The “Peppa Pig” Effect

I have never gotten more NOOBs-related emails and messages than the ones generated by an article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on July 18. I believe you need a subscription to read the whole thing, but here’s a recap that appeared in The Guardian the next day.

The upshot is that an animated British kids’ TV show, Peppa Pig, has become so popular in the U.S. that many little kids are uttering Britishisms in plummy accents. A California father reports that his “daughter calls the gas station the ‘petrol station’ and cookies ‘biscuits,’ and when he’s holding a cup of coffee, Dani asks him, ‘Are you having tea now?’”

A Seattle mother attracted more than 10 million views with a TikTok video of her Peppa-obsessed daughter, who, she reported, “speaks in a fully British accent at all times.”

One thing I found interesting about the article and phenomenon is that only one of the examples are actually NOOBs. That is, adult Americans have not adopted “biscuits,” “petrol,” “telly,” “water closet,” or “power cut.” The exception is a word the little girl uses in the TikTok clip: “How clever!”

The Guardian article has in its headline a real live NOOB: “Having a go: US parents say Peppa Pig is giving their kids British accents.”

Americans do indeed use “have a go,” and I never realized it was of British origin, though I probably should have (done). Watch this space for a further investigation.

31 thoughts on “The “Peppa Pig” Effect

  1. Thanks for this, Ben, it made me smile. I was thinking of how my mother, 50 years ago bemoaned the predominance of American shows on British TV and how – she believed – they were changing our speech and culture. I hear children speaking in American accents sometimes when they are playing out roles from an American show but I don’t think it has taken over general speech, whereas jafaican (fake Jamaican) pronunciation has been evident in the general speech of UK youth of many ethnicities for 20 years or more.
    You cited ‘water closet’. Was that actually said in a Peppa Pig episode? It would be a very obscure usage in UK speech today. Even the Edwardian-set ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ would probably have used ‘lavatory’. Occasionally, I will see ‘W.C.’ on a toilet door or an architect’s plan but nobody, it seems, ever utters it.

    1. WC has become the international symbol for “toilet”, so you’ll see it in places like airports. It’s also a useful abbreviation in building plans where it can be necessary to distinguish a toilet room from a bath room.

      You can find “water closet” aplenty in articles about the history of plumbing, and I’ve found an example online of someone using it online while boasting about owning a Victorian-style toilet. But the phrase is long dead in ordinary speech. A modern child would have no idea what it meant.

  2. In a further article, The Guardian (quoting US sources) suggests that some of these parents may be telling ‘porkies’ or, at least, exaggerating. I doubt if the American way of life has got much to fear from Peppa Pig.

    1. Sorry – do I need to explain to American readers that a ‘porky’ is British rhyming slang? ‘Porky’ < 'pork pie' = 'lie'. I felt sure than you had dealt with Cockney rhyming slang somewhere but can't find the reference.

  3. If you watch a few more episodes then you will be writing “received more” rather than “gotten more” 😉

  4. There was a long running BBC radio progamme called “Have a go” which ran from 1946-67. It starred Wilfred Pickles . Now there was a man with a British accent.

    1. I remember Wilfred Pickles. Have a Go carried on into the sixties and its theme song started “Have a Go, Jo(e)”. As my sister was Jo (short for Josephine), we used to rib her about it.

      I can’t find it in his Wikipedia entry, but I’ve heard there were complaints when he started reading the news on the BBC Home Service during WWII as he didn’t have an RP accent.

      1. And in the papers today, there’s Lord Digby Jones complaining about BBC presenter Alex Scott and Sky presenter Beth Rigby as they have regional accents, Plus ca change and all that.

      2. An interesting aspect of the Alex Scott accent “controversy” is that she has a very strong London accent, whereas historically London + Home Counties accents have been exempted from the the term “regional accent”. In much the same way that someone speaking perfectly polished RP would often claim they are speaking “without an accent” (I have heard people say this!), London is obviously a region and yet “regional” accents are confined to provincial England, with Pickles having a Yorkshire accent – prime example of a “regional accent” – as a case in point. However, Scott’s accent is the distinctive working-class youth accent of London (perhaps not all that distinctive – since it is widespread in popular culture it has been adopted by young people seeking a certain kind of “credibility” from quite far away from London and often not even very working-class in origin) and as such she often does not pronounce the ends of many words, hence the criticism of “unclear” or even “lazy” pronunciation. Discrimination against “regional” accents always had a certain degree of class discrimination, and certainly upper middle-class parents in “the regions” would often encourage their children to adopt less geographically-identifying modes of speech, but to a large extent it reflected London’s economic, political and, ultimately, cultural dominance. However, since Scott’s speech is very clearly that of a native Londoner, discrimination against her speech is not about metropolitan-regional chauvinism but very clearly class-based, in a way that intersects uncomfortably both with racial issues (Scott, like many people with her accent, is mixed race, and criticism of her accent has been widely condemned as racist) and the unfortunate truth that dropping so many syllables makes her speech harder to understand for older people in particular.

