone from elsewhere in inland California. But there’s nothing Sacramentan about Feynman, as far as I can tell. If anything, the vowel is elided completely to “ur” in Sacramento!

      It’s weird, too, because he sounds like a physics professor to me, not like a man on the street. I think it’s in the cadence, not the accent.

      Also: “hahro-scope?” Is that New Yorker?

      • adam cohen says:

        Huh. I was unaware that Sacramentans are supposed to pronounce the “er” in experiment as “ex-purr-iment.” I’m from Sacramento, and I don’t know anyone who says it that way. Is that a rural formulation?

  6. Ed says:

    This should please people: Harry Corbett with Sooty on the BBC. He might’ve moved his native speech in the direction of RP but he never became an RP speaker. Note the frequent [a:] in MOUTH words. I think that the BBC were more tolerant of non-RP speakers if they were presenting trivial things such as Sooty.

    It was interesting to listen to Arthur C. Clarke; he was obviously very intelligent. I said recently that the West Country accent is the closest of the British accents to an American one. Since then, I’ve found this clip of Peter Sellers’s doing several accents. He says at 1:10 that a Devon/Cornwall accent is closest to American out of British accents. Do Americans on this blog agree with this? Does trawicks agree?

    The British Conservative Party is now on its second chairperson with a West Yorkshire accent. I don’t think that my accent can be called stigmatised any longer.

    • trawicks says:

      I do agree, strongly, that West Country accents are the closest English relative to the spectrum of General American English. I say this with two caveats, however:

      1.) Many of these accents have evolved within the past century, and I’d say the similarity is less apparent in 2011 than it would have been in the 1940’s.

      2.) I don’t think West Country accents necessarily influenced American accents more than other regions of Britain. Rather, I think that the region preserves features once found throughout England that receded in the face of industrialism and migration.

    • adam cohen says:

      I remember watching an interview with Arthur C. Clarke when I was about ten years old and being surprised by his accent. I knew that he was British (the dustcover bio on my copy of CHILDHOOD’S END said so), but his accent sounded so American to my ear. Of course, at that point the only British accents that I was acquainted with were RP and movieland Cockney.

  7. Neen says:

    I have to disagree with you on this one. I don’t think Clarke’s accent is as West Country as it probably should be. Also, I’m Irish and have to say Shaw’s is practically English.

    I do, however, agree that it’s a shame that people get judged instantly by their accents. I am from Derry, Ireland which has a much harder (but better!) accent than that of Belfast which is much more “proper”. I go to a very “upper class” university however am not in any way upper class and I get judged a lot for my accent.

    • Diarmuid says:

      That’s interesting, because I think the local accent of Derry is much more “proper” than that of Belfast. The accent of Belfast has many more “broad” (i.e., far from the “standard accents”) features, in my opinion, like the lowering of DRESS in short environments to [æ ~ a], the backing and raising of TRAP/PALM to [ɔː] before nasal consonants, the fronting and raising of TRAP/PALM to [ɛ(ː)] in velar environments, the fronting/unrounding of LOT to [ä], realizing the happY vowel as [ ɪ̈ ~ ɛ̈ ] (KIT), pronouncing how as [hai ~ haɻ ~ ha], etc.

    • trawicks says:

      I did find Shaw’s accent fairly English regardless of his background. However, the fact that his accent was mainly rhotic is quite startling given the English drawing room milieu of his plays.

  8. Randy E says:

    Is it just me, or is there something remarkably similar to some North American accents in the West Country accent? I can hear some differences, but I might not have picked up on them if I wasn’t aware that it was West Country.

    • AW says:

      A lot of people have noted the resemblance. It’s partly the rhoticity of course.

      It may be that many of the early settlers in America came from the West Country: Bristol and Plymouth were and are major ports.

      • Sarah says:

        Or it may be that rhoticity was much more widespread in England at the time of the settlement of America, so people didn’t have to be from the West Country to have rhotic accents.

    • trawicks says:

      I answered Ed above with my opinion about: I do find the similarity more than passing. Again, I think it’s a matter of West Country, like many American accents, being an arguably more conservative accent than other varieties of English.

    • Sarah says:

      I think it’s the rhoticity that you’re hearing. And no, you’re definitely not the only one who has commented on this.

  9. Andy says:

    I’ve always thought that the West Country/American similarity was particularly apparent in the obvious similarities between the accent often adopted by actors playing ancient cowboy/prospector type characters in Western films and recordings of ageing farm labourers etc from the 20th century West Country.

