I recently wondered why, in American movies and TV shows set in foreign or imagined lands, the characters almost invariably speak in British accents, and whether there’s a literary equivalent. I can now report some news on the topic.
First, there has been a lot of discussion about the general phenomenon. One commentator theorized that, on the fantasy end of things (on up through Game of Thrones, where poor Peter Dinklage is made to talk British), it’s the responsibility of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the books that started the genre, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: “even though Middle Earth is a fantasy world it’s clearly inspired by England. Thus it’s not unreasonable that the characters sound like they come from the country that has such a heavy influence on the settings in Middle Earth.”
The invaluable website TV Tropes came up with a name for the custom–“the Queen’s Latin”–and has this explanation for its use in historical dramas:
Britain’s long history causes British accents to seem somehow “older” — they are used to suggest a sense of antiquity. This is actually inaccurate from a linguistic perspective; the modern British accents actually represent a more evolved form of English. Older English accents were closer to modern Irish and American accents.
In any case, using the Queen’s Latin makes a series or film commercially viable in the U.S. It alleviates the need for subtitles, while maintaining the appearance of historical authenticity. It’s just foreign and exotic enough. (Many British actors already Play Great Ethnics.) It’s also no doubt inspired by productions of Shakespeare‘s plays set in Ancient Rome. Remember: Romeo might have been Italian, but he’s not realistic unless he talks like a proper British toff.
The other new thing is another example of literary Queen’s Latin, from the novel All the Light We Cannot See. The book is set in France and Germany during World War II, yet the author, Anthony Doerr — an American— frequently uses British terms: crisps instead of potato chips, lift instead of elevator, and biscuits. (The last is a reversal of the English rapper Lady Sovereign’s couplet “Some English MCs get it twisted/Start sayin’ ‘cookies’ instead of ‘biscuits.’”)
The lingo doesn’t make sense, but I suppose it adds to the feel of the book as taking place in a long-ago era.