Posts tagged ‘autobiography’


The changing accent of Gillian Anderson

09.01.2011

Gillian Anderson, Chicago-born, star of The X Files, grew up in North London and speaks with an accent that’s closer to Britain than the States. I noticed that she gets quite a bit of flak for this on YouTube comments, which is rather sad, perhaps revealing more about those who criticize her than anything else. (See the above video from 1’15”.)
   Critics say that when she’s on The Tonight Show or the less watched one with the cranky old guy, she has an American accent. To me, that makes sense.
   It’s not about “putting it on”. It’s because Anderson subconsciously switches between the two, because she’s had time in both countries.
   The story, as she tells it, was when she got back to the States at age 11, she had an English accent and wanted to hang on to it ‘because it made me different’. However, she learned to speak with a midwestern one, though it is not her natural accent. In my world, we all do this.
   I remember when I was once in London, the cabbie could not understand me when I asked him to take me to Waterloo Station. I summoned up my best Dennis Waterman and put in a guttural stop, asking for ‘Wa’erloo Station’, and there was an immediate understanding.
   Anyone who has grown up in two countries, or in two cultures, will have a very different approach to accents than those who grew up in one.
   I tend to waver between British and Kiwi for a number of reasons, mostly unconsciously. I’m typing this after getting off the phone to my friend Marie, who hails from Nottinghamshire. My colleagues here have often laughed at me when they overhear us because I go slightly northern without intending it.
   The fact is, despite having been raised in New Zealand for most of my childhood, I don’t have a natural accent.
   If the theory that your most impressionable years for learning to talk are between two and four, then I can say, hand on heart, that my exposure to spoken English was minimal: I was in a British colony where 99 per cent of spoken communication was Cantonese, though we learned some English at kindergarten. There were imported TV programmes but my parents and grandmother tended to watch the dubbed stuff.
   Ms Anderson was in London two to eleven, and that explains a lot.
   After moving to New Zealand, we never spoke English in the home. My godparents were English, one of my best friends at school was English, and one of the teachers I was close to at school was English. What was on telly back in those days? Mostly British programmes: The Brothers, Rainbow, Jamie and the Magic Torch, The New Avengers, Return of the Saint, etc.
   Unlike most Kiwi kids, my exposure to Received Pronunciation through media and family friends was not balanced by New Zealand-accented speakers around me. By the early 1980s, I would guess my accent was a mixture, which accounts still, 30 years on, for people asking if I had spent time in Britain or have some greater connection with the country than I actually do.
   By the time more American programmes began here, I believe my impressionable stage had passed. I have met one New Zealander who speaks with an accent closer to American, though I didn’t get to ask why. It wouldn’t surprise me if her story was not unlike my own.
   The fact I speak in the lower registers might make me sound more well spoken than I really am. When I really try to listen to myself, I hear a strong Kiwi twang, but others don’t seem to.
   By the time I was at uni I was embarrassed by the subconscious switching, which I couldn’t control. I attempted to sound more Kiwi—logically, since I was raised here, my accent should reflect that—but to this day, it jumps all over the place.
   The only accent I can actually “do”, as in switch with intention, but effortlessly so, is Scottish English, which I label ‘lower-register Aberdeenshire’—I’ve even been hired to MC a céilidh on one occasion.
   So poor Gillian, speaking so properly and still, many, many years after she was 11 and heading back to the midwest, still gets criticized for it.
   But there you are: this world is a big place and people have many reasons for speaking the way they do—and don’t deserve accusations of faking the way they speak.

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Posted in culture, general, New Zealand, TV, UK | 2 Comments »