    Incidentally a couple of years ago I was in a permanent exhibition of old country crafts which was attached to a tea-shop near Darwen in Lancashire, which included recordings of local East Lancashire craftsmen talking about these skills. The recordings were from the around 1960s/1970s and featured old country-men who would therefore have been born late 19th/beginning of 20th century.
    What struck me was a noticeable similarity in certain ways between these speakers and people like my grandfather (born 1901) himself a farm-labourer and other people I remembered of his generation, from the Wiltshire/Dorset area. No doubt extreme rhoticity as the most noticeable parts of both accents played a large part in this but at the time I remember how surprised I was at how strangely familiar to me in some ways the voices of these old men from rural Lancashire sounded although around 200 miles apart from where I’d first heard a strongly rhotic accent.

  10. adam cohen says:

    As an American, I’m quite aware of the ways in which the speakers of various Anglo American accents are stigmatized as unintelligent, but how are the varieties of Anglo American English perceived by non-Anglo Americans? E.g., do Britons perceive people with strong New York or Boston accents as less intelligent than people who speak General American? Or do they just view them all equally?

    • AW says:

      Southerners sound stupid, New Yorkers sound like gangsters.
      Of course both these stereotypes are created by Hollywood.

      As for Boston, JFK just sounded American to me.

      • adam cohen says:

        AW: “As for Boston, JFK just sounded American to me.”

        I wonder if the recent spate of crime and proletarian centered Boston area films (MYSTIC RIVER, THE TOWN, THE FIGHTER, GONE BABY GONE, etc) might be changing that perception?

  11. Joe Kessler says:

    Great post, Ben! I link to it in a recent piece I wrote on accent discrimination: http://languagehippie.blogspot.com/2011/09/accepting-accents.html

  12. starfoxsixty4@gmail.com says:

    I can see why accents can be considered unintelligent.

    I love accents, but surely they can imply a more localized mindset.

    A love of books and culture gives you a bigger perspective and, I think, fades your strong accent a bit. My brother and I were raised in rural Virginia, where everyone’s accent is strong, but we both never really had one. We were avid readers, traveled a lot, always felt a little like outsiders. And we were, as far as values and interests go.

    People with strong accents maybe can sometimes seem more into their small-town politics, a little more uninterested in the outside world, and tend to be more susceptible to social memes and the ideas of the crowd.

    I know that’s not always the case, by any means, but there certainly is probably a trend there, don’t you think? Again, accents fascinate me and I love them always, but “accent discrimination” can ummm…. sort of be true sometimes. I’ve been in situations with local dudes where it’s sort of a testosterone, alpha-male bird call, everyone trying to out-“ain’t” each other. My least favorite accent of all time is the Utah accent…. got this flippancy with grammar that’s like, “I just don’t give a CRAP how the rest of the world speaks.” It’s so subtle, it took me months to even pick up on it… and then it’s like an icepick to the brain. They drop “G”s or something. Or somethin’.

    Thinkers, artists, etc tend to be worldly, culture-obsessed, articulate, and importantly appreciate the value of BEING articulate.

    I love accents, but I certainly think New York accents, Boston accents, rural Aussie, southern accents, some northern English accents…. even an overly-strong London accent just sounds like there are brain cells missing. Even an overly strong LA or California beach accent… it just implies, “wow, this person has never left their nest”.

    Here’s my meager evidence: accents from non-English speaking countries don’t give us that “this person is stupid” sense. We know that someone with an Indian accent for example learned English as a second language, it doesn’t have the same implications. Prejudice for those kinds of accents is just racism.

    • Danny O'Carolan says:

      Having a regional accent does not imply a more localized mindset at all. It simply implies that you grew up around people with that accent. Does having a common American accent imply that you don’t have any interest in or desire to visit other countries besides the United States? Some of the greatest artists in history have had regional accents. Almost every accent is regional when you think about it. The “common” American accent has loads of different subtle varieties, depending upon who that person grew up around and where.

    • Danny O'Carolan says:

      Also, these Utah speakers you’re talking about who don’t speak ‘properly’. It’s not their accent that’s the problem, it’s the level at which they enunciate. Michael Caine has a Cockney accent and because he enunciates he sounds fine. Same goes for Humphrey Bogart and his New York accent.

  13. Here’s a video of Arthur C. Clarke, done on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday in 2007: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=3qLdeEjdbWE

    This is a full forty-three years after the video to which you linked (for some reason, the link in your post doesn’t work anymore, but this one does: http://youtu.be/aajlLeTgrEg ). What things do you notice most about how his speech (after taking the effect wrought by age into account)?