An analysis of the types of accents used in the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Accents in movies are commonly used to reinforce power dynamics based on race, gender, or nationality. This research investigates how various British accents in The Lord of the Rings reinforce pre-existing stereotypes associated with these accents that convey power and respectability — or lack thereof.
I have probably watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy a total of fifty times. Yet, I notice something new each time I watch it. And when I recently watched it after reading Lippi-Green’s English With an Accent (1997), I began noticing how various British accents were used in the movie. As she mentions in Chapter 7, “Teaching children how to discriminate: (what we learn from the Big Bad Wolf),” movies and TV shows can implicitly propagate stereotypes about the world. I was fascinated by this idea and decided to explore Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring as my primary source for this essay. My long-existing connection with this series gives me a good understanding of each character’s position within the movie, allowing me to ask deeper questions about roles and accents.
What is Middle Earth?
The Fellowship of the Ring introduces us to Middle Earth: the fantasy world where Hobbits, elves, dwarves, humans, and other creatures exist. In this movie, a Hobbit named Frodo Baggins embarks on his journey to destroy a ring of enormous power, the One Ring. If this ring falls into the hands of Sauron, the antagonist, the whole world will come under his control. To prevent this, Frodo, along with the Hobbits Samwise (Sam), Merry, and Pippin, the humans Aragorn and Boromir, the wizard Gandalf, the elf Legolas, and the dwarf Gimli, form the fellowship of the ring. Together, they seek to destroy the ring and save the world. Because the locations in this movie are mythical, the characters’ accents cannot be attributed to their geographical location and must have been found suitable in another way. Thus, a fantasy world can provide a broad scope for analysis since accents are mainly chosen based on stereotypes associated with them. I referred to the movie’s dialect coach Andrew Jack’s accent rationale (Board 77, 2005), to determine which accent was used by each character. Jack was a British dialect coach who worked on various movies such as Avengers: Infinity War, Star Wars, and Troy. As the dialect coach for The Lord of the Rings, Jack taught Middle-Earth accents and non-English fictional languages such as Elvish and Black Speech to the cast. Through his rationale, I observed that all characters speak in variations of the British accent. Most of them speak in Received Pronunciation or RP. The Hobbits primarily speak in the West Country dialect, and other characters speak in the Cockney and Scottish dialects of English.
About the Accents
I understood the history and social prejudices associated with the accents by consulting both the internet and a British native who has lived in Southampton her whole life. I discovered that RP, the most widely used accent in the movie, is a regionally neutral middle-class accent of England. You cannot tell where a person is from by hearing this accent. However, the accent does reveal a lot about a person’s social and educational background. It’s also called the Queen’s English (although the Queen speaks in a variation of RP), BBC English, and Oxford English. The term BBC English exists because all commentators on BBC had to use RP, which was considered the most understood variety of English in the UK and overseas. It’s called Oxford English because the ruling and privileged classes attended the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the 19th century, and their accent began to gain a unique status. From the 20th century, RP represented social authority, power, and education (British Library, 2014). Recently, due to social inclusion efforts, RP is losing its stronghold, and powerful positions are increasingly taken by those with regional accents.
The West Country dialect originates from South West England — derived from the West Saxon dialect of Old English and influenced by Welsh and Cornish. According to the British native, and Wikipedia, the accent is associated with farming, seafaring, rural simplicity, and a lack of education. The Scottish English accent is spoken in Scotland. I couldn’t find any stereotypes associated with this accent, although I will later explain why I think it’s related to comic relief in this movie. The Cockney accent is used in London and South East England. It is used by working-class Londoners. According to the British native, it is associated with less intelligence and education. In modern times, this perception has changed, and regional accents are more accepted.
As I researched the various accents used, I wondered how accents were assigned to characters. Were they assigned based on aspects like the character’s power, social position, or race? If so, how does accent help differentiate between these aspects? In English With an Accent (1997), Lippi-Green emphasizes how the entertainment industry propagates the standard language ideology through “the use and manipulation of language variation to establish character” (p. 104). As per the standard language ideology, there is a type of American English accepted as the standard. This *Standard American English (*SAE) is “the language of the educated”, propagated by those without a regional accent, with superior education, and by educators or broadcasters (pp. 57, 60). Lippi-Green’s definition of *SAE can be extended to ‘Standard British English’ or RP since RP is spoken by those without a regional accent, with superior education (hence the name Oxford English), and by broadcasters (hence the name BBC English). Owing to this standardization of RP, I was curious about whether those with high power and education were assigned the RP accent in The Lord of the Rings.
I will investigate the stereotypes associated with RP in two ways. The first is to analyze whether RP speaking characters are more powerful than the others. For that, I propose the hypothesis that RP speaking characters give more orders and receive fewer orders than non-RP speaking characters. I got this idea from the recommended future direction of a paper on accents in The Lord of the Rings (Jibson, 2014). I also aim to investigate whether RP speaking characters are more respected than non-RP speaking characters. For this, I propose the hypothesis that RP speaking characters are praised more often and criticized less often than their non-RP speaking counterparts. Though my hypotheses focus on the RP accent, I will also analyze how the other accents relate to power and respectability.
