John Oliver and Contemporary Brumminess

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 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 quibbles in the comments. True, Oliver attended secondary school in Bedfordshire and distinguishes pretty strongly between the vowels in “strut” and “foot”. But I pegged Oliver as a Brummie before looking up any biographical details, so I don’t think the attribution is totally off.

I 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”.

The aforementioned features can be mistaken for classic Cockney diphthongs, but I find them less marked 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 ɔə, 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.

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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 John Oliver and Contemporary Brumminess

  1. Ed says:

    Unfortunately, you don’t find many examples of a “pure” accent/dialect in under-40s anywhere now.

    He certainly has some Brummie about him, but it’s not surprising that he has some southern features as well.

    The PRICE vowel that you’ve mentioned is actually quite common in the midlands and even intrudes into East Anglia.

    • kamil says:

      Of course it does into East Anglia and generally into many places in the South-East of England. The so-called “Diphthong Shift” (or the London-Birmingham Diphthong Shift as called in Wells 1982) is believed to have originated in London and then spread on to many other places in the South, Birmingham and even Australia etc.

  2. Thalia says:

    It might be worth googling Emma Willis, who does the UK version of Big Brother (probably something on Youtube somewhere). Similarly you can miss the brummie accent but it comes through quite clearly at times. The programme currently also features ‘White Dee’ who I think is from Solihull and has a far broader accent, not the stage school modified version.

  3. Chris says:

    I’ve heard guys in their 20’s with strong West Midland accents, but maybe they’re in the minority. I don’t know.

  4. Larry says:

    I’ve also noticed that the second element of the MOUTH vowel makes a big difference to the sound of the entire diphthong

  5. Hiphouse says:

    I visited a town just outside of Birmingham proper in 2012 and the accent – to my Cockney-MLE ears – seemed incredibly broad, bordering on stereotypical. Finding examples in media, especially American media will be difficult. It’s widely regarded as one of the “worst” accents in the country and even when visiting other areas of the UK I notice Brummies tend to minimize it ASAP. That said, I’ve never heard a Brummie that sounds like the girl in the video clip. Nobody in B’ham (in my experience) sounded anything like that.

  6. bill says:

    Not everybody that happens to come from Birmingham (nor Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle etc.) has to have a Birmingham accent. It’s all about class, right? Ms Jones (I see from Wikipedia) went to a couple of posh schools and then went on to Oxford. If she ever had a Brummie accent it wouldn’t have survived the grammar schools, let alone Oxford.

    I know, John Oliver went to Cambridge, but his Brummie accent is pretty mild. General West Midlands, maybe?

    I haven’t got any links, unfortunately, but if anyone remembers Roy Wood, lead singer of The Move – now that’s a Brummie accent!

    PS I believe that “Brummie” has been voted the least liked of all the city accents. So, unless you’re a comedian, it’s one that people would drop as soon as they moved away from the area.

    • Chris says:

      Ali Campbell, lead singer of UB40, also has a very strong Brummie accent. Both of them are over 40 though

  7. kamil says:

    Well, yeah, I would have guessed Oliver is a Brummie. The vowels in KITE/PRICE and in FACE are especially distinctive. When it comes to the vowel in MOUTH, it depends. It can be either æʊ (like in “South” in many speakers), or ɛʊ. But in many Birmingham speakers, it is a monophthong these days.

    And yes, Birmingham has got features typical for the linguistic South of England (the diphthongs are one of them).

  8. Hugh says:

    I just saw April Bloomfield on “The Mind of a Chef” too, because it’s on Netflix now. I noticed other Birmingham features in her speech too. She uses [æ] in the BATH set, an unrounded vowel in the LOT set and she doesn’t have NG-coalescence (i.e., she actually pronounces the “g” in words like “thing”). Those features combined with her MOUTH vowel pretty much narrow her accent down to Birmingham I think (or at least the West Midlands).

  9. Roger Forest says:

    It sounds to me like John Oliver’s intonation goes a bit Brummie at 1:11 in that video, “…cuz in England it’s on 24 hours later.”

