How movie accents make us snobs

Dr Nicholas HerrimanDr Nick Herriman
First published on The Punch on 4 January, 2013.






A long time ago, in a faraway galaxy, a world possessed exactly the same pronunciation snobbery as ours…

For those who live on another planet, and especially for those who wish they did, the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy based on the works of Tolkien has been recently complemented by a ‘prequel’ called The Hobbit. Most see the Lord of the Rings as a highlight in the sci-fi and fantasy genres of film and there are many reasons to agree.

One thing that might attract us to the genres resides in their unnerving contradiction. The more fantastical a movie attempts to be; the more accurately it portrays the social relations of our world. The converse also applies. Gritty TV dramas attempting to portray reality are often quite fantastical. If you want to understand America of the 1950s, watch The Forbidden Planet before you see Mr Ed the Talking Horse.

For insight into the 1960s, watch Star Trek. In its context, it was quite progressive, with women and dark skinned people on board the Starship Enterprise. Yet, being led by a white American man extending a pax Americana across the universe it was a great analogy for America as a world power in the 1960s.

We can find out more about the decade from watching this program than if we watch 1-Adam-12.

In Star Wars in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Yoda’s accent was like the spiel of our cute immigrant grandparents. Though actually very intelligent he won’t directly change the world. Darth Vader and Obi-Wan were apparently Oxbridge educated, degrees deferred to fight over the fate of the universe. (Later, Jar Jar Binks would ruin both Jamaica and Star Wars with his accent.)

It is thus as understandable as it is predictable that the The Lord of the Rings is tinged by the class and race hierarchies of the inter-war years when Tolkien wrote. Generally, the highest and best characters are white, having posh accents; the bad characters are dark-skinned, speaking with regional or working class pronunciation.

In other words, an author’s imagination is shaped by their personality and society and can unintentionally reflect social values and prejudices. In the inter-war years class and education were closely correlated, but that situation does not transfer to the present.

Unfortunately, the movies derived from Tolkien’s work do not take the opportunity to reinterpret the books without the implicit class and race values.

The snobbery reflected by the accent and pronunciation of the characters continues to reflect inappropriate assumptions about language, refinement, and sophistication.

Got a posh English accent? You must be a wise character. The Wizard Gandalf, a human, cannot speak with a Southern “y’all”; nor can the Kings and men of noble descent. In the same vein it is obvious that the way upper class people speak is superior to that of the country folk and the workers; and, it seems, they are mostly of a taller, more elegant build.

A cute provincial accent indicates an about-normal intelligence. Shorter and stockier, the ordinary Hobbits have what might be called a regional accent (from Gloucestershire in England’s West Country). 

Hence, in the parlance of the Hobbits, “eleventyone” represents “111”. Another Hobbit, Gaffer (aka Ham Gamgee), uses double negatives (“there isn’t no call” instead of “there isn’t any call”) and non-standard subject-verb agreement (“I says” instead of “I say”).  Otherwise Pippin, a brave but silly Hobbit, speaks with a mild Scottish accent.

Shorter and stockier still, the dwarves are assigned a strong Scottish accent.

Further down the status hierarchy and we get the Orcs…demonlike goblins. Ugly, grey-brown, mostly bald. RP (received pronunciation) English won’t do for them. Far better they use a Cockney accent.

The educated elite of each race however, do speak RP, so Frodo and Bilbo Baggins get a “nice” accent. 

For all Tolkien’s delicious detail, we don’t get the Mark Twain / Rudyard Kipling / Steinbeck attention to detail with pronunciation in his books. So, the accent snobbery of the movies is not pardonable on grounds of diligent fidelity to the books.

With so many film roles to characterise, appealing to language stereotypes is a quick and easy solution. At the same time, several factors militate against it.

Over the past decades the BBC has gradually included non-white people to present the news. Subsequently, announcers were no longer forced to speak with RP and could use their own regional accents. As far as I can tell the product has not been adversely affected.

Tolkien was brilliant, possibly even a genius. Moreover, in his context, he was probably more socially advanced than many of us could claim to be - displaying concern about the treatment of some in the colonies and about the rise Hitler and National Socialism. If his books understandably showed some prejudices of his time and background, the movies presented an opportunity to continue his progressive legacy.

In a way, being cognisant of Tolkien’s progressive social attitudes could have paved the way for the film to reinterpret skin colour and accent hierarchies of the books. There is much to praise in the book, and the movies would be even more enjoyable without interwar assumptions about hierarchies of class, race, and pronunciation.

Dr Nicholas Herriman is a lecturer in Anthropology at La Trobe University. You can listen to his podcast 'The Audible Anthropologist' on La Trobe on iTunes U.