Game of Thrones Accents

Not too long ago, a fortnight or maybe two, I was with some French friends who happen to live in our fair town, and we got to talking about Game of Thrones.

Who wouldn’t, after all, with the start of a new season almost upon us?  What lover of televised drama, intrigue, violence, fantasy, sex and adventure would not be fixated on the latest episode of a tangled tale that has gripped the entire world? (Apart from everyone, of course, whose  first concern is getting clean water, food and shelter, avoiding oppression by despotic tyrant rulers and  not being killed by a cataclysmic seismic event, a typhoon or a vast, all-destroying war).

ned stark game of thrones

Anyway, getting back to the French friends, people I often lampoon, to my shame, about rugby and Monty Python castles and Gallic shruggery, we drifted around to the matter of accents and here’s a very telling detail.  I don’t  know if it’s from film and TV or if it’s from personal experience, but our Irish ears are keenly attuned to the difference between a Cockney and a Scouser.  We know a Geordie from a Cornishman.  We know York from Lancaster and Mile End from Mayfair.

These subtle, and not-so-subtle distinctions have, for centuries, served to delineate characters in British-based drama, identifying precisely what station in life each character is expected to hold, thanks to the extraordinarily rigid British class system.  Young people from every corner of the island consciously adopt the accent of the hereditary ruling classes when they leave their home towns — the bizarre pronunciation system known as RP, or Received Pronunciation.  In other words, what used to be known as BBC English.

What’s not so widely known is that RP is a relatively recent invention.  Queen Elizabeth I would not have recognised it and nor would  Henry VIII.  Those monarchs spoke a version of English that sounded much more like the form of  the language that we Irish speak today.  In an odd twist of linguistic irony, the language that people of my great-grandmother’s era spoke was closer to Elizabethan English than to anything local, although it was of course overstrewn with remnants of the Irish language it had supplanted, and thus, Hiberno-English.

RP sprang up in the last two or three centuries, driven by political impulses.  Before that it simply did not exist, but its development was entirely logical and necessary, if a newly-created aristocratic ruling class wished to establish itself and prosper, as any Mafia might gentrify itself.  For one  thing, wealthy families needed  to find a way of turning their backs on the reality of how they acquired  their money.  It’s all very well to live in splendour, but when you know full well that your father acquired all that money by being an ignorant, unlettered, violent, thieving brute, it’s not so easy to look down on those less fortunate.  What better way of turning our backs on our fathers than to speak in a different way?  Nothing new there, as any despairing parent in the 21st century knows.

My French friends, oddly, don’t get these subtleties, and that surprised me.  After all, didn’t they invent the word nuance?  Yes, they did, but they were brought up in France, and were therefore not subjected to relentless conditioning.  They don’t know that upper-class movie Romans come from the Home Counties.  They don’t understand that all Bond baddies have an Oxbridge education.  They don’t understand that if the leader of the aliens has a Home Counties accent, he is simply evil.

Blame James Mason.

It set me wondering.  If Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark sound like coal miners, it sets off certain triggers in my brain, but perhaps it activates even more intense reactions in the skull of a true Brit.  Immediately, I’m thinking that this is, as they say, a violent yoking together of opposites.  In  traditional drama, a powerful Northerner can be a mill-owner, a football-club chairman or the proprietor of a shipping line.  But he cannot be a judge, a Classics professor or a king.

Game of Thrones subverted all that, thanks to the device of the parallel reality adopted by its producers.  It’s not ancient England, or France or Morocco.  It’s something else.

My French friends were still somewhat baffled, so I put it to them this way.

What would you think if the king was from Toulouse?

Oh no!  It is ridiculous!  This is impossible.

C’est vrai!


15 thoughts on “Game of Thrones Accents

  1. Irish people have difficulty discerning Scottish accents from Northern Irish accents. And when they try to copy a Scottish accent they sound Pakistani

  2. I have clean water, food and shelter, am not avoiding oppression by despotic tyrant rulers (unless you factor in the EU!), nor are aware of any pending cataclysmic seismic events locally, and unless Ukraine develops into something all-destroying not anticipating incoming missiles either – yet for some reason I haven’t seen a single episode of Game Of Thrones.

    So the question is… should I dive in? Do you recommend it?

  3. What? If you haven’t already got into this, you need to do so immediately.

    But you must start at the start.

    I envy you.

  4. Often hear it said that Elizabethan English sounded like modern Hiberno-Irish. And I’ve even heard it claimed that it had what we would recognise as a Cork twang to it.

    But – genuine question – in the absence of sound recording how do linguists figure that out?

  5. Bock
    April 9, 2014 at 9:36 pm
    “Accents are notoriously difficult to hear in a book”

    I bought a book by Sean Moncrieff a few years ago and as I read it, I heard every word in his voice/accent . Not a pleasant experience I can tell you.

  6. All foreign language films shown in Italy are dubbed by, at most, three people and the nuances that we get are totally lost.
    I remember showing my friends, who all speak english, the original “The Wind that shakes the Barley” and they were astounded how different the films were when they heard the accents. They kept asking me was that the way they really spoke. When I brought them to the southwest a few years ago they had no problem understanding the locals.

  7. I love when Eddie Izzard does all his impersonations in a James Mason accent! So funny,

  8. Ah well. Back-tracked and watched all the series after reading this post. Then kept up to date with each new episode. Now got to wait 10 months whilst we have a GoT drought.

    But hey, can’t accentuate enough how every second was worth it!

  9. A very enjoyable marathon. To be honest I only became aware of the books after I got into the series. Having since talked to someone who has read them am now somewhat inclined to go to the bookshop.

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