British English deemed more intelligent, American English more friendly

On Wednesday, flandersnews.be published an article about its study suggesting that the English accent of the average Fleming is becoming more American. However, the investigation went further than pronunciation testing. Surveyed adolescents and adults were also asked about their subjective perceptions of the accents, showing that many Flemings associate British English with notions like intelligence and arrogance, and American English with notions like friendliness and superficiality.

After taking pronunciation testing, the 54 Flemish youngsters and 54 older people were asked to put on a pair of headphones and listen to a British (Received Pronunciation) voice and an American (General American) voice. Many different neutral-sounding voices were used. Afterwards, those surveyed received an extensive list with subjective qualities like intelligent, natural, friendly, etc., that they had to attribute to each voice.

Despite the many differences between the voices and between the individuals surveyed, there were a few qualities that were consistently and statistically-significantly ascribed to the British and American voices, by both age groups equally. The British voice was often deemed more prestigious, correct, trustworthy, intelligent, competent, and educated. Meanwhile, the American voice was considered to sound nicer overall, more natural, familiar, friendly, and more fit for television.

Talking about the accents

During the test with the voices, those surveyed were not explicitly told that the main difference was between the two fragments was accent-related. In fact, most of them seemed unaware of this. So, in an interview, flandersnews.be specifically asked the Flemings about their opinions on the accents.

Many similar qualities were attributed to each accent, as is shown in the figures below. However, some additional subjective characteristics came up. For example, when specifically talking about the accents, many people claimed that British English is the superior accent that most people should strive for. Meanwhile, there were also some negative tags pinned to Received Pronunciation, like arrogance and artificiality.

American English was often associated with a dialect, and was generally deemed less beautiful, and even superficial-sounding. At the same time, though, many of those surveyed thought American English is easier to understand, and sounds more relaxed, authentic and sincere.

A graphic representations of subjective tags associated with the accent, thematically organized. Lighter shades represent younger Flemings (23-), darker shades represent older Flemings (50+).

Overall, a small majority of those surveyed thought their own English accent more closely resembled American than British English. However, with the younger Flemings, the majority was significantly larger, suggesting that they are aware of their Americanised pronunciation in English.