LINGUIST List 7.648

Thu May 2 1996

Disc: Language and Movies

Editor for this issue: Annemarie Valdez <>


  1. benji wald, movies/stereotypes

Message 1: movies/stereotypes

Date: Wed, 01 May 1996 23:39:00 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: movies/stereotypes
Charles Rowe's observation is right that the (Eastern) New
England pronunciation used to be the standard for the mass
media -- with some peculiarities that did not even apply to the
"received" British standard of the time, e.g., the "wh"/"w"
distinction, now pretty much nonstandard wherever it survives in
the US (e.g., LA lower/working but not middle class). All this
changed in the US after WW2 -- strikingly fast -- and no doubt
because outside of the East Coast very few speakers, even in
prestigious circles, took it all that seriously, except as a
maybe "resentable" power imbalance in favor of the East Coast.

So you will find that in numerous movies of the pre-WW2 era,
numerous "respectable" characters did not use the New England
standard at all. But they weren't speaking the "classiest"
(American) English. That was even on purpose in some films,
like Capra's. Characters like Jimmy Stewart's would be Mr.
All-American, and the class connotations of a classy accent
wouldn't have sustained that impression. In contrast, Kathryn
Hepburn has the classy accent, even in roles where it was
"curious", like her early movie about a woman struggling to
become an actress -- without the understanding that she was from
a classy family or went to a classy school. She was just
supposed to be a "normal" person. Audiences could accept it
because that was the "unmarked" accent, maybe more so for women
(as an "unmarked" accent) than for men. It would imply "East
Coast" for the majority of Americans, and could be a distraction
if that wasn't supposed to matter. Of course, the whole "East
Coast sophistication" complex was staple to a lot of period
movies, much more so than now, where marked East Coast accents
and even situations are anything but "classy". And, Chicago as
the big bad city of the Midwest, still avoids getting its
particular accent stereotyped. It takes a linguist -- or a
Chicagoan -- to recognise that in many current movies some
characters who are supposed to be Chicagoans couldn't possibly
be. Casting directors can be sensitive to Chicago accents for
minor characters, but if they tried to coach the stars in the
accent, as they do with Southern accents, the accent would be
marked but audiences wouldn't know what to make of it, because
they do not have a stereotype for it. It would distract from
the "heroicism" of the character. The stereotypes even go so
far as to cast New York City accents (but ethnically unmarked
for the most part) for good but tough cop heroes no matter where
they're supposed to be from -- the stereotype now being more
associated with the character than with the locale in this
particular case.

In any case, the Boston upper class and its perceived
approximation of "received" British English was long the
"received" American standard. Among the naive the argument was
"well, that's where the language came from, so they must speak
it better than us". Even today attitude studies show that
British accents tend to get good ratings, among most segments of
the American population, but, naturally, with less
discrimination of different kinds of British accents than in
Britain itself. They're used for selling expensive (NB prestige)
cars, among other things, and impart inevitable European
"culture" and time-tested sophistication. Japanese, among other,
market researchers are well aware of such things and use it in
their advertising strategies to compete with Europe for market
shares in the US.

Largely due to the movies, it may be that more recently
Americans are becoming more familiar with variety in British
accents, particularly with respect to "Cockney" (London in
general, though not the advanced variety of East London which
would be difficult for most Americans to understand). Not much
is made of it, though, and I suspect that to the extent that it
is supposed to be relevant it goes over the heads of US
audiences. Similarly, the stereotypes of character associated
with Northern British English, readily interpretable to British
audiences, create no distinct impressions on American viewers of
British films, whether more current or Richardson's "kitchen
sink" realism genre of the 50s-60s, e.g., Loneliness of the Long
Distance Runner, of the British devalued industrial Midlands
variety, Sheffield, if I remember right, probably not perceived even
in Southern England as distinct from Birmingham, which Southern
British perceives as generally abominable, while Northern
British accents are generally perceived by them as tough,
underprivileged, remote and to some extent maybe even
"ignorant", but not "evil". "Evil" was the American Southern
accent in US films of the 60s, esp "Easy Rider".

