I was reading random discussion forums on the Internet the other day and I found this (very old btw) one where someone asked the following question: Would it be possible to type in a British accent? In return, this person got really sarcastic and mean/funny comments like "there ain't such a thing as a 'British accent', you bloody fool" There is always controversy around British accents since it is indeed a very important issue for native speakers. Moreover, it was not the first time that I encountered this kind of reactions although this time it was on the Internet and not in real life. So, is asking for 'THE British accent' a taboo? I will try to explain why people get that nuts and sensitive with this subject.
As one of the responses said in the forum there is not a British accent but various accents and dialects across Britan. I will start by pointing out that this is obviously not a pecularity of the English language; there is not a single language, at least as complex in terms of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation as English, Spanish, German or any other Indoeuropean language that is spoken in the same accent by all of its speakers. Speaker variation (intra-speaker and inter-speaker variation) comes into play here, my beloved variation without which I personally would find languages so plain and boring. For instance, within Britain, just taking into account England (and altough you could say 'she has an English accent' without getting the annoyed look), there are innumerable accents and dialects. Pronunciation is known to vary just from one city to the next one, even sometimes causing misunderstanding between native speakers. You may have the following question in mind now: 'then, how many English dialects or accents (different pronunciations of dialects) are there?' but the answer is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to count them. If you read the explanation of the nature of an accent I made in an older post you could understand why it is impossible. In addition, a very recommendable read you could do for deeper details on British dialects is this one.
I believe that the key here is that with accents and dialects comes identity. Although there is an upcoming post dedicated to identity I am going to mention some of the reasons why the sense of identity, which is attached to accents and dialects, might be the reason why native speakers get so annoyed when asked, especially by a foreign English learners, about 'THE British accent'. In order to do so we have to go back to the 18th century when a standard version of British English was stablished "based on London" (Wales 2006) Let's remember that this exact accent was chosen as standard, among other reasons, because it was spoken by a "literate influential section of the population centred on the fashionable and educated elite of the metropolis" (Wales 2006) From that time onwards and with the rise of pronouncing dictionaries, any pronunciation different from the one in London was perceived and classified as not 'proper' or 'correct' Despite the preassure, the reality is that people want to preserve the features of their own accent and the way of expressing themselves and these impositions did nothing but accentuate a sense of differenciation between speakers with other accents; even some accents became disparaged and scorned. Speakers with the same or similar accents felt related to each other; something similar, in my opinion, to the sense of community that football teams create nowadays. This rase a strong sense of identity and belonging to a certain group of people who spoke similarly. All this is still present in the British memory and that is why a Scouse speaker would not like to be mistaken for a Londoner or any other, or viceversa: they just do not feel they have the same upbringings or even values (of course, in some cases these feelings are very prejudiced)
A quite interesting perspective to perceive identity is taking a look at the sense of humour characteristic of certain places. For example, a very famous humorist from Lancashire (North of England), Peter Kay, makes an exercise of bounding with his fellow audience with this joke: "I love Bolton (in Lancashire)...I can go to the chippy in my slippers. You can't do that down London, you'd be arrested"
I hope this post helps to understand the British culture better and native speakers' reactions when asked, for instance, 'how could I get 'the British accent'?', in which case, most likely, the speaker would be thinking 'ok, but which one?!'
Tell us, have you ever gotten an annoyed face from a native speaker for these reasons? And if you are a native speaker yourself, do you agree with this post? would you add any other explanation or personal experience?