After decades of exporting horrendous attempts at "British" accents, America has panned David Tennant's attempts to sound Californian in Gracepoint, the Fox remake of ITV crime drama Broadchurch. Alicia Lutes at Bustle.com called it "curious at best" and asked: "Who the heck is this new American iteration and what have you done with our sultry, Shakespearean-trained Scotsman?!"
My instinct here is to jump in yelling, "All right, leave him alone! It's not as terrible as all that!" He's no Hugh Laurie, I admit. My ear picks up on sounds and intonation at a forensic level whether I want it to or not, and in the entire run of House I only heard one, maybe two pronunciation mistakes, and I let them go immediately because life's too short to be annoyed at Hugh Laurie.
As Brits' imitations of American accents go, there have definitely been worse than Tennant's. During August: Osage County, Benedict Cumberbatch's Oklahoma accent made me stuff my knees into my mouth to keep from yelling "Why are you pronouncing 'funeral' with two syllables as if you've arrived directly from Harrow?! You JUST HEARD Chris Cooper pronounce it with three!"
Tennant is not quite our revenge for Dick Van Dyke, but his accent does need a bit of work. It's nothing earth-shattering. His "a" as in "cake" is too open, and sounds more like a Kentucky "a". My guess is he was told to open it up from his closed Scottish "a" – which is barely more open than the "ee" sound (try saying "keek" with a slight slackjaw, that's "cake" in Tennant's Scottish accent) – but in opening up the vowel it seems he overshot it, ending up with a southern "a" instead. Also, when he says "tell the police" at 2:54, he does a dental "t", touching his teeth with the tip of his tongue, which is the "t" heard in some parts of New York, owing to contact with languages like Yiddish and Italian. Sorry, David – it has no place in either the Californian or British accents. And yes, when he says the "oh" sound his jaw should start at a slightly more open position with relaxed lips, rather than, as in Scottish, starting with a more closed jaw and round lips, making it sound similar to "oo".
But there were plenty of elements of the accent, tiny details, that Tennant got right. He was brilliant on his weak vowels – he pronounced the "o" in "recognise" as a weak "i" (as in "tin"), which many Americans do, but Brits don't. We pronounce it as a weak schwa sound, as in the word "the".
And luckily for Tennant, there are a few ways being Scottish is much more helpful than being English when it comes to trying out an American accent – and not just the fact that most Scots and Americans pronounce every "r" they see. For example, the standard English accent has two different "l" sounds: the "l" at the start of a syllable, as in "light", where the tongue touches the space just behind your top teeth (the alveolar ridge, if anyone's interested), and the "l" that appears at the end of a syllable as in "fall", where the back of the tongue lifts and the tip touches the upper teeth. The latter (for some reason called the "dark l") is the only "l" most Scots and Americans use. I have several American friends who enjoy shouting "lovely" at me in an English accent after I taught them that. It got annoying even faster than you'd imagine.
So let's all lay off poor Tennant; he did a better job than many. Instead, let's hunt down whoever told Van Dyke an English accent just involves adding "guvnerrrr" to every other sentence.
Will you be watching Gracepoint this fall?