So it turns out that Kevin Costner was right all along not to try to fake a British accent in the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves!
In fact, if anyone spoke closer to the way the mythical Robin Hood would have spoken back in those days, it would have been Costner (portraying the titular character) and not the predominantly British cast (with the exception of Morgan Freeman of course who played the Moor Azeem sporting a Persian dialect)!
Okay, now before my British friends flame the hell out of me listen to my reasoning on this matter:
So last night while watching an episode of Sleepy Hollow I was intrigued by an exchange between Ichabod Crane and one of the modern-day police officers. The officer was trying to insult Crane by saying something that he wasn’t an American because he spoke with a British accent. However, the officer didn’t realize that Crane was transported through time from the American Revolution to modern times (by witchcraft) and that would explain his accent because back then (ca. 1776) American colonists and their British counterparts all pretty much spoke with the same accent.
So then my interest was piqued, and I looked up when did American English and British English accents diverge. The answer surprised the hell out of me!
It turns out that it weren’t Americans who lost their so-called British accent. It was the British who gained theirs over the last 300 years or so (242 years since the American Revolution)! I couldn’t believe it!
I have a degree in English but I don’t recall this being covered in any of my English classes. Please no comments about the quality of American education—let’s just stick to the subject at hand.
So anyway, that blew my mind. I’ll post the link to the research here. Now there are a few exceptions to this explanation but essentially it goes like this:
Around the time of the American Revolution, just about all English-speaking people (on both continents) spoke with a rhotic dialect. In other words, they round their Rs. Yes, we here in the Boston area (New York City and other US regions) have a closer dialect/accent to the British than most of the US—so we don’t count.
What happened was that the affluent British class dropped the Rs and other pronunciations from they way they spoke in order to be more elitist from the lower classes. However, eventually, most of the British isles adopted the aforementioned upper class accent as well—it’s called Received Pronunciation. However, again this is not true for all of Britain or the UK. Northern England, Scotland, and Ireland have largely retained the way their historic dialects/accents are spoken.
Okay, so that being the case, last night’s episode of Sleepy Hollow got Crane’s accent actually wrong! And getting back to Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves he got it largely right!
Now I know some of you linguistic history aficionados will say, “Wait a minute Iandolo, back in Robin Hood’s day (or the time the story is set in, ca. 1300-1400s) they didn’t speak any recognizable English at all. They spoke either Old English or Middle English that was heavily influenced by the Norman and Saxon invasions. Ha!”
And you’d be right. But, they certainly didn’t speak with an accent like say Brian Blessed (Robin Hood’s father) or Alan Rickman (the ineffably mercurial Sheriff of Nottingham) either. So as Sherlock Holmes would say, “… when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth …” So, if Costner’s accent is closer to how the colonists spoke back in the days of the American Revolution than his British co-stars in the movie, then he at least was closer in dialect/accent to how the real Robin Hood spoke (if ever a person existed, even though he was made up by unknown balladeers at the time) or someone who lived in England at the time of The Crusades (ca. 1300s).
And by that same token, all those Shakespearian movies, or movies set in England in periods before the American Revolution should really have the actors speaking with, believe it or not, American accents if they actually want to be historically (i.e. linguistically) accurate!
Ironic when you think about it.
This is just an observation, and I apologize to any of my British friends if I have offended you—that’s not my intention.
So, that finally leads me to two more points that I think my British friends will appreciate. One is when you think about it, it seems to be easier for a British actor to fake an American accent than an American to fake a British one (except Meryl Streep or Johnny Depp of course). Just look at Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne among the myriad of other examples. Part of this is due to the fact that British acting schools are very live-drama oriented so their timing, discipline, and precision seems to be of greater focus in that regard than American acting schools, which focus on film not stage (this is not my conclusion, it’s what I turned up on the Internet, so please no flames from my American acting friends!). But also, it may be because it’s just easier for the British actors to roll back their dialect to the original sounding English accent that Americans predominantly use than for American actors to advance their Received Pronunciation to get that lofty British accent. I have no scientific basis for that conclusion but it seems logical to me.
And the other final conclusion, is that it seems to me that we Americans and our British cousins are indeed closer than we realize when you look at our common language (and history) that we share together.
Okay, so the next time you re-watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves maybe you won’t be so hard on Costner for inadvertently not trying to fake a British accent when he really didn’t have to at all!
All images are copyrighted under Warner Bros. & Morgan Creek Entertainment.