Let me get this out of the way right now: I once lived in fear of Anglophilia. This fear has had serious consequences, such as, for example, preventing me from reading the Harry Potter books, and, until a few years ago, watching Buffy (which I knew contained prominent British characters played by American actors, inspiring what I feared would be an awkwardly Anglophilic fanbase). My parents are British, you see, but I have lived my entire life in the United States, and therefore have a solidly USAmerican accent, Central Pennsylvanian to be specific. Starting in early childhood, I experienced the social world of strangers as one utterly fascinated by my parents’ accents, and one saddened by my lack of the same. And so, early on, I developed my Linguistics 101 talking points about the connections between accent, affect, perceived credibility, and social class. Aside from the Linguistics 101 situation, I’ve found that these talking points become relevant in two other situations in which I commonly find myself: when I am meeting new colleagues, for example, a new cohort of graduate students in my program, or when an accent meme goes around among a newly-coalescing group of internet friends. The former situation is not relevant here, but I think the latter one is, if only because it offers a way in to a discussion of internet intimacy, and how it connects to the language politics of fandom. I’ve been through three or four “rounds” of accent memes with various online social circles, and some interesting trends have emerged. Here, I’m talking about accent memes that specifically look for likely points of difference (say, the pronunciation of Mary/marry/merry) among English speakers, rather than, say, the dynamics of a wave of podficcing, which are less predictable depending on the variety of fans involved. Within accent memes proper, I’ve noticed that people seem to produce an attitude toward language that values authenticity and rare speech patterns in ways that would stretch the boundaries of etiquette in a different context. To be clear, I am as guilty as anyone else of this exoticizing impulse, particularly when it’s combined with the inevitable excitement of connecting a person’s textual presence with a new sensory element of their presence, their voice. But it does strike me as somehow strange that it’s so much more common to hear “oh, that accent is so cool” than it would be (I hope) to say “oh, that person’s face/name is so cool.” Certainly, when people post pictures of themselves, there’s an expected chorus of “you’re so cute!” but it feels somehow different. That “somehow” is what drew me to the study of linguistics in college. For a few key historical reasons, English speakers in the U.S. are incredibly confused about what one can and cannot say about language. The most important of these, I think, is the institutional equation of Standard Written/White English with “correct grammar,” and its inherent enforcement of the prescriptive approach to language patterns. Armed with an understanding of SWE versus the deviant, many English speakers in the U.S. create a strict division between the language of education and professional advancement on the one side, and the language of emotion, family, and home on the other. (Obviously I’m generalizing to a ridiculous degree here.) Within internet culture, this distinction can become even more deeply entrenched. Hardly the revitalization of communitarian culture some have proclaimed the internet to be, some spheres of internet culture create their hierarchies entirely based on language use, taking prescriptive mandates more seriously than many English teachers do. But this attention to detail is not without its own insights for social justice vis a vis judgements of linguistic competence. For example, to accompany the exoticization I’ve seen in accent memes, there’s a counter-phenomenon of the Brit-pick. Here the accuracy of non-British fic authors’ representations of British characters’ voices is put to the test by native speakers of particular varieties of British English. I find Brit-picking (and its cousins, such as Yank-wank, which term I’ll have to admit I’ve never seen used) fascinating, especially as it relates to accent meme authenticity. I assume that in the context of concrit, it’s actually quite helpful, but when, as an outside reader, I encounter a comment that says “no British person would say x,” I find it strange. I’m sure it’s true sometimes, but I can’t think of many statements I’d be confident in saying that no native speaker of American English could ever organically utter. I mean, I know I’ve come up with some pretty odd, non-idiomatic sentences while composing this very piece, but I don’t think any of them disqualifies me from my national identity. These issues are all separate, of course, and I’d like to do a post at some point on my perhaps naive confusion as to why so many actors are asked to play characters with dramatically different accents than their own. (Dollhouse offers something of an in-story explanation of this, but that’s a topic for another day.) I’d also like to think more about the space podfic creates for a discussion of the connection between the aesthetic and narrative effects of accents and accent mimicry, and how conversations surrounding podfic differ from the off-the-cuff accent meme responses. But for today, I hope I’ve raised some questions worth thinking further about, related to language and online fandom.