  10. Kent says:

    I’ve heard a lot of the Brummie features you list in non-Brummie English accents (even in RP or near-RP ones). For example, I’ve also heard London area and RP accents with a tenser KIT vowel than General American. I’ve heard London and RP (or maybe near RP) accents with a backer nucleus of /ai/ and a more open nucleus of /ou/ and /ei/ than GA . Maybe those vowels are just a tiny bit more extreme in Brummie than in those other accents.

  11. Andi Chapple says:

    sorry, no, he doesn’t sound Brummie (or Scouse) to me (I grew up in Brum, lived there til I was 18, still have family there). further south, maybe Bedfordshire, I don’t know their accent very well, but there’s some Bristol-y stuff happening too and that’s 120 miles or so (a long way for UK accents) from Bedford. notice he can’t pronounce the sounds represented by the letter w (sorry, I don’t know phonetic alphabet) very well, that is often (not always) a more southern thing. the actress? sorry, she’s from Planet Posh, it’s impossible to tell where she’s from.

    like Felicity Jones in the clip you link to, I’d suggest Ozzy as an obvious Brummie or, like you had in your previous post, Geezer Butler. however Ozzy and Geezer have been on tour/in the States/etc. for a long time. as your commenter said, Ali Campbell has a strong accent. other Brummies you’ll find clips of are comedian/actor/national treasure Lenny Henry (whose accent isn’t all that thick usually but he puts it on a bit quite often, try and find something old) and comedian Frank Skinner, see this on YouTube, it’s film from a while ago I think and in front of a home audience. strong diagnostic feature in the first few seconds (and over and over again after) is the vowel in the f word, it’s much closer to o than u. Skinner is around 50 now I think, but I would expect younger Brummies to sound similar, with the young-people stuff (rising inflection at the end etc.) on top.

    one last thing – in the clip, Skinner mentions that he’s from Oldbury, which isn’t quite in Birmingham. Brummie is a load of accents, there are Birmingham accents, and loads of slightly different ones from south-east Birmingham all the way over to Wolverhampton via Dudley and Walsall – these last being more ‘Black Country’ accents, the area being named when it was the most industrialised place on earth and quite literally black with soot and detritus. Oldbury is between north-west Birmingham and Dudley. still, thanks for noticing us,

    ta-ra a bit,

    Andi

    • Pubes McKinley says:

      sorry, no, he doesn’t sound Brummie (or Scouse) to me (I grew up in Brum, lived there til I was 18, still have family there). further south, maybe Bedfordshire, I don’t know their accent very well, but there’s some Bristol-y stuff happening too and that’s 120 miles or so (a long way for UK accents) from Bedford. notice he can’t pronounce the sounds represented by the letter w (sorry, I don’t know phonetic alphabet) very well, that is often (not always) a more southern thing.

      Other people have mentioned that UK accents are generally becoming less regionally specific these days, and it’s hard to find a young person with a strong accent (particularly if they’re middle-class, I reckon).

      What I’d like to throw out there is a personal observation that, when somebody moves around, particularly overseas, as Oliver has done, their accent can become “unmoored”, as it were, and take on characteristics of areas further afield from where they grew up. For instance, John Oliver’s Brummie accent becomes a more general West Midlands accent.

      I grew up in Coventry (also West Midlands) but I’ve lived in Australia for a long time, and I notice my own accent has lost its regional specificity, whilst still remaining recognisably English. I think I’ve heard this in other people as well.

      I’m not sure if this is a thing or not. I might just be talking out of my arse.

  12. Devon Maxwell says:

    I could see there being a neutralization of /aʊ/ and /ɛ/ + /l/ (“ow” and “el”) for Brummies with l-vocalization. Maybe that’s why the Brummie /aʊ/ sounds more unusual to me than the London (etc.)/aʊ/. It sounds like a possible realization of the sequence /ɛ/ + /l/. So “south” kind of sounds like “*selth”.