There are any number of reasons a person might change their accent. Actors use accents to convincingly pretend they’re from other places. Politicians change accents to appeal to various groups of people. To some extent, every person changes their accent at least a little depending on who they’re talking to (a phenomenon called code-switching). When someone manages to pull it off, there usually aren’t any problems. But when people detect fake accents, they can get riled up.
It’s not always easy to tell when someone is faking an accent. We like to think that the way we talk is fixed, but it changes over the course of a lifetime. And if you move to a new place, especially when you’re younger, your accent can definitely change as you try to match the new group of people around you. This is usually not a conscious choice, though it can be.
Accent changes can certainly happen on purpose. An American playing a Brit in a movie, for example, is clearly faking their accent to some extent. If they study the accent and work with a coach, it can go very well. But too often, people fall into accent stereotypes. That means focusing on a specific part of an accent — the r-less nature of the Boston accent in “pahk the cah” — and ignoring all the other features. And considering accents are often a part of a place’s identity, it’s no surprise that people get angry when the way they talk is misrepresented.
Some fake accents are so notable, they’ve earned their own names. Here, we’ll look at a few of the most famous fake accents in the world.
No matter how long you look at a map of England, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a town called Mummerset. And that’s because, as you might have guessed, it’s not real. Mummerset is a portmanteau of “mummer” — which is either someone who mumbles or an actor in an old-fashioned masked mime play — and Somerset. Unlike the fictional Mummerset, Somerset is a real county in South West England.
The first instance of “Mummerset” is from over a century ago, and the word has meant a few different things in its history. One newspaper in the early 20th century defined it as a blend of Scottish, Irish, English and American accents all together, but this meaning has fallen out of use. The Oxford English Dictionary says that Mummerset is an accent used by actors that is really a blend of accents from the west of England. It’s a vaguely nondescript accent that says, “I don’t know exactly where I’m from, but I’m definitely from somewhere in the West Country of England.”
There are a few traits that define Mummerset. First, unlike the r-lessness of Received Pronunciation (the Queen’s English), Mummerset pronounces all of its “r”s, and sometimes hits them a little too hard. It also voices certain voiceless consonants at the beginning of words, turning “summer” into “zummer” and “first” into “virst.” Lastly, the vowels are all a little different, so the “a” sound in “mate” would shift so it sounds more like “mite,” and the “i” sound in “right” would shift to sound more like “roit.” While you might hear some of these traits in an authentic accent of the West Country, it oversimplifies the vast diversity of the region.
Mockney is a pretty simple portmanteau: it combines “mock” and “Cockney,” which is the name for a working-class accent that originated in the East End of London. One of Mockney’s most infamous perpetrators is Dick van Dyke, whose accent in Mary Poppins annoyed certain Brits so much that he later apologized for it. But he’s not the only person who’s been called out for imitating a Cockney accent. Musicians including Lily Allen and Mick Jagger have also been accused of playing up Mockney accents.
The reason for the widespread use of Mockney has to do with a tricky sociolinguistic concept: prestige. The most obvious kind of accent prestige is using “proper” English. An American might use Standard American English, for example, because it conveys that they’re educated (though this is tied to very classist beliefs). But sometimes, an accent is prestigious not because it’s considered high-class but because it’s cool. When the Beatles were at the height of their fame, their hometown Liverpudlian accent became more popular. In the same way, the Cockney accent has become a symbol of coolness, anti-authoritarianism and solidarity with the working class.
Defining Mockney in contrast to Cockney can be difficult, and it’s mostly a matter of exaggeration. Some notable attributes are skipping “t”s (like turning “water” into a two-syllabled “wa’er”) and elongating certain vowels. Using Cockney rhyming slang in a way that’s too self-conscious can also get you called out for Mockney. But getting called out for fake accents is also a matter of people knowing where you’re from. If someone using a “Cockney” accent was raised in an upper-class family and attended a top-tier university, it’s far more likely they’ll be accused of Mockney.
The Transatlantic accent is a little different than most of the other accents on this list, because it’s not attempting to imitate a real accent. It’s a way of talking that was taught to orators and actors in the early 20th century, and it combines elements of both American and British accents together. One notable user was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (“The only thing we have to feah is feah itself”), but you’ll hear it if you watch pretty much any American movie from before 1950.
The Transatlantic accent became popular because in the earlier days of audio recording, it was believed that this way of talking would make it easier for people to understand what you’re saying. It tends to strongly enunciate most consonants and draw out vowels, which gives it the staccato sound. It also tends to drop its “r”s, which is probably an attempt to make it sound higher class; the upper-class British accent was “r”-less in the early 20th century, and American actors took their cues from them.
The Transatlantic accent has faded since its heyday, though you’ll still hear an actor use it from time to time (David Hyde Pierce’s character in Frasier is one of the better examples in the past few decades). The accent is not really offensive to anyone because it’s not imitating anything in particular, but it adds an interesting new facet to the world of fake accents.
Study Abroad Accent
It’s become a trope that, at this point, is a bit overdone. Your friend comes back from Paris and starts pronouncing it “Par-ee,” or they come back from London and stop pronouncing “r”s at the end of words. The study abroad accent is an affectation that someone adopts after a single semester in a different country, and its authenticity is at the very least questionable. It’s not impossible that a few months in a new place might slightly alter the way you talk, but the way it manifests can betray something else about society.
A study abroad accent is meant to convey that someone is “worldly,” because Americans in particular associate certain accents with class. There are countless biases at play in deciding which accents raise someone’s status and which accents lower it, however. And the ability to travel the world in the first place exhibits a certain privilege that is unattainable for many people. All this is to say that while traveling and learning languages is a good thing, study abroad accents often display a very surface-level appreciation for another culture. Like the other fake accents listed here, it picks and chooses a few characteristics of an accent to represent the whole.
Whether we like it or not, we judge and are judged by the accents we use. In a perfect world, these judgments would be positive, but they sadly aren’t. But one step to achieve this other world is thinking about the way other people talk, and going beyond accent stereotypes to really hear what someone is saying.
Header Photo Courtesy of Disney/Alamy