Accent of a Contrarian: Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

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Christopher Hitchens passed away yesterday. His controversial life is far beyond the purview of a blog about dialects, yet I can think of few people with an accent as inextricably linked with their personality. Here is a brief clip of Hitchens speaking a mere year ago, in a video post on Vanity Fair’s website:

Technically, there is nothing unusual about Hitchens’ accent; he attended the Leys School and Oxford. As such, he speaks crisp, non-regional Received Pronunciation.

And yet Hitchens lived in the United States since 1981. I have known few Brits who have spent such a long time in America without making some accommodations to American speech, even if slight. There are usually a few r’s where they wouldn’t normally be, some slight erosion of the ‘trap-bath split,’ intonational patterns more typical of this side of the pond.

And yet Hitchens kept his accent intact in a way that most cross-Atlantic transplants do not (or cannot). He maintained features that one would expect to unconsciously fade. For example, up until late in his life, he still used the ‘smoothed’ triphthongs typical of British RP (i.e. ‘power’ sounds almost like ‘pa’).

Even among the British who keep up a jet-setting lifestyle, accents can waver. Anna Wintour, another titan of journalism, is what I think of as more typical:

I don’t think Hitchens was entirely unaware that his accent remained strikingly English. Some years back, in a notorious appearance on a talk show hosted by Bill Maher, Hitchens mocked fellow guest (and that point, American resident) Elvis Costello by saying he sounded Irish*. Perhaps this critic of all things insincere found insincerity in those who fit their accents to their surroundings.

One’s speech changes naturally due to accommodation. It says something about Hitchens that mindlessly accommodating to someone else, even linguistically, was to lose one’s independent identity.

*I haven’t seen this clip since it first aired: there may be a more complex dig that I’m not getting.

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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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15 Responses to Accent of a Contrarian: Christopher Hitchens

  1. Ed says:

    The video of Hitchens is not working for me. It says that embedding has been disabled.

    There are some strange cases of people who keep the accent of their youth forever. The footballer-cum-manager-cum pundit Eddie Gray left Scotland when he was 15, yet still speaks with a Scottish accent.

    • trawicks says:

      Sorry, Ed! I usually try to embed only things that have been uploaded by copyright holders: alas, it looks like CBS made this unembeddable since I first posted it (probably because it’s been used in lots of places over the past 24 hours). I replaced it with a Vanity Fair video post he did last year.

  2. Jamie says:

    The Evis Costello comment might have been a dig at the singer’s return to his “roots” as Declan McManus; reminding him that he wasn’t Irish at all.

    • trawicks says:

      There was probably some of that in there. I think it may have been a bit of both: Costello (who I believe was married to Diana Krall by then) spoke with an accent that had clearly been somewhat Americanized. But he probably meant something else as well.

  3. Tom says:

    I found it fascinating that when Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair that “Qatar” should be pronounced “cutter”, American journalists on TV all fell in line, cheerfully pronouncing it “cudder” without remembering what Hitchens’s accent sounds like!

    • trawicks says:

      I suppose Hitchens is ‘technically’ correct, in that the native pronunciation of the country puts the emphasis on the first syllable. Still, it seems silly to quibble about pronunciation, since I don’t hear many English speakers say it with the correct uvular plosive either!

      • Tom says:

        Yes, true. But then, the emir of Qatar was on “60 Minutes” once and stressed/pronounced it the way most Americans do, so it rhymes with “guitar”—but maybe he was just pandering to us.

        • Ralph says:

          It’s funny you mention that, because according to Wikipedia, the pronunciation of the country in the local Arabic dialect is [ɡɪtˤɑr]

  4. dw says:

    As an RP-to-US export like Hitchens, I realized that I had well and truly gone rhotic when I stopped immediately understanding wordplay that depends on non-rhoticity.

    The other day there I was reading a British headline about footballer/soccer-player David Silva being “golden”. After about thirty seconds, the pun hit me.

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting: it seems rhoticity (or non-rhoticity) really alters one’s cognition. I’d be curious if the opposite were true, if an American living in England a long time would more likely to get the Silva/Silver pun.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    In my experience, accent acquisition as well as correct pronunciation of a foreign language depend in large part on a “musical” ear(whatever that is!), but it seems to hold true for many. I recall a fellow French student who tried mightily to master the correct pronunciation and failed miserably, where others took to it immediately. In the case of a strong personality like Hitchens, I think he consciously retained his accent and his idiolect; others, consciously or unconsciously try to blend in. The reverse is also true. A friend from New Jersey who spen two years in the Air Force in Alabama came back home with a southern accent. He lost it eventually.

    • trawicks says:

      It’s pretty fascinating. I’ve known Americans who’ve moved to England and have ended up either (a.) maintaining their accent, unaltered, or (b.) sounding nearly like Londoners. There are many shades of grey in between, but personality does seem to play a big part.

  6. Josh McNeill says:

    I’ve spent the last two years in the SF Bay Area after living my entire life in NJ/NY and I’ve been noticing lately that there are certain accent features here that I am picking up, despite my strong desire not to. It is rather amazing that someone who has spent so much more time in a new location than myself would be able to maintain their accent so distinctly.

    But I wonder how much of this has to do with the two accents involved. In my case, the difference between my South Jersey accent and the Bay Area accent is, for the most part, minor. I before moving, I wasn’t even aware that there really was a difference. In Hitchens’ case, by contrast, the difference is enormous. Perhaps the more obvious the difference in accents, the easier it is to avoid picking up the new accent?

    Although that would leave the only explanation for the phenomena you speak of with other Brits you know being that it also depends on one’s willingness to pick up different pronunciation features. (I think Marc Leavitt’s comment about French can be excluded as the ability to speak a foreign language with a native sounding accent is a whole different story).

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  8. Josh says:

    It might be because he was told to by producers / his audience is mainly American, but he does use “cell phone” instead of “mobile phone”. He moved before their invention – maybe this could explain why he uses the American instead of the British?