Jake Gyllenhaal discussing his fake accent in Prince of Persia

How come so often in Hollywood movies set in foreign countries in foreign languages the actors speak English with British accents? For foreign actors who are speaking in their normal tongue, that makes some sense. But why the need for the legions of Americans straining to imitate a bad accent when they theoretically shouldn’t be speaking English at all? Does speaking with a British accent somehow make the film seem more foreign?

In some cases, maybe the accent gives the American audience a sense of antiquity. See Angelina Jolie’s bizarre accent in Alexander or Dominic West in 300 (yep, that’s McNulty and that isn’t a Baltimore accent). But when the movie is obviously set in a non-English speaking world, there is no real need for the American actors to speak in anything but their normal American accents. The characters don’t become any more legitimate or compelling when they don’t communicate clearly because of some artificial speech burden. If I’m watching the Reader, it’s fine that Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes speak in their native British accents.

TV Tropes offers a good explanation of “the Queen’s Latin” convention. Britain seems like it has a longer history than America’s 200+ years (although ironically much we would recognize as British accent conventions are relatively recent developments). British accents are also the most understandable to American audiences, even if an Italian or French might be more geographically accurate. Last of all, TV Tropes also cites the Coconut Effect–actors speak in British accents because we’ve just come to expect it! The article also includes an expansive list of iterations of the Queen’s Latin, including notably George Lucas having the Empire speak with British accents and the Rebels speaking in American English.

I wonder if there is any harm in this convention. Since it is normally used in an historic context, I hope no one actually thinks modern Greeks speak English with a British twinge. There’s a rich diversity of accents out there; Hollywood shouldn’t be so afraid to bring them out. Accents certainly add another layer to the film/theater/television/video game, but authenticity sure isn’t  one of them.

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