The big twang theory: why British celebrity accents change
One Directioners, Selling Sunset cast members and Gillian Anderson all have debuted wild accents. We asked professional linguists if there's something in the, um, wadder.
“My favourite thing abaht it is that it just feels the most like me,” Harry Styles recently told Zane Lowe about his new album, against a Californian desert backdrop. But the internet’s reaction to the hour-long interview was that, despite Styles’ protests that this era represents his most authentic self, this sentence alone proved otherwise. The word “about” is said with an almost Aussie twang, a far cry from what he sounded like as a Cheshire teen. Styles was quickly ridiculed online as his new here-there-and-everywhere accent left viewers confused. In an even weirder turn of events, he isn’t the only ex-One Directioner that this phenomenon has occurred with recently.
As a nation, Britain is generally a lot more obsessed with accents than we like to admit. Only recently, the press had a field day with the idea that the voices of Brits are changing. They predicted that due to the spread of Multicultural London English, the prominent accent of young people in the capital, which blends sounds and words from immigrant communities with British dialects, will within 100 years have us all sounding completely different. But accents are actually shifting all the time. And nowhere do we notice and criticise this more than when it comes to our beloved celebrity overlords, who seem to conjure up completely new accents regularly.
I’ve laughed at and bookmarked the likes of Lindsay Lohan’s middle Eastern (and attempted kidnapping) era, or Madonna and Britney’s brief dalliances with an English twang, because there’s nothing weirder than when a well-known person starts speaking in someone else’s voice as though they’re possessed. That’s usually the general reaction to a star, who is from where you’re from, debuting a new accent. Another is: “Oh, you think you’re billy big bollocks now? You’ve made a bit of money and think you can leave our beautiful dialects behind? How dare you?” Meanwhile, there’s also an inference that said celebrity has simply lost their mind. Professor Emma Moore, a sociolinguist at The University of Sheffield, says that people hear accent changes and think, “That’s not the real you”. She adds: “So therefore you’re not being authentic. The speech becomes a metaphor for personal integrity and his authenticity.”
Understandably, everyone want to know what’s really going on with these ever-changing celeb accents. To help uncover the mystery, we asked experts on linguistics to break down some memorable ‘sleb accents below.
Linguists have found that usually, when you like a person, you tend to mimic the way they talk in your own speech. Professor Moore suggests that the new Harry’s House accent is probably an example of “accommodating”.
“It’s entirely normal,” she tells THE FACE. “When people come into conversation with [others] who speak differently from them, there is likely to be some potential adjustment of speech. You’re never going to talk the same with a group of friends in the way you would talk to your parents or your grandparents. You talk differently in a job interview than you would in in the pub with your mates,” Moore continues. “It [also] happens because we might want to make someone like us, subconsciously.” So Harry’s odd Australasian vowels might come down to the fact that Zane Lowe is from New Zealand, and Harry regards him as one of the entertainment industry’s most important interviewers.
When Liam Payne was asked to weigh in on Will Smith’s blow-up at the Academy Awards, the result was a hilarious viral interview. In it, he produced an array – nay, a blockbuster exhibit – of accents from multiple nations he may or may not ever have resided in. For a forensic analysis, we asked Dominic Watt, a phonetician who studies the sounds we make when we speak from the University of York, to unpack Payno’s accent. According to him, Liam is doing some “flapping or tapping of the T sound between vowels” which is evident in the way he speaks about knowing Will’s daughter, or “dawda”. “People say it’s like turning a “tea” into a “D”, which is not completely inaccurate,” Watt says. “In American English, you get pairs of words like “letter” and “ladder”, sounding basically the same and you can’t tell which is which. You find that in Northern Ireland, too.”
But other bits sound closer to home, even if they aren’t from not his actual hometown of Wolverhampton. “The way he says ‘I’ll be honest with you’ sounds a bit Welsh, and that’s possibly a rhythm thing,” says Jane Setter, a professor of phonetics at Reading University. Ditto for [Payne saying] “whatever he did”. Even by her expert opinion, she concedes that Liam’s voice is “all over the place”. In a live stream following him being ridiculed online, he cited alcohol and living in a house with Germans, Texans and a Liverpudlian as possible reasons for his multinational voice. Setter tells us that this does impact the way people speak, and, that “if you’re not sober, everything does sort of go out of the window”. So all that stands between Liam and his Englishness is a few pints, really.
“Was she stoned?”, a Guardian blog headline from the mid-’00s reads. Such was the backlash against blue-eyed soul poster girl Joss Stone when she debuted a slightly new sound at the BRITs when the BRITs were still entertaining. The American twang in her tribute to a recently rehabilitated Robbie Williams (“big love to him”) which she then accompanied with an interpolation of Amy Winehouse’s hit Rehab, led to a tabloid bollocking of biblical proportions. Consequently, her label didn’t promote her next album, and said album then flopped. She complained that her country had turned on her overnight due to her accent and explained that she’d just spent time in America working on music – it must’ve rubbed off on her.
Setter says it’s notable that Stone keeps skipping between singing and speech as her English accent drops in and out. “There’s something to be said for style over accent,” she explains. “She’s a soul singer and you adopt the style of that genre. For example, it would make absolutely no sense to sing country and Western music with a broad British accent.” Moore agrees. “There’s been research [done] on how The Beatles started using more American accents when they became more successful in America and singing in different accents. Taylor Swift has gone from a country accent to generic American pop to slightly more urban with non-standard grammar. Alesha Dixon, when she sung the national anthem, was accused of [having] an American accent.”
Chelsea from Selling Sunset
In response to fans saying Chelsea Lazkani was faking her British accent for the reality show (at moments it even sounds a bit like Nicki Minaj’s Roman phase), the newest realtor in the Selling Sunset cast responded by saying she had lived in Switzerland, New Jersey, LA and London. Moore believes we should cut her some slack. “Her explanation seems perfectly rational. She has a lot of resources to draw on if she’s had that diversity in her background. The more different kinds of language input we’ve experienced, the more we might think about that as a resource that we can then use in different situations to present what we might call different personas.”
In some interviews and Netflix’s Sex Education, Anderson’s a plummy English rose getting ready for a spot of polo. In the US, she sounds like a hotdog-eating, denim-wearing, pickup truck-driving yank. When questioned about this, she says that she spent a lot of time in London and Chicago while growing up and retained both accents perfectly. All the linguists we spoke to agree that since she’s spent a substantial amount of time in both places, Anderson could authentically speak in both dialects in the same way a child born in two different countries could speak both languages.
“She’s bidialectal,” Watt says. “It’s the exception, rather than the rule. There’s a whole variety of factors that lead to this, including the accent of your parents, your siblings, the peer groups that you find yourself in and how you react to the pressure that you’re under from those around you to conform to what they do.” This suggests that Anderson either feels like she’s authentically from both nations, or that her priority is to fit in wherever she is. But not everyone reacts the same to a nomadic childhood. “Some people have such language loyalty and will try to hang onto their accent for dear life.”