I began my analysis by determining which accent was used by each character from dialect coach Andrew Jack’s accent rationale (Board 77, 2005). Since I found the rationale on a forum instead of Jack’s website, from where it has been deleted, I decided to research the defining phonetic characteristics of each accent and verify them on my own.
I researched the accents using these websites and YouTube channels:
I recognized the RP accent through these excerpts:
· The long [a:] sound. E.g. Elrond’s pronunciation of “path” [1:22:40].
· The presence of ‘h’ is vocalized at the beginning of words. E.g., Gandalf in “help” [1:31:51].
· It is a non-rhotic accent. E.g., Bilbo’s pronunciation of “first” [17:00].
· The use of /j/ in pronouncing the ‘u’ sound. E.g., Frodo’s pronunciation of “news” [8:29].
I recognized the West Country accent through these excerpts:
· The rhotic ‘r’. E.g., Sam says “farthest” [37:57].
· G-dropping or the pronunciation of words that end with ‘ing as ‘in. E.g., Merry says “overreactin’” [44:16].
· The ‘u’ vowel (/^/) is pronounced less openly and lightly. E.g., Merry says ‘upset’ in [43:59].
· Omission of the plosive ‘t’ at the end of the word. E.g., Sam says, “this is it” [37:33].
· The ‘t’ in the middle of a word becomes glottalized. E.g. Sam says “getting” [1:58:39].
I recognized the Scottish accent through these excerpts:
· The rhotic ‘r’, and rolling their r’s. They also use the post-vocalic ‘r’, meaning they pronounce the ‘r’ after a vowel. E.g. Pippin says “sort” [01:33:00], and “breakfast” [58:37]. Gimli says “labyrinth of razor-sharp rocks” [02:29:15].
· /w/ sound is aspirated in Scottish. E.g., Pippin in “what about second breakfast”.
· The ‘o’ sound is flatter in Scottish and more rounded in RP. E.g., Pippin in “what is going on” [47:13].
· /aI/ sound- is pronounced shorter in Scottish than in RP. E.g., Pippin in “that’s nice” [1:01:02].
· ‘ou’ is pronounced shorter in Scottish than in RP. E.g., Pippin says, “what about” [58:37]
· /eI/ — the ‘ay’ sound is pronounced flatter in Scottish and more rounded in RP. E.g., Pippin says “they” in “what are they saying” [1:09:46].
· /u:/ — long and tapers off into a slight ‘w’ sound in the end in RP. It is shorter in Scottish. E.g., Pippin in “you” [01:33:00]
The cockney accent was used by the Orcs and Uruk-hai, as per Jack’s rationale. But since these characters had a limited speaking role, characterizing their accents was difficult.
I then counted the numbers of orders given and received by each character. An order given was an instruction given by a character that another character followed. An order was received when a character followed an instruction given to him/her by another character. I then grouped the characters by accent to determine the sum of all orders given and received by characters with that accent. I chose the difference between the number of orders given and received as my statistic because some characters might have had greater speaking time, or more characters might have used one accent. Here, negative numbers indicate that a character received more orders than they gave.
Here are some examples of orders given and received:
· Haldir telling Gimli at knifepoint, “you cannot go back” [2:13:02]. Since Gimli obeys this command, it is counted as an order given by Haldir and an order received by Gimli.
· Gandalf giving the ring to Frodo and telling him, “you must leave and leave quickly” [34:49].
· Gandalf questioning Sam with, “what did you hear? Speak!” [36:10].
· Saruman ordering the Orcs to “rip [all the trees] down” [1:00:06].
Similarly, I counted the number of times each character was praised and criticized to determine their respectability. A character was praised when something positive was said about their personality or abilities. A character was criticized when something negative was said about them or when they were made fun of. Once again, I grouped them by accent and decided to take the difference between the two as my statistic. Negative numbers indicate that a character was criticized more than they were praised.
Here are some examples of praises:
· Boromir calling Aragorn “my brother, my captain, my king” [2:42:47].
· Legolas speaking highly of Aragorn: “this is no mere ranger… you owe him your allegiance” [1:28:14].
· Aragorn telling Boromir, “you have fought bravely” [2:42:17]
Here are some examples of criticisms:
· Gandalf calling Pippin “fool of a Took” [1:55:46].
· Frodo calling the other Hobbits fools: “put it out, you fools!” [1:01:18].
· Gimli saying “never trust an elf” about Legolas and the other elves [1:30:48].
