Why Is The Villain Always British?

An Analysis of American Attitudes Towards British English And the Influence of Media, Using the Example of the Movie “Gladiator” (2000)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Previous Research
2.1. British and American Language Ideologies
2.2. Language Attitude Studies
2.2.1. “Accent and Social Class Effect on Status and Solidarity Evaluations” (1985)
2.2.2. “Pax Americana? Accent attitudinal evaluations in New Zealand, Australia and America” (2001)
2.2.3. “Attitudinal data from New Zealand, Australia, the USA and UK about each other’s Englishes: Recent changes or consequences of methodologies?” (2005)
2.3. The Media Influence on Language Attitudes
2.4. Summary/ Research Questions

3. Analysis of the Movie “Gladiator” (2000)
3.1. Data/ Methodology
3.2. Analysis
3.3. Discussion

4. Conclusion

5. References
5.1. Internet Sources
5.2. Literature

1. Introduction

“The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”

This quote, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw,[1] holds as much truth today, as it did during the lifetime of the Irish playwright. Although they have been separated by history for many centuries, their common language often deceives into attributing both countries with equally common cultures, ideologies and communicative conventions. In this case, the English language acts as a “faux ami”. (Milroy 2001: 83) This is nowhere more apparent, than in the attitudes both nations developed due to the perception of each other's English. These “language attitudes” are generated, expressed and modified in many ways and differ substantially. In the past, linguists like Mark Stewart, Donn Bayard, Lesley and James Milroy and Peter Garrett have conducted numerous “language attitude studies”. The perception of languages is scientifically “en vogue”.

One main feature of attitudes is their instability.[2] The three bases for attitude change are compliance, (based on expected consequences) identification (with someone, the subject cares for) and internalisation (of an attitude that is awarding in itself). The forces behind all these reasons are emotions. Emotional reactions towards certain events, activities or people, linked to a language, are thus able to alter the perception of said languages. Due to this ever-changing nature, examinations of language attitudes have been conducted for decades and will not lose their significance for the near future. America having a firm grip on large parts of a media landscape that shapes our attitudes is one important factor, able to change the perception of languages.

But what attitudes do Americans have towards British English? How are these attitudes generated, expressed and modified? And what influence do the American media have on these processes? Answering these questions will be the aim of this paper. It consists of two general parts. I am going to start the theoretical part, by laying the foundation for an understanding of the differences between American and British English. For that purpose, I will compare both countries' language ideologies. Afterwards, three attitude studies will be presented. Their results span a timeframe of attitude change from 1985 to 2005. The theoretical part will then be completed with an examination of how the media are able to influence language attitudes and how accents are used in movies. The empirical part of the paper is going to start with an analysis of accents in the motion picture “Gladiator” from 2000. As one of the most successful movies of the recent past, its findings will act representatively for the American media. Finally, by applying the results of the theoretical part to the movie, the brought up questions will be answered, while the paper comes to a satisfying conclusion.

2. Previous Research

2.1. British and American Language Ideologies

To understand the American perception of British English, one has to be aware of the differences between both countries' language ideologies. In her article “Britain and the United States: Two Nations Divided by the Same Language (and Different Language Ideologies)”, American sociolinguist Lesley Milroy clarifies these different ideologies and shows how they relate to each other.

Fundamental to Milroy's work is the idea that in both countries a so-called “standard language ideology” has developed over time. (Milroy 2001: 57) This concept states that one language rises above the others in terms of perception of correctness. While it becomes the “standard”, users of “non-standards” (Milroy 2001: 59) are discriminated against. (Milroy 2001: 57) Even though there is no logical, linguistic explanation for it, language ideologies evoke emotional reactions. (Milroy 1999: 12) These can be traced back to the historical developments that are responsible for their emergence in the first place. Due to different historical evolutions, the United States and Great Britain have ended up with diverging standard language ideologies. (Milroy 2001: 56) In America, the standard is “Mainstream United States English” (MUSE), in Britain it is “Received Pronunciation” (RP).

MUSE is ideologised as a spoken standard that excludes all grammatical and lexical elements, attributed to a social, regional or ethnic group. (Milroy 2001: 82) Phonology does not play a role in defining the standard. After a phase of heavy immigration in the late 19th century, (Milroy 2001: 83) European colonists asserted their ideological belief system over the other ethnic groups. (Milroy 2001: 70) As a result, they began to dominate the general perception of what should be viewed as “mainstream” and what should be viewed as “peripheral”. (Milroy 2001: 82)

The British language ideology contradicts the American one in many ways. Here, the accent is critical for the perception of what is the “best English”. (Milroy 2001: 83) Furthermore, the standard is linked to a social class, not to an ethnic group. Spoken mostly by the upper classes, Received Pronunciation is rather elitist than mainstream. (Milroy 2001: 61) Stigmatised accents are attributed to lower social classes. Milroy describes British class conflicts in the late 19th and early 20th century as the origin of this ideology. While people from the working classes in the cities were discriminated against, RP was codified and taught in schools. This “accent bar” still holds up today. (Milroy 2001: 83)

With these contradictions in mind, how do Americans perceive the British standard? Seeing as even small deviations in their own language ideology create strong value judgments among Americans, how does an entirely different ideology hold up? Is the public aware of these differences? Do they disapprove of them? Do they accept them? Are the differences maybe integrated in their own perception?

2.2. Language Attitude Studies

2.2.1. Mark Stewart, Ellen Ryan, Howard Giles – “Accent and Social Class Effect on Status and Solidarity Evaluations” (1985)

To introduce the topic of the American perception of British English, Mark Stewart’s, Ellen Ryan’s and Howard Giles’ study “Accent and Social Class Effect on Status and Solidarity Evaluations” from 1985, provides a solid starting point. It has to be noted that the method was limited to the perception of American students[3] of four highly educated male speakers around the age of 30. (Stewart 1985: 100) The findings therefore should not be over-generalised. Keeping this in mind, the study has one general aim: Proving, whether American listeners assign a higher status to British Received Pronunciation than to MUSE. (Stewart 1985: 98)

The researcher’s observations confirm their expectation that people using RP are seen as having a higher status than speakers of American English. This is the case for both the middle and lower classes. Even though RP is perceived as rather uncomfortable and unintelligible.[4] These findings differ greatly from the American perception of other accents, giving RP a unique position. (Stewart 1985: 103) According to the study, this stems from the role of the British standard as “language of origin”. Moreover, categories like “dignity, tradition, culture and etiquette” are associated with the British way of life. (Stewart 1985: 99) However, while the uncomfortableness and heightened unintelligibility have no affect on the perceived status of RP speakers, they do affect the feeling of solidarity. People using RP are viewed as less friendly and trustworthy than those using MUSE. (Stewart 1985: 99) Thus, the study concludes that “British RP represents prestige without solidarity”. (Stewart 1985: 103)


[1] (1856-1950)

[2] For a more in depth look at attitudes and attitude change: Bohner, Gerd. Wänke, Michaela. 2009. Attitudes and Attitude Change. Hove: Psychology Press.

[3] (age 18-22, 58% male, 42% female)

[4] Mostly, due to the fact that Americans view British speech as being significantly faster than their own.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Why Is The Villain Always British?
An Analysis of American Attitudes Towards British English And the Influence of Media, Using the Example of the Movie “Gladiator” (2000)
University of Münster
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ISBN (Book)
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villain, always, british, analysis, american, attitudes, towards, english, influence, media, using, example, movie, gladiator”
Quote paper
Dominik Poos (Author), 2013, Why Is The Villain Always British?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/233422


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