Why all the Scottish accents in American children’s films?

22 June 2012

What’s the deal with Scottish accents in American children’s movies? Let’s list them:

  • The villagers and lesser characters in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) all have Scottish accents, while the leads have posh British accents (excepting the Huntsman, our working-class hero).
  • When they filmed Tintin (2011), voice artist Andy Serkis gave Captain Haddock a Scottish accent, prompting outrage from fans of the books. It should be noted that while some fans protested that Haddock was portrayed as Cornish in the books, others pointed out that actually he was Belgian, as was the books’ author Hergé, and had only been translated as Cornish by the English publisher.
  • How to Train Your Dragon (2010) was full of Scottish accents – inexplicably, as one presumes the film was about Vikings (who were Norse).
  • Shrek (2001) had a Scottish accent – reportedly because voice artist Mike Myers wanted to use the same accent as his mother, who’d read children’s books to him in that voice.
  • The entire cast of Brave (2012) have Scottish accents. Of course, in this case the characters are actually Scots, wearing kilts and all.

Qu’est-ce que c’est? Why so many Scottish accents in American children’s films?

Maybe it’s because Americans find Scottish accents to be funny and/or eccentric? less snooty-sounding than posh English? gruff and good-hearted?

Have we come to associate weird oldey-times with Scottish accents as well as funny clothes?

Or has it just become a weird tic in Hollywood?

It’s hard to figure the genealogy of this trend, as I doubt many children today would make cultural references back to Scotty of Star Trek — or to late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, for that matter, or Trainspotting.

I found an article from the Journal of Sociolinguistics that posits that among English respondents in a large study, Scottish accents ranked almost as high for “social attractiveness” as Received Pronunciation (what I call “posh”), even though these accents didn’t rank nearly as high when it came to “prestige.”* So it’s not just Americans, apparently, who find the accent appealing.

Still, I’m baffled. Ideas? Comments?

And what does it mean that a generation of English-speaking children will grow up associating a Scottish accent with children’s films?


*Nickolas Coupland and Hywel Bishop, “Ideologized Values for British Accents,” Journal of Sociolinguistics 11, 1 (2007): 74-93.

15 Responses to “Why all the Scottish accents in American children’s films?”

  1. JE Says:

    “Mike Myers wanted to use the same accent as his mother, who’d read children’s books to him in that voice.”

    Which is weird, in a way, because I remember reading that both his parents had such strong Liverpudlian accents that his friends were delighted when they answered the phone, because they sounded like the Beatles. Perhaps this obsession with Scottish accents goes farther than you’ve investigated so far.

    • Didion Says:

      I think the idea was that she affected this accent for reading stories to the kids at night, and that the whole family loved to try out different accents. I think??

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    Aye lassie – nicely done, but tis not just children’s films. Have you heard of Sir Thomas Sean Connery by chance? Long ago, he made a Scottish accent quite charming as he saved the world again and again as Bond, James Bond. Sean Connery may not have been the 1st Scottish actor of note, nor the last, and it could be argued that all of the Bond series – are children’s film as well, that is … adult children.

    • Didion Says:

      I totally get that — and let me say that I’m particularly susceptible to the appeal of the Scottish accent (a combination of Connery’s Bond and Mike Myers’ versions of his parents in So I Married An Axe Murderer). I’m still confused about its flowering within children’s films, however…or maybe this is more evidence that children’s films are being made just as much for parents as for children?

  3. JSA Lowe Says:

    Personally I think it is a class thing, that we’re dimly aware of in the US. Accents are still enormously indicative in Britain when it comes to social categorizing—northern accents are considered cooler now than posh ones, and so young people often adopt various tics to try to sound “rough.” Which I suppose is how it’s always been—probably was this way in Chaucer’s time!

  4. Russ Says:

    I really don’t understand why there are so many Scottish accents on tv and radio. People try to justify it by saying it make a welcome change from English accents but their use is completely disproportionate to the accents of the rest if the UK. You hardly ever hear a Welsh accent on tv. I’m not knocking the Scots and this certainly is not personal. On Breakfast TV they always have a Scottish weather reporter or news presenter. I think it is essential we get more Welsh accents on tv. I’ve never heard anyone say they’d be more likely to buy something or watch a show just because it was presented by someone with a Scot accent.

    • Simon Says:

      There is actually research to show that in terms of how trustworthy a person is considered and how much they can relate to an individual, accent has a significant part to play. Scottish accents do well on television, in particular on formal programmes, because they are deemed trustworthy. Similarly Scottish politicians have broad appeal to a wide section of society. The reason for this is because in England accents are still considered an indication of class, with those such as Liverpudlian, Yorkshire or a west country accent deemed to be more common than accents from the home counties – which would indicate that they were of working class. Similarly those individuals with received pronunciation accents would be considered to be of upper class. The interesting fact of the Scottish accent is that it confuses the listener. A Scottish accent to the working class does not sound what would be deemed “posh” so therefore the working class feels they can relate to those individuals with a Scottish accent. Similarly those with a received pronunciation accent cannot distinguish the Scottish accent in the social class hierarchy, so again therefore they feel that individuals who have a Scottish accent are considered of equal standing in the social accent hierarchy. This means in terms of television that the Scottish accent is considered appealing to a wide section of society, and so therefore will attract a greater number of viewers.

      • Didion Says:

        Awesome! thanks, Simon, for this insight. I wonder if all these American children’s movies also use the Scottish accent because it’s exotic?

      • Russ Says:

        However I’m not in England and nobody I know considers the Scottish accent to be ‘trustworthy’. In fact the Glaswegian accent is very coarse and intimidating which is why so many debt collection agencies use callcentres there.

      • Didion Says:

        I’m not in England either, but it’s true I also don’t hear the class implications of a Scottish accent — much unlike various English accents. So whether or not it reads as “trustworthy” to people outside that context, it has other good or at least benign connotations — AND sounds exotic and charming to the rest of us.

      • Russ Says:

        As someone living in the UK I can assure you none of the Scottish accents are considered anything close to ‘exotic”! By and large we regard them as being very coarse and if you’re outside the UK then the chances are the only Scot accents you’ve heard have been ‘cleaned up’, as many of them would require subtitles to people from other countries.

  5. Andrew Says:

    There is something positively lively and engaging with a good scots accent, an implied humour in the turn of phrase, it isn’t less posh, perhaps it is less formal, which is what may attract directors. I imagine for very serious roles and films you will see less Scottish accents, with the exception of when the actor is truly Scottish.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, interesting. So American children’s films use Scottish accents because they are funnier than other accents (but won’t provoke racial tension). That might actually be accurate!

  6. David Says:

    Mike Myers used the Scottish accent in Sherk, not because his mother would read stories to him in the accent, but because his father was Scottish. He actually played a version of his own father in ‘So I Married an Axe Murderer .’ He used the same accent in that movie as he did in Sherk & Austin Powers.

    If you notice, there’s a link with all the movies you listed, they’re all about fantasy worlds which appear to have medieval backdrops. The use of Scottish accents in animation of this genre is not just isolated to Hollywood, in computer games they always use Scottish, Cockney & Yorkshire accents in games that are set in medieval times and/or set in fantasy worlds with medieval folklore.

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