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RHOTICITY IN ENGLISH

 

O.T. FORD

 

Rhoticity is the pronunciation of ‘R’ sounds, phonemes represented with the letter ‘R’ or its analogues; in the context of English, the ‘R’ sound in question is [ɹ], which is systematically deleted in certain contexts in non-rhotic dialects, but pronounced in all contexts in rhotic dialects. The standard North American dialect is rhotic, while the standard British dialect is non-rhotic; the origin of English in Britain has given rise to widespread misunderstandings about the distribution, geographically and historically, of non-rhoticity. The basic fact: rhoticity is the historical norm, while non-rhoticity is a late innovation that began in the London area after the settlement of North America, and has still not spread into all the English vernaculars even in England itself. The settlers in the New World brought their accents with them.

Non-rhoticity is used anachronistically to distinguish the British, and especially the British upper classes, in filmed period dramas. It’s reasonable for British films to use non-rhotic accents in these situations — this is simply producing films in the local vernacular — but this only makes sense if non-rhotic accents are used for all characters. It is completely unreasonable for North American films to use non-rhotic accents, or to deliberately seek out British actors, for British characters in colonial settings. For example, ‘The last of the Mohicans’ (1992), set on the Hudson Valley frontier in the mid-eighteenth century, casts a British actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) to play its North American protagonist, but speaking in a rhotic accent, while his British rival, also played by a British actor (Steven Waddington), speaks in a modern British non-rhotic accent. At best, director Michael Mann is communicating to his audience in the conventions of cinema: British accent means British guy, American accent means American guy. He is either exhibiting his own ignorance, or playing to his audience’s.

Non-rhoticity is also used anachronistically in medieval and quasi-medieval settings where modern English didn’t even exist. It would probably be impossible to get a Robin Hood story filmed with rhotic accents, even when the cast (as in ‘Prince of thieves’) contains numerous speakers of American English. Most modern tales of Robin Hood take place in the early 1190s, when the inhabitants of England spoke very early Middle English, or medieval Norman French. If the Merry Men spoke early Middle English, we (Brits and Yanks alike) wouldn’t understand it. If an American filmmaker is going to translate the language for modern (mostly American*) audiences, there is no reason to translate it into British English. That somewhat defeats the purpose.

Even when a story is written by an American author and set in a completely-fictitious world, cinema tropes apparently demand that it be filmed with British accents, solely because the technology is medieval. Such is the case with ‘The princess bride’ and ‘Game of thrones’. ‘The princess bride’ (written by William Goldman of Chicago) features American actors Robin Wright and Chris Sarandon alongside Brit Cary Elwes, all performing British accents to portray natives of the fictitious Florin, while American Wallace Shawn does his own rhotic accent to play a Sicilian, American Mandy Pantinkin attempts a Spanish accent, and Frenchman André the Giant uses what I take to be his own accent to play a Turk. ‘Game of thrones’ is practically an employment program for British actors (only Peter Dinklage is a North American — doing a British accent, of course). Author George R.R. Martin created Westeros as something of an anti-fantasy, challenging conventions of the genre; and yet all the actors do British accents. Bizarrely, the showrunners and actors take pains to create geographical differentiation among the characters by incorporating a wide range of English accents — provided they all come from Britain. At least with ‘The lord of the rings’, the employment of modern British accents can be said to fit the intent of the author, as J.R.R. Tolkien was British and drawing so heavily from British culture and history. George R.R. Martin is from New Jersey.

If there is a general explanation for all of this other than ignorance, it is likely to be a cultural inferiority complex on the part of North Americans with regards to their British cousins. The British accent is taken as more sophisticated, more educated, more cultured, more dignified. With respect to the English, in any case, the idea of the arrogant Yank is quite dubious.

 

* Hollywood films still earn a majority or near-majority of their revenue from screenings in the United States alone. The foreign market, meanwhile, consists heavily of people who don’t speak English natively at all.

 

© O.T. FORD

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