About stereotypes asociated with Southern US accents in movies
and in the population at large much more can be said than I will
take the time to say here. Let me briefly pause to observe that
Black characters in American movies virtually never have the
marked "inner city" accents of that genre unless that is the
point of the movie. However, it is interesting that the
"impeccable" Sidney Poitier accent of the era of "The Defiant
Ones" and "Guess who's coming to dinner" is no longer a
prerequisite for Black characters in roles for which
"profession" is supposed to be more important than "race". The
stereotyped Black accents of the earlier talkies are too
transparent in intent to need any observation here, except to
note that they were so much in the stage and literary tradition
that they had to be learned by the actors (and actresses) that
performed such roles. Though some might take offense at the
following comparison, I would suggest that in terms of the
image distortions perpetrated on African American people and culture
of that period the practice has something in common with the
faked "documentary" I read about that the Nazis produced in the
Warsaw ghetto about Jewish culture and religious customs. The
difference might be that the Nazi film-makers knew that their
propaganda was false, but the American film-makers did not, nor
were they (as) aware of the harm they were doing. The American
film-makers did not have to persuade to the same extent, but more
to reinforce what was already generally accepted -- and expected.

Interesting in current movies, and touching on more current US
trends, is the treatment of Mexican-American, West Indian and
East Indian accents in a US context. I don't know but guess
that audiences outside of the border areas do not really get the
difference between Mexican-American, as indigenous, and Mexican,
as foreign, accents. Anyway, Mexican gardeners, maids, etc. are
usually portrayed as not knowing much English, if any. This
feeds into stereotypes about the "threat" to English, even
though that does not seem to be the purpose of the stereotype.
East Indians are now a recognised presence in the US, and their
accents are relatively frequently stereotyped in movies for
humorous purposes, particularly in the guise of cab-drivers and
convenience-store merchants -- the stereotyped accent and
humorous purposes having been much longer used in Britain (and
has a Swahili analogue for Indians="Asians" talking Swahili in
East Africa). Such things have also been picked up by TV comedy
shows. Non-prime-time comedy shows featuring Black comedians
and aimed specifically at Black, as well as other, audiences,
such as "In Living Color", were quick to exploit West Indian
stereotypes, including accent, and all Americans can easily
distinguish them from US Black stereotypes. However, it would
not make much difference to most Americans if West Indian
accents were also used to stereotype Africans or vice-versa.
The whole issue of West Indian vs African American stereotypes
is still pretty much confined to the African American community,
and further localised to particular areas of the US, largely on
the East Coast. Haitians are pretty much ignored, even locally,
for stereotype purposes.

Next, even with the increasing consciousness of Australian
stereotypes among US audiences, starting with Hogan and his
Crocodile Dundee character, it seems that most Americans still
can't distinguish Australian from British accents, much to the
dismay and irritation of British (but not so much Australian?)
speakers. That is, the confusion is more likely to amuse than
annoy Australian speakers, just as some foreigner mistaking an
American for British by accent is likely to astound and amuse
but hardly offend the American.

The hallmarks of the earlier "US standard" include such palpable
Britishisms for most Americans as "r-lessness" and the "broad a"
in "aunt", "class", "half" etc. Americans do not ordinarily
perceive r-lessness as such, and can contradictorily devalue it
in esp New York City accents ("they're dropping letters from
words" = sloppy speech), but not realise that it is also
characteristic of the British accents, which impress them
favo(u)rably. Broad a is immediately perceived by Americans, as
its absence is by British speakers. It is still "classy", but
would be considered pretentious if the character is American.
The Eastern New England accent is no longer a stereotype that
Americans are familiar with. It only figures in movies (like
"Jaws" etc) in association with localism and rusticity, on a par
with "Appalachian" and "cowboy" accents. While it features a
"broad a" class of words, the actual pronunciation (which is
fronted rather than backed as in Southern British) prevents it
being associated with "class", and I doubt it is even perceived
as a distinctive pronunciation in most cases. It is not fronted
in the old movies where it's supposed to be prestigious.

Pronunciation standards and their uses in drama, is a more
complicated thing in the US than it is in England, in terms
of the purposes for which it is used, and the things it means
to different segments of the audience, and has been since before
the birth of the movie industry. -- Benji
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