A question that has long preoccupied some of the best minds of the generation is why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, especially if they’re bad guys. One commentator theorized that, on the fantasy end of things (on up through Game of Thrones, where poor Peter Dinklage is made to talk British), it’s the responsibility of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the books that started the genre, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: “even though Middle Earth is a fantasy world it’s clearly inspired by England. Thus it’s not unreasonable that the characters sound like they come from the country that has such a heavy influence on the settings in Middle Earth.”
The invaluable website TV Tropes dubs the custom “the Queen’s Latin” and has this explanation for its use in historical dramas:
Britain’s long history causes British accents to seem somehow “older” — they are used to suggest a sense of antiquity. This is actually inaccurate from a linguistic perspective; the modern British accents actually represent a more evolved form of English. Older English accents were closer to modern Irish and American accents.
In any case, using the Queen’s Latin makes a series or film commercially viable in the U.S. It alleviates the need for subtitles, while maintaining the appearance of historical authenticity. It’s just foreign and exotic enough. (Many British actors already Play Great Ethnics.) It’s also no doubt inspired by productions of Shakespeare‘s plays set in Ancient Rome. Remember: Romeo might have been Italian, but he’s not realistic unless he talks like a proper British toff.
I thought about this convention when I was on vacation last week and read All the Light We Cannot See. The book is set in France and Germany during World War II, yet the author, Anthony Doerr — an American— continually uses British terms: crisps instead of potato chips, lift instead of elevator, and biscuits. (The last is a reversal of the English rapper Lady Sovereign’s couplet “Some English MCs get it twisted/Start sayin’ ‘cookies’ instead of ‘biscuits.’”) I can think of no explanation other than literary Queen’s Latin syndrome. (Another word Doerr frequently uses is footfall, which I was not aware of having ever encountered before. Context suggested, and the dictionary confirmed, it means the same as the familiar — to me — footstep. I assumed it was another British borrowing, yet a Google Ngram Viewer chart reveals pretty much the same use in the U.S. and Britain. I would be interested in American and British readers’ familiarity with footfall.)
Catching up on my New Yorkers, I recently read Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s essay about a mass killing in his country. In the piece, Knausgaard quotes from a fellow Norwegian author’s book on the incident. The killer has been apprehended and asks for a cut on his finger to be “bandaged up.” A policeman replies, “You’ll get no fucking plasters from me.” It would make sense for Americans to adopt the British plaster, sometimes called sticking plaster. As it is, if we want to avoid the tradename Band-Aid, we have to go with an awkward formulation like “adhesive bandage.” But plaster definitely hasn’t gotten here yet, and its presence in the essay – which was translated by an American, Kerri Pierce–struck me as the equivalent of a Martian talking like an Oxford don.
When I looked into it a little more, I realized that the situation was more complicated than I had thought. It turns out the book from which Knausgaard was quoting, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, was translated by an English woman, Sarah Death, who would naturally have used plaster.
I did find one proper use of the Queen’s Latin in Pierce’s translation: the fact that one of the victims was “called” (not “named”) Simon.Return to Top