Zinsser on Friday

Prisoners of Britspeak

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By William Zinsser

April 1, 2011


 

My wife and I got some good news the other day: we aren’t the only people who can’t understand British actors. Until now we have nursed our shameful secret in the privacy of our apartment, hunched over the television set, watching English movies that we would probably enjoy if we could unlock the strangled syllables.

We first realized the severity of our problem in 1984, when PBS unveiled a lavish miniseries, The Jewel in the Crown, based on Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, four intertwined novels about the twilight of British colonial rule in India in the early years of World War II. The thing about quartets is that they have a lot of characters, all carrying the accumulated baggage of previous liaisons and umbrages, and Paul Scott amply filled that quota, providing the usual rapes, false accusations, shootings, deaths in childbirth, racial defamations, and stifled homosexuality. Dozens of picturesque men and women came and went, discussing those entanglements, and the people they were addressing seemed to know what they were talking about. We weren’t so lucky. Quite often we would ask each other, “Did you understand any of that?” Are you kidding?

The good news we recently received came from the drama critic of the New York Times, Ben Brantley, in his review of a revival of Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. “Some of the performances from the Anglo-American cast,” he wrote, “are pitched to the point of incoherence in those nasal passages where upper-class twangs are thought to dwell.” Hallelujah! Somebody out there understands. “Unless an emergency diction coach is brought in,” Brantley said, “I suggest you read Arcadia before seeing it this time.”

That’s not really the point of going to the theater. The point of going to the theater . . . well, you know what it is. It’s to hear the play. By the nature of his job the Times drama critic has heard hundreds of hours of Britspeak, and if he needs an emergency diction coach I feel better about the disability that afflicts our household.

By now we’ve learned not to rely for our evening’s entertainment on a British movie that gets a star in the TV listings. The film begins, and we give it our best attention, grateful for plausible behavior in a sea of New Jersey housewives and dog whisperers. We also owe it to our so-called common heritage; my mother’s forebears were English and my wife’s were Scotch. But after a few minutes we begin to list toward the TV set, ears straining to catch the swallowed vowels. Soon it occurs to us that this is harder work than it ought to be. Corrective words are spoken: “Shall we see what’s on Law & Order?”

I’m struck by how many British males narrate “important” American television programs. Their voices are presumed to confer on the show a gravity not found in the American larynx. How often have I been vocally escorted through a Nova special–riddles of the sphinx! mysteries of the brain!–in Oxford tones of grim authority. How often have I been jollied up some Himalayan mountain with hearty chin-up fortitude by a British male leading an expedition to find long-lost Bhutanese tombs.

What really annoys me is when a Brit is chosen to narrate a deeply American subject. I once tuned in to a TV special on the history of jazz and heard a titled English voice explaining the genius of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. His tone was proud and avuncular, as if Armstrong and Parker had grown up on the docks in Cheapside or maybe in the Cotswolds. Hey, guys, the river that jazz came up was the Mississippi, not the Thames.


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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