Many people from all corners of the world love the British accent. Some of our favourite actors, singers and sporting heroes have iconic British voices—such as Steven Fry, Sir Sean Connery, Cheryl Cole, or Sir Tom Jones (you can’t deny you didn’t imagine them speaking as you read each of their names!). With so many talented Brits out in the media it’s no wonder the accent is such a hit. But why are they all considered to have a typical ‘British accent’ if they all sound so different?
With plenty of tongues, twangs and brogues on offer around the isles, here I look at what makes a British accent and why it works so well for voiceovers.
Just what is a British accent?
An accent is a certain adaptation or flavouring to your speech that has an effect on the sounds and shapes of your words. These adjustments can either attach to certain vowels or consonants to change how they’re pronounced, or can even include a change in word stress where a relative emphasis is placed on a certain syllable.
But in reality, there is no such thing as a ‘British accent’ because each part of the UK and Ireland has its own regional accent, which can also vary from person to person. For example, a Birmingham accent is different to say a Yorkshire accent, but then the three historic ridings of Yorkshire all have variations, too. The same goes for London where there is such accents as Cockney, Estuary English and Multicultural London English among many more.
The evolution of “The Queen’s English”
Interestingly, when you picture your American friends mimicking the Brits they’ll more often than not turn to the traditional English accent. This is referred to as ‘Received Pronunciation (RP)’ (think The Queen or John Cleese) and was adopted by the BBC to sound professional and authoritative during their first broadcasts from the 1930s.
This cut-glass accent—the soundtrack to period dramas like Downton Abbey— is also associated with the elites of the late 19th century. But over the years, as the class system has become more fluid, so too has the linguistic divide. Now, RP is mistakenly labelled as the ‘posh’ accent, when in reality there are various forms. RP associated with the aristocracy is referred to as conservative RP, whereas mainstream RP describes an accent that is more neutral in terms of signals regarding age, occupation or lifestyle.
Some of the characteristics of more regional southern accents have merged with the sharp tones of the conservative RP to make a more modern form that verges on ‘estuary English’—a mix of Cockney and RP—and what is seen globally as the contemporary RP.
But what all these forms of RP have in common is that they do not use any pronunciation patterns that allow us to make assumptions about where they are from in the UK. This is one of the main reasons why mainstream RP is particularly adopted for voiceover work, because it can appeal to all demographics.
Why it makes for a great voiceover
To a global audience, the “British accent”— or most often a mainstream, neutral RP— can sound sophisticated and intellectual and may help to instil an authoritative tone to a corporate or training video. According to numerous studies, the British accent conjures stereotypes of high IQs and competence, and can even enhance the sense of drama or transform seemingly mundane concepts.
Right or wrong, we use the information that accents provide to make judgements, whether that’s assumptions on socioeconomic status, intelligence, or perhaps even personality. Much to this affect, accents can also influence our decision-making, which is why with all its many charming characteristics and qualities, a British accent is often used as a persuasive tool for branding and marketing communications.
Whenever I start a new project I make sure I work closely with my clients to fully understand the brand, script, tone of the message and, most importantly, the audience. Because although a British accent is wonderfully versatile, it’s important to choose a voiceover whose accent suits the brand or video, so that it strikes a chord and resonates with your target market.