In the late 1970s, the north of England was terrorised by a serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper. In 1979, an audio tape arrived at West Yorkshire police headquarters. The recording consisted of taunts and threats from a speaker claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper. The message was carefully worded, and offered no clues to the sender’s identity. No clues but one – his voice.
Linguistic experts listened closely to the tape, hoping to determine where the man who made the recording was from, based on his accent. In the USA this would have been a hopeless task. But Jack Windsor Lewis and Stanley Ellis were able to pinpoint the voice’s origin down to one small neighbourhood in one small city.
Accents matter in the UK
Here’s a map showing the Castletown area of Sunderland where they concluded the man was from. (The highlighted area is a little over 1 mile wide.)
The tape turned out to be part of an elaborate hoax committed by a man named John Samuel Humble who was not the actual Yorkshire Ripper, later revealed to be Peter Sutcliffe. But linguists Lewis and Ellis had been right- Humble was indeed from Castletown, Sunderland. This seems an amazing feat to me- that someone could be pinpointed to within a 1-mile area of where they live, just based on listening to their accent. It shows the difference between the UK, where accents matter and people develop a strong ear for them, and the USA, where accents are exactly 874 times less important.
Allow me to demonstrate why the number 874 isn’t some random estimation.
The UK is 874 miles long as traditionally measured along its longest axis. Let’s look at some maps:
Here’s Castletown, Sunderland again, this time zoomed out 2x – so the entire map area shows around 5 miles from left to right
Here’s the same area zoomed out 2 more times, so the map shows 30 miles left to right. Keep in mind that presumably every small blip on this map also has its own distinct accent.
Now zoomed out to around 100 miles, we are still within just part of northern England.
Zooming out again, shows us the entirety of northern England (and much of Scotland). Again, every single town or city in this map will have their own distinct accent, and often, as in Sunderland, recognisably different accents even from one neighbourhood to another within the same towns or cities.
And this map shows the entire UK. This will of course represent hundreds, probably thousands of distinct accents.
Now, here’s the UK superimposed to scale against a map of America:
Think about all those accents in such a relatively little space.
In the USA, you’d pretty much have to travel equivalent to the entire length of the United Kingdom, at least 874 miles, to transition from one regional accent to another. Perhaps linguists would differ with me on this, but I think 99% of Americans would find it impossible to distinguish the accent of someone from Houston, Texas from someone from Tulsa Oklahoma. The cities are 500 miles apart- not far enough to detect any real differences.
In contrast, I don’t think you could find a single adult British person who would be unable to immediately identify the difference between the accent of someone from Manchester and someone from Liverpool, although those cities are only 35 miles apart.
Yes, America does have a range of accents- but considering the size of the country, really only a handful. And the differences between those accents are often not very noticeable. The way someone from Portland Oregon talks is not remarkably distinct from someone from Portland Maine- 3,000 miles away. As anyone who has ever crossed from England to Scotland can tell you, understanding different accents in the UK is not nearly so simple. Basically accents are a core part of being British, and are a minor part of being American.
So what does this have to do with Russell Crowe being a dick?
A few years ago, I did a short interview with actor Russell Crowe, who was in London promoting the film American Gangster, where he portrayed a New York City cop. Knowing Mr Crowe’s reputation for being a dick, I conducted the interview cautiously and respectfully. At the end, thinking to myself that maybe the stories about Mr Crowe had been exaggerations, I thanked him heartily and gave him a spontaneous compliment: “By the way Mr Crowe, I thought your New York City accent in the film was really quite good.” To my surprise, he looked at me with disgust and responded caustically: “I think you’ll find that the accent I delivered was from northern New Jersey, not New York City.” He then walked off, dismissively.
I distinctly remember thinking: “You’re a dick.”
I’m from New York City, and the differences between the accent of someone from Newark, and someone from New York City are so minor, that only a dick would make a big fucking deal about it.
(A couple years later, Mr Crowe later famously stormed out of another interview with a BBC reporter who dared to say that he detected a hint of an Irish accent in his performance of Robin Hood. Clearly he cares about his accents.)
British people are amazed at how tone deaf Americans are to accents, and apparently so is Australian/New Zealander Mr Crowe. Generally it’s true that I won’t know if someone talking to me is from Walthamstow or Wolverhampton unless I really stop to listen to their accent and give it some thought. The thing is- as an American, I just don’t care. I won’t think any different of you if you’re from Liverpool or Hartlepool. It means very little to me and I wasn’t raised to pre-judge anyone by how they speak.
I will never be a Jack Windsor Lewis or a Stanley Ellis- able to determine information about someone just by the way they form their words. But I can tell something about people by the actual words that they speak. For example, I am able to tell you with scientific certainty, based on the words that come out of his mouth, that Russell Crowe is a dick.