From JSTOR Daily (a website that popularizes research from JSTOR’s trove of academic papers):
CHI LUU JANUARY 18, 2017
It’s a linguistic truth universally acknowledged that any story worth telling must be in want of a very British villain. It’s a familiar trope, as evidenced by this US-made Jaguar ad in which Ben Kingsley, Mark Strong, and a tea-sipping Tom Hiddleston embrace the inevitable dark side of their national identity.
Whether it’s Nazis, Romans, countrymen, or other bad guys of yesteryear (regardless of actual country of origin), it seems the prestige accent of villainy (unless it’s a terrible death whinny) has typically had something in common with the Queen: namely, the Queen’s English, a dialect that is at the same time both terribly posh and deliciously evil. As Julia R. Dobrow and Calvin L. Gidney point out in a study of villains in children’s animation, American programming in particular seems to have a general ambivalence about British English, as “speakers of British English are portrayed dichotomously as either the epitome of refinement and elegance or as the embodiment of effete evil.” …
Why is this so? Is there something inherently villainous about British-inflected speech (at least to Americans)? Are they just more capable of dastardly deeds than the rest of us, through the magic of their plummy accents alone? Who would have thought mere accents could be so powerful? It’s actually a curious fact, according to Davis and Houck, that speakers of the prestige Received Pronunciation (RP) accent (otherwise known as the Queen’s English or BBC English) are regularly evaluated by non-RP speakers as more educated, intelligent, competent, physically attractive, and generally of a higher socioeconomic class.
The English public school accent was socially constructed over a few centuries to knit together the elites from across the country and to provide them with an excellent tool for communicating complex thoughts rapidly in speech. For example, if you try to say word “portraiture” fast and clear, you’ll probably sound like a toff.
Or try saying “Would that it were so simple” in a cowpuncher accent.
The Shakespearean stage actor accent is also ideal for communicating microaggressions. In contrast, a Joe Pesci accent is good for communicating macroaggressions.
At the same time, in terms of social attractiveness, those same posh RP speakers are consistently rated less trustworthy, kind, sincere, and friendly than speakers of non-RP accents. Sounds like a good start for a villain.
Meanwhile across the pond, there’s also a different prestige accent at work in many forms of popular music. The desirable accents of pop, rock, country, R&B, hip-hop and so on, as many have noted, are almost always some flavor of American English. …
Many who consider accent as a marker of authenticity and personal identity may wonder why some would “fake” an accent, but many performers may not even realize they’re code-switching, as they unconsciously adopt the language stylings of the modern song—it’s just the way you’re supposed to sing in that particular genre. (Similarly, consider the early pseudo-British vocal work of American pop punk bands, such as Green Day, following the lead set by the Sex Pistols or the Clash). So is it weird to change your authentic accent to fit in with your day job? …
British villainy as an amusing stereotype for entertainment is one thing. How about your regular, everyday criminal? Can we, Minority Report style, predict and weed out the criminals in our midst as soon as they open their mouths? What about detecting other personal characteristics, such as how often someone bathes or brushes their teeth, from the way they talk? Can you tell how physically attractive they are, how tall, how smart, how funny or how friendly, just by their accent alone?
Just like the old school, pseudoscientific methods of phrenology and graphology (feeling the bumps on a head or the flow of a person’s penmanship and tying these to their personal or mental traits), it starts to sound pretty farfetched. How on earth can you tell whether someone’s dirty or clean or tall or short or itching to be a criminal from the sound waves they make? A person’s accent can’t possibly predict all these attributes. And yet, we act as though this is entirely possible—and even reasonable.
It turns out many of us believe, often without realizing it, we can predict social and personal traits about a person, simply by the accent they use. We may be wrong, but we do it anyway. What’s more, we frequently make prejudicial judgements and decisions based on these underlying beliefs and stereotypes about a person and the way they speak regardless of the reality. It’s the “last acceptable prejudice” in part because people are generally not even aware they’re doing it. …
Similarly, in another well-known example, a university lecturer gave exactly the same talk in a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent (otherwise known as the Queen’s English or BBC English) and again in a Birmingham accent. Students rated his intelligence and his talk more highly in his guise as a posh RP-accented lecturer than the students in the exact same talk he gave using a Birmingham accent.
In fact the poor Brummie accent has been rated as even less attractive and less intelligent for British speakers than just some random person staying completely silent. Even worse, a study has shown that matched guise “suspects” were rated as significantly more guilty of a crime when they spoke with Brummie accents than when those same suspects used their RP voices. So obviously some listeners believe they can predict the criminal element through accent alone. It’s a tough life being from Birmingham, clearly. Yet American listeners, not having access to the same common social stereotypes, often rate the Brummie accent as pleasant-sounding.
Once again, we find that in the 21st Century, Ignorance Is Good while Knowledge Is Prejudice.
So it’s nothing innate in the sounds of these stigmatized accents themselves that make them so despised by certain listeners but simply a shared social attitude that as a non-standard accent, they’re somehow less worthy than the prestige accent.
One of the polarizing aspects about Donald Trump is that he doesn’t codeswitch much, the way Obama spoke to black preachers in his black preacher accent while he spoke to whites in his flat Kansas accent (a state he barely has visited, but whom he claims to be from due to his mother having been born there and Kansas seeming particularly non-foreign) rather than in his prep school accent. Hillary has used many accents as well.
Trump talks like a guy from Queens, which he is. Many people, often ones not normally fond of New Yorkers, find Trump’s accent reassuringly authentic. Other people find it alarming. Does his failure to upgrade the class associations of his accent demonstrate that he is defective? Or does it imply that he rejects much of America’s class system? If he doesn’t have the decency to modulate his accent properly, what other social conventions might he not value? Clearly, many people with classier accents find Trump’s accent highly unsettling.