[META] Accent Memes, Brit-picking, and Other Perpetually Fascinating Phenomena of Internet Linguistics
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9 thoughts on “[META] Accent Memes, Brit-picking, and Other Perpetually Fascinating Phenomena of Internet Linguistics

  • 10/02/2011 at 14:20

    This is fascinating; thank you. I think the desire to be an expert at something is definite a marker of geek culture; in fan fiction communities, of course, two of the types of expertise on display would be grammar skills and the ability to do Brit picking. And when you get into the strange hierarchy you mention — USA folks’ admiration of British or French accents in particular — that expertise really does show up as kind of an elitist or status thing.

    I’m familiar with fan journals, communities and individuals, whose main hobby is pointing out grammar errors or “stupid” uses of language — the ability to police language is definitely one way people in fan fiction land indulge in a need to feel superior.

    No doubt this contributes to the backlash when other fan writers insist that they don’t care about grammar and punctuation; they are just posting for fun.

    Not all fans engage in this controversy, of course, or find it important, but it’s definitely there. And I’m sure it varies from fan to fan — seeing “okay” in a historical or fantasy story throws me right out, for example, (it upset me even when I heard it in Star Wars!!!) and I backbuttoned out of a recent Sherlock Holmes period piece of fanfiction when one character addressed another using the courtesy title “Ms.” But these aren’t quite what you’re talking about. I find I have quite a high tolerance for typos, but too many grammar or punctuation mistakes interfere with my ability to enjoy a story. So I don’t know where I would fall on the continuum.

    I haven’t gotten into podficcing very much, but that whole element would also be fascinating too! How to measure expertise there, I mean. And I’d never really thought too much about the difficulty actors face in learning different accents; that would be fun to study too.

    Thanks for the post! Glad you’re here.

    • 10/02/2011 at 15:04

      Thanks for the comment! Yeah, I’m so interested to see what people have to say about this one. I know that I’m something of a radical descriptivist when it comes to language, and I feel like I might be something of an outlier in geekdom as a result.

      I haven’t gotten too into the podficcing world, but it seems to create some really great possibilities for a revival of radio-style storytelling culture.

  • 10/02/2011 at 16:53

    >I’m sure it’s true sometimes, but I can’t think of many statements I’d be confident in saying that no native speaker of American English could ever organically utter.

    Really? I can think of tons! British and American English really are two separate beasts. I read fanfic to immerse myself in the world of the show, and to follow new adventures with the characters I love. If a British writer wants to write Stargate fanfic (US Air Force characters) and use single quotation marks for dialog, put periods and commas outside of quoted sections, British spelling, etc., I’m okay with that as long as the writer is consistent. But if she writes:

    Jack poked his head into Daniel’s office. It looked like the scientist was grabbing a kip. ‘Hey,’ he said, just loud enough to make Daniel startle awake and look up. ‘Shift your arse; this isn’t a doss house. You should go home.’ He pointed to the piles on Daniel’s desk. ‘And think about straightening up this tip.’

    Daniel sighed. ‘Right. Well I would do if I didn’t have translations to finish for two different teams shipping out first thing in the morning.’

    That would throw me right out of the story! In both word choice and grammatical construction that sounds nothing like anything those characters would say. Same thing in reverse for British characters using Americanisms.

    (I did write on entry on this for the fandom_grammar comm:

    (I am one of those people who usually cringes at bad grammar, although when writing a “voice,” either dialog or POV character, I believe it’s usually preferable to let those spoken imperfections through so that it “sounds” right.)

    • 10/02/2011 at 17:07

      Hee, I love your example! And thanks for the link to your entry. It looks like a very helpful guide for writers. I love that fic writing gives people the opportunity to experiment with different varieties of language, which is probably why I’m such a relativist when it comes to accuracy. I think that being respectful to the character, linguistic idiosyncracies and all, is the most important thing. It gets especially interesting when we’re talking about James Marsters’ renditions of Joss Whedon-composed British English, you know?