From the above table, it is evident that RP had a much larger number of orders given than orders received while the other accents had more orders received than orders given. This is highlighted by the significant difference between the highest value (42) and the next highest value (-3). Similarly, the RP speakers were praised more than criticized, while the non-RP speakers were criticized more than praised. Here are bar graphs to visualize the data more effectively:
I also decided to plot a scatterplot between the net number of orders and the net number of compliments and criticisms. Although this isn’t directly related to my hypothesis, I thought it would be interesting to see whether there is a correlation between the two.
The correlation coefficient was calculated as 0.57, showing a moderate positive correlation between the difference in orders given and received and times praised and criticized. And if these can be taken as markers of power and respectability, that means there’s a positive correlation between power and respectability, which are both linked to the RP accent, as shown above. Therefore, the hypothesis that RP speaking characters in this movie are more powerful and respectable is proved.
The fact that RP speaking characters were more powerful and respectable alludes to the background of the RP accent- it has always been spoken by those with greater power and superior education. In his accent rationale, Andrew Jack justified the use of RP because it gave “an air of authority and communication power without any identifiable place of origin” (Board 77, 2005). This emphasizes the extent to which the RP accent connects to power and authority. While talking about the elves’ RP accent, Jack said that he wanted to avoid any accent that sounded “modern or slovenly”. The word “modern” implies that regional accents haven’t existed for long, which is untrue. Perhaps regional accents sound “modern” because they have only recently been used by people in power. The word “slovenly” indicates that regional accents are more casual or unpolished than the elegant RP accent, once again implying that the RP accent gives an air of superiority to the person who speaks it.
The Hobbits, who are associated with fun and simplicity, were given the West Country accent, reinforcing the stereotype of simplicity associated with the accent. Jack also gave only two Hobbits, Frodo and Bilbo, the RP accent because they were more educated Hobbits. This supports the stereotype of superior education associated with RP and lesser education associated with West Country. It also seems unlikely that only two Hobbits in a small Shire driven by social interaction would have a completely different accent. The enormous variation in the accents of the Hobbits is further evident from Pippin’s Scottish accent. Jack justified this by saying that the actor Billy Boyd’s comical timing was perfect with the Scottish accent rather than the West Country accent, which was used for the other Hobbits. However, I can’t help but notice that the two characters who provided comic relief, Pippin and Gimli, were the only two characters using the Scottish accent. The idea that those with the Scottish accent were made fun of or criticized more often also explains the large negative number between the number of times praised and criticized. Perhaps the Scottish accent was thought to accentuate comicality.
The Cockney accent was used by the Orcs and Uruk-Hai, who have a minimal speaking role. These Orcs are bred to follow orders. They aren’t even respectable antagonists like the wizard Saruman, who was given the RP accent. The fact that these unrespectable, machine-like creatures were given the Cockney accent reinforces the stereotype of inferiority associated with it.
I collected my data based on personal opinion about whether a sentence was an order, praise, or criticism. Perhaps a future study could quantify these aspects even more and add inter-rater reliability where two or more raters would need to independently classify the same phrase in the same category. In conducting my analysis, I didn’t consider how J.R.R Tolkien’s book might have affected the chosen accents. A future study could include an analysis of whether each accent was based on the book. I also didn’t account for how the actor’s accent influenced their on-screen accent and instead focused on analyzing the intended accent. I am also curious about whether other movies using the British accent give equal importance to the RP accent. This will help determine whether RP is the British equivalent of *SAE.
Today, we are as reliant as ever on the entertainment industry. Watching movies and TV shows has become the quickest and easiest way to relax. However, we must be aware that movies that seem relatively harmless and even disconnected from the real world can subtly impact how we perceive the world. Many movies can propagate stereotypes of accent, race, nationality, etc. This is especially true of cartoons and fantasy genres, which are freed from the expectation of conveying reality (Lippi-Green, 1997, p.111). Lippi-Green mentioned many examples of this in English With an Accent. Some notable examples are the depiction of the Big Bad Wolf as a Jewish peddler in The Three Little Pigs (p. 106), the AAVE speaking sidekick in Mulan (p. 113), and the wide variation in accent in The Lion King (p. 122).
This phenomenon isn’t specific to Hollywood and also occurs in Indian shows and movies. The Indian cartoon Chhota Bheem depicts the foolish and comical character Kalia as dark-skinned and fat compared to the light-skinned and muscular hero, Bheem. The villains also mainly have unidentified foreign accents, while the heroes have Indian accents. This shows that the entertainment industry in different parts of the world can reinforce different stereotypes. We can continue watching these much-loved shows and movies, but we must be conscious of how they create biases.
At the end of the last movie in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the One Ring is destroyed, signifying an end of the concentration of power in that one ring. The One Ring no longer rules the minds and lives of those in Middle Earth. Similarly, the entertainment industry should move towards destroying the concentration of power held by one accent, one race, or one nationality. We must support movies and shows that welcome a range of accents for characters in positions of power. We must all work towards the day when one accent does not rule the entertainment industry.
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