Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bale's Accent Grammar

Exactly what happened to Christian Bale's accent during his famous rant now buzzing around the interwebs? Listen to this 2002 interview with the "Welsh born" actor, then listen to the famous rant here. In the 2002 interview, he quite clearly has a UK accent (though it's not clear to me exactly what variety since I'm not good at placing UK accents; also, he spent relatively little time in Wales, so knowing his birthplace is not much help). Then, in the rant, he has largely what I would call a American English/California accent, but it breaks occasionally (into what, I'm not sure). It might be the case that Bale's famed intensity as an actor engulfed him so much that he was still "in character" when ranting, I don't know.

I never studied the factors of accent change, but it seems like an interesting topic. According to Bale's Wikipedia page, he moved around a lot as a kid, and according to Bale himself in the 2002 interview above, he still moves around a lot as an adult, so he moves between many speech communities.

I'd be curious to know how phonologists have modeled accents. Is a person's accent simply the accumulated total of word pronunciation norms, or do we have a model of a holistic accent in our head that we are trying to approximate when pronouncing sentences (an accent grammar, if you will)? This seems like a non-trivial distinction.


Selena Dreamy said...

"or do we have a model of a holistic accent in our head that we are trying to approximate..."

I think we do. Lack of regional intimacy, constant forced aspirations to "higher" cultures, the stripping away of parochial inadequacy, physical discomfort, intellectual awkwardness, and the vogue for a cool, sympathetic fashion lacking gracelessness may well account for it.

Like any reality TV show the accent can be manipulated.

Having spend a number of years in UK fashion, I was amazed to find how all this imitation, this desperate wannabe metro-culture, contrived, by a process of transference, to develop its own strangely disembodied chatter - a mixture of Milan, London, Sweden und LA. Call it phoney machination, or unconscious deference, but what one loses in translation is the provenance, which is what matters to "impersonators." People adapt because they have an instinctive desire to do so. There is no jealousy like linguistic jealousy, but there are occasional regressions, making the plunge back into provincialism rather traumatic.

"Media cultures" thrive on accents. It allows them to cultivate elitism. There is a dominant semantic caste, a sort of hip aristocracy that is "cool" while it tells un-cool people that "we despise provincialism."

For most of our history cultural differences and deference have been taken for granted and semantically observed. But metro-semanticism is a recent phenomenon. In fact, I would go as far as saying that accents may well betray sexual preference, certainly in men, and declare themselves to be gay, beguiling, self-authenticated and sometimes even godly...


cko said...

Madonna would be another interesting case study in accent shift, and probably a more "clear" one.

I think it would also be interesting to look at suburban white boys using hip-hop accents (maybe like an Eminem phenomenon, although I'm not sure how suburban he was...).

What is metro-semanticism?

Chris said...

True, Selena, accents are a tool. Always have been, as far as I know, not so recent as you suggest.

We linguist refer to this kind of thing as "register shifting." Poor folk do it to hide their class; young folk to it to hide their immaturity; we all do it. I don't think I would call it phoney. In some cases, it's downright essential (trying getting a job on TV without altering your accent).

I like this term, "linguistic jealousy." there is something tru about this. But I also suspect this is a natural part of language development. We must want to adjust our language to some perceived norm in order for it to develop.

But this kind of usage based model of accent shifts assumes there is some rational motive to the shift. One uses a tool to accomplish a goal. It's not clear to me that Bale was using his accent as a tool during his rant.

Chris said...

cko, Madonna is indeed an interesting case because she is so adept at shifting her media image in many ways. A creepier example would be Gweneth Paltrow because her Anglophile tendencies manifest in her accent, but she seems to be less aware of this. There is something acceptable in Madonna's cool calculation (you know she's being manipulative) but Paltrow, she just seems crazy (her baby naming tendencies are worth a separate post...).

An interesting contra-example is Lady Sovereign who traffics in a refusal to register shift. She makes no attempt to posh-up her lower-class North London accent, and I admit that I have a hard time understanding her.

Selena Dreamy said...

Lady Sovereign?!

There are a number of those in the UK media and fashion industry: Cockney fashion-models, who trade on their accents, and more conspicuously, perhaps, Janet Street-Porter, buck-toothed TV personality and journalist, whose brogue makes me want to vomit. (I grant she can't help it - but, then, nor can I.)

"What is metro-semanticism?"

Derived from the media-term "metrosexuality", as distinct from homosexuality, a kind of anodyne transsexuality (one presumes) which is invariably replicated in speech.

JafaBrit's Art said...

I dont' think too much about my accent, but it shifts constantly depending on mood, who I am talking to and who I am thinking about.
If I am talking or thinking about home then I speak Gerodie (northeast english dialect). In between there are snippets of cockney from having spent years in London and bits of Texan due to living in Texas. it's not a conscious decision, don't wake up thinking I should speak geordie, posh, cockney, or american, that would be bloody exhausting and time consuming.
Only time I have consiously used an accent is when I am taking the piss out of a snob trying to be posh.

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