Is ‘Talking British’ That Hard to Understand?

The Daily Beast

March 23, 2015

Poor James Corden. The knives are out already before the British TV star takes the helm of CBS’s Late, Late Show on Monday night.

Early reports from the show’s taping have been positive. But to add to the general complaint that Americans don’t know who he is (not that complicated: a successful British comedian, writer, and Tony Award winner who had a sitcom called Gavin and Stacey, which was very popular, and a sketch show that wasn’t) is apparently the matter of his British accent. Test audiences have reportedly had trouble understanding him.

The Daily Mail reports: “During the rehearsals Corden’s use of language has been criticized as U.S. audiences are far more sensitive to swearing compared with those in Britain. Also Americans do not understand words such as ‘knackered’ which describes somebody who is excessively tired.

“Also, British references to drunkenness will prove difficult to U.S. audiences, who do not understand terms such as ‘half-cut’ or ‘bladdered.’”

In the Sunday Times, a show insider said, “We want to attract the younger people who have seen Austin Powers and know that ‘shagged,’ ‘willy’ and ‘bonkers’ mean.”

A younger audience? How young? (The first Austin Powers movie came out in 1997. If you were 15 and saw it then, you’re 33 now.)

Paul Payack, of the Texas-based Global Language Monitor, told the paper, “Some British words such as ‘bollocks’ have taken off here recently, even if Americans don’t know exactly what they mean. But I catalogued 200 British words for being drunk and I don’t think most Americans would get 20% of them.”

Really? Language isn’t about what is said but how it is said, and in what context. Corden isn’t explaining complex physics, but probably riffing on his and his family’s move to America, his day, his guests’ lives—all the usual late-night chat stuff. Why can’t the audience be expected to follow his spoken lead? They did for Craig Ferguson, a Scotsman with a definitely Scottish accent that also had a fantastically curdled lilt to it. There is nothing that difficult about James Corden’s accent; the problem is giving into the notion of the lazy ears listening to it.

During rehearsals, there have been seemingly crisis moments if Corden uses words like “dodgy.” There is talk—seriously—of a cultural mediator if the problem persists when he goes on air. The poor guy must be going spare (sorry, that means nuts).

Is it really that difficult? In the HBO drama Looking, the producers, far from softening or Americanizing Russell Tovey’s Essex-boy exclamations, rightly leave them alone and expect the audience to follow.

CBS should respect Corden enough to do the same. But Corden’s problem is one any Brit in America can understand. We might share one language, but that is one big ocean between us.

Americans say they like the British accent. (The compliment is not reciprocal, however—eyes do not light up the same way when an American accent is audible in a London bar.) If you are British in America, you are regularly told—and yes, we go red when you say it to us because full-beam flattery does not sit well with us—that the accent is “cute,” “hot,” or (to the group) “I LOVE how he speaks.”

The gnarly problem seems to be that Americans love posh, upper-crust Downton British (easy), rather than colloquial, or accented British (puzzled looks). If you are English in the U.S., you will have been asked more than once if you are Australian or South African. The Welsh, Scots, and the Irish have even more head-scratching to put up with.

One of my colleagues kindly says of my accent, “My only problem is that it’s so beautifully melodic I never want you to stop talking.” Another: “I think Americans tend to find the British accent to be some combination of charmingly cozy and intimidatingly erudite.” Another recited a recent line from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: “You know what I find helps soften bad news? A British accent—[pause]—The dolphin died on the sidewalk.”

Another colleague “needed subtitles when I attempted to watch the original The Office. Certain words sounded just different enough that I had to be processing those before I could get the joke. But I spent many nights watching Keeping Up Appearances with my grandparents, and I didn’t have as much trouble with that.”

But day in, day out, confusion will spread on an American face if I should ask, “How should I do that?” or something similarly basic.

My buddy Kenneth told me the other day, “I miss about 30 percent of what you say.” (Lucky guy.) Regularly heard by me: “Come again?” “Sorry, I missed that,” and “I literally have no idea what you just said.”

To which the poor Brit will usually say: “I just asked for a Coke and a cheese sandwich.” (Coke, especially: a four-letter word, one of the world’s most ubiquitous drinks, yet ordered in an American restaurant or diner by a Brit, and you might as well be asking for a long extinct exotic liqueur.) The saga of ordering ranch dressing (Brits, you must say “raaancchh” and just sound stupid, not “rahnch”) is also always waiting to trip you up too.

The nervousness around Corden seems to be around his accent, and some of his language. OK, the accent is a typical, modern, classless, slightly roughed up, south east England accent: not as harsh as broad Cockney, but hard-edged, lots of glottal stops, flattened out, abrupt. It is not posh, or Downton. It aims for a broad, approachable warmth.

His use of language—how the British speak (and even the posh try to ape it)—is colloquial. “All right, mate.” “Nice one.” “Cheers, fella.” Corden’s isn’t an annoying “Mockney” (the posh or non-Londoner playing it linguistically rough) but a light, warm, modern British accent.

In a bid to further cultural understanding, I cannot sit idly by and watch Corden be Brit-neutered. I have a mini-language course for you, taking in the nation’s soap operas, themselves mocked for the extremity of their accents, but we can’t get into that now.

Here is how Britain spends its early evenings, handily broken down into British accents, far from Downton Abbey. (Bear in mind there are even more variations of accents and dialects within the regions of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, so this very broad.)

EastEnders (East End of London)

Coronation Street (Manchester, the north west of England)

Emmerdale (Yorkshire)

the long-departed Brookside (Liverpool)

the long-departed Take the High Road (Scotland)

What CBS is seeking to do to James Corden’s accent is a Brit-impossibility and an insult rolled into one: to vaporize the quirks and regional tics of my island’s mongrel tongue, when really these are wonderful things to unearth and celebrate.

Judge him for his presenting style, for sure. Many Brits have found him obnoxious. But on how he speaks, I hope Corden stands his ground. If America gives him the chance, he could show there is another linguistic Britain beyond the strangulated vowels of Downton Abbey. If all goes well, I give it four weeks before I hear my first “I ain’t ’avin’ it” on Eighth Avenue.