      • 11/02/2011 at 01:33

        (I didn’t realize the html would pick up the parenthesis for the URL. Glad you got to the link!)

        > It gets especially interesting when we’re talking about James Marsters’ renditions of Joss Whedon-composed British English, you know?

        I’ve often wondered about that question! How much do they rely on actor input? Who wrote Keen Eddie? Brits, Americans, both? On Buffy, I’m sure ASH could give his two cents if he thought the dialog really missed the mark, but as you say, James is American.

        What about the way completely foreign languages are written? Cote de Pable is a Chilean-American actress playing an Israeli-American agent in a part penned by Americans. Who writes the Hebrew? How authentically Israeli do they get? (Apparently the name Ziva is really old-fashioned/out of date in Israel. Did they know that when they named her?)

  • 10/02/2011 at 19:54

    Coming at this from a British perspective, I’d say that there’s a politics involved in Brit-picking, which definitely results (if only in part) from the exoticisation of British English, its accents and the people who speak them; to me they seem linked rather than working as counter-phenomena. Within US TV and a lot of mainstream fandoms (the Jossverse being an excellent example…) British-going-on-English people will often be misrepresented as stereotypes, to the point of perniciousness (I can’t help but refer to Tahmoh Penikett’s comments on Jamie Bamber’s appearance in Dollhouse, when he said that JB ‘has the perfect accent for an arms dealer’), so, when we get an opportunity in fandom to react to this and, I suppose you could say, even ‘police’ the way our country is being represented, we snap it up.

    What I find interesting about my own writing, when it comes to Yank-wanking or whatever, is that I’ve been writing in Buffy fandom so long that my most comfortable style to write in is definitely not the way I talk. I actively try to retain ‘British’ elements in my prose, but in terms of character voices I find what I think of as ‘American’ rhythms as a much more natural base to work from when building an OC (though British phrasing does creep in here and there). I can write in a Giles-Wesleyan snooty-witty-posh rhythm and Spike’s strange, slightly trans-Atlantic rhythm of weird swearing, but they’re mostly US constructions anyway, I find. Writing somebody who sounds like me or someone I went to school with, on the other hand, is very, very difficult. And then I end up Brit-picking myself…

    • 10/02/2011 at 20:18

      “Spike’s strange, slightly trans-Atlantic rhythm of weird swearing”

      YES! Love this. I think we’re on the same page. I like your interpretation of Brit-picking as corrective. I like to think of a lot of fan activities as corrective of pernicious social tendencies, although I see less self-awareness of how this works in the context of language than I do elsewhere. But I’m sure some veterans of the slash-as-queer debates would take issue with that impression.

  • 10/02/2011 at 20:18

    I suppose Britpicking is always kind of fun; but of course this same thing happens in fandom among various classes of Americans too. My primary fandom has a Southern character, which results not so much in odd word choice (the character is highly educated and his dialogue in the canon show doesn’t reflect a lot of regionalisms) as bizarre attempts to transcribe the accent, rendering entire fics unreadable because it’s too much work to puzzle through the interesting spellings and apostrophes. I think fandoms like True Blood (British actors playing formally speaking undead Southerners!) have their work cut out for them.

    This does go right to the heart of how we use language to create a world that our readers have to believe. One wrong word choice (“paracetamol” did it for me in one fic, about an America-set show, written by a British author–done! bye! did you even get a beta?) and my ability to maintain my suspension of disbelief for the milieu is gone. But authenticity interestingly ties into this, with each fan arguing that she is the better resource because she is British, or not British, thus emphasizing linguistic culture as a way nationalism is constructed, and then using that to construct boundaries in a fandom-mode expression of the culture wars.

    Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

    • 10/02/2011 at 20:28

      No such thing as reading too much into it! Now I want to do an entirely language-focused re-watch of Dollhouse, because I think it might have the answer…(although of course the dominant metaphor in Dollhouse is professional acting rather than fan writing, but still. The answers are in there.)

      I do think, further, that this goes back to debates about the appropriation of dialects so central to the mission of English and American literature for so long, from Hardy to Faulkner and so on. But I’m not sure what to do with that.

      Thanks for your comment!

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