Is there such a thing as a British accent?

British accent
The British accent is the most attractive in the world according to a survey of 11,000 people globally, says a report in yesterday’s print edition of the Telegraph newspaper (and also in the online edition).

The Telegraph’s concise report notes that 27 percent of respondents to the survey rated British as the “sexiest” and “most dateable” accent, way ahead of the American accent in second place with 8.7 percent and Irish in third place with 8.1 percent.

The survey the Telegraph reports on was Time Out magazine’s Global Dating Survey that got a great deal of media attention this week.

What especially caught my eye, though, was the phrase “the British accent.”

What is that, I wondered?

Is it that when people think or talk about a “British accent,” what they’re actually referring to is an English accent, specifically what is defined as Received Pronunciation, and more traditionally known as “the Queen’s English”?

What we might even call “English English” as opposed to “American English”? (Certainly not “British English” as Microsoft would have it.)

Perhaps it’s the legacy of legions of actors from these shores over the past hundred years – most of them English rather than Scots, Welsh or Ulstermen (and women) – whose diction, vocabulary and context in the movies, on the stage and in television have defined the meaning of “British accent” in the minds of many people whose own language isn’t “British.”

Think of plays, movies and US TV dramas you may have seen starring legendary British thespians that include Laurence Oliver, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole (who was Irish but with a wonderful display of RP in Lawrence of Arabia), Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Alec Guinness, Joanna Lumley, Noel Coward, and Patrick Stewart; and, in more modern times, names such as Emma Watson, Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kiera Knightley, Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet… just a few examples from a huge list.

Do they each speak with a “British accent”? Correctly, no they don’t. Instead, each speaks a version of English that may be particular to their origin in the part of the British Isles from which they came – and which, for most, is in England, many from the south – as well as the evolution of their speech as they get older, as they learn from new life experiences, and as they evolve their professional behaviours in acting.

Does it really matter? Not really, other than being clear in what we mean. It’s a bit like saying Tom Cruise or Timothy Oliphant each speaks with “an American accent.” I imagine linguists and language geeks – communicators, too, where this has significance in a business communication setting – will have a better idea of the nuances of language, accents and what that indicates or suggests about the speaker, and whether the receiver will understand what he or she is hearing.

For most of us, it matters little. At least we can spot the differences in the spoken word that give us insights into the speaker.

And a final thought – English today is a global language. If native speakers of English are now outnumbered by those who have learned it as a second language, then English now belongs to everyone who speaks it, no matter how they speak it nor where they speak it.