        Many people will adapt their speech slightly when giving a public presentation or when talking to the hard of hearing, making a conscious effort to pronounce every part of their words, whereas Scott broadcasts to an audience of millions,
        – including many elderly – in her “natural” voice rather than purposefully speaking for clarity. The effect is folksy and more intimate, and certainly more inclusive towards a segment of people who quite rightly feel underrepresented on national television, but complaints that it inadvertently excludes those people unable to follow her speech without subtitles (and since Scott usually broadcasts live sport, subtitle quality is very poor compared to scripted dramas or prerecorded shows) are not entirely spurious. RP only ever represented how a tiny fraction of the population spoke, and many who broadcast in it had to “put it on”, but for all its multitude of sins, it was often described as “crystal clear” even by those who spoke quite differently. Speaking for clarity doesn’t necessarily entail dropping your regional accent, but if omitted syllables are a noticeable feature of your speech, then (unfortunately) it may be the case that clear-speaking requires a certain softening of that accent. Yorkshire and other northern accents are now very common on British TV, but many are very soft. As an example, the replacement of the definite article “the” by a glottal stop is a common feature of real-life Yorkshire accents, particularly broad ones, yet almost absent from broadcast Yorkshire accents except as a joke or when purposefully trying to demonstrate just how very northern someone is! I’m unsure to what extent this is because broadcasting “talent” is predominantly recruited from the (often urban) middle classes whose regional accents tend to be less strong, or whether people with eg a “broad Yorkshire” accent are indeed being recruited into the talent pipeline, but part of the media training they receive along the way (eg to help make their speech clearer to others, it helps not to render the word “the” as a glottal stop) has the effect of softening their accent during broadcasts. It may be notable that Scott came into the media as a pundit following a professional football career, so won’t have had the same kind of voice training as those who have eg a drama school background.

        A final point about how far we have or haven’t come: while it is no longer unusual for Yorkshire accents to hit the national airwaves, the same can’t be said for full-blown Yorkshire dialect, which is avoided even by Yorkshire-born radio presenters on Yorkshire local radio stations. It is effectively “conventional” British English delivered in a Yorkshire accent, rather than authentic Yorkshire speech with its own idioms, vocabulary and even grammar. Similarly, most people with Scott’s accent will talk (at home with friends, if not in a formal context like work or education) in a working-class ethnically-mixed London dialect with West African and (especially Jamaican) Caribbean influence. This isn’t just an accent plus a few slang terms, it has a distinct grammar as well. You can hear it used in eg grime or drill music, but it is almost totally absent from the mainstream media (even though the accompanying accent is common, especially on youth-oriented programming). Generally the media have moved a lot further to be inclusive on accents than dialect, even though it’s dialect that shows how people “really” speak. Many regional dialects, like Yorkshire, have been in decline – both in numbers of regular users but also the gradual disappearance of many distinctive features – and academics think that mass media use of more standardised varieties of English has been a driver of this decline. Provincial dialects often lack a local media scene to propagate them, whereas urban dialects can thrive in a city’s musical sub-genres and “pirate” radio stations, even if absent from more mainstream media. Yet if national TV and radio did make use of more regional dialects in their output, it would hit severe barriers of mutual incomprehensibility. Geordie dialect is famously opaque even to most people in Northern England. Allowing a range of regional accents on air does foster a little inclusivity, while it still misses out on much of the extraordinary and evolving diversity of British English. But the truth is, like Italians, we don’t really all understand each other…

  5. Interesting. Over here in Australia, we are getting articles about how American kids are getting Australian accents and using Australian slang because of our amazing cartoon for Pre-schoolers – ‘Bluey’. The articles say that there *used to be* a Peppa Pig effect

  6. One misunderstanding I noticed in the WSJ article. – there is no “British accent”. Peppa Pig talks with an English accent.

      1. Is it that there’s no such thing, or that English accent (of which there are of course many) is a subset of British accent (of which there are manyer)?

      2. They are all accents from the British Isles, but the term ‘British accent’ would never be used in Britain (except it seems by the Guardian, repeating an American story). To our ears a Scottish accent for instance is more different from a non-regional English accent than say a standard American accent (if one exists).

  7. I think the Guardian article is by an American journalist and from the US edition. I’m not sure which meaning of “having a go ” the headline is referring to. Is it the kids having a go at the accent (trying to do it) or the parents having a go at the programme (complaining about it)?

    1. I suspect that “having a go” is an example of the kind of idiom that American kids are learning from the show, and using in their everyday speech

  8. Je ne suis ni anglais ni américain, mais découvre votre blog avec non moins de ravissement. Je voulais souligner qu’il fascine les amoureux des langues au-delà de la sphère anglo-saxonne. Merci!

    1. Je vous souhaite la bienvenue au nom de Ben. J’anticipe avec plaisir votre perspective francophone.

  9. Ben: Peppa Pig (or its makers) is also one of the main culprits in changing the English English of our own UK youf : L-dropping or mutilation, housses instead of houzez, and so on. Housses (for houses) was seldom heard outside Scotland 20 years ago.

    Paul: I presume you agree that the lovely Alex Scott’s accent is part of her charm because it’s refreshingly authentic, completely natural (I lived in her part of east London back then, and heard it). So I disagree with Brendan O’Neill’s otherwise very good article I link below; her G-dropping is an integral part of her accent. (O’Neill hails from northwest London, what would he know?).

    https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/alex-scott-lord-digby-and-the-snobbery-of-low-expectations

    1. I can’t say I’ve ever heard her. Is she mainly football commentator? Football for me is too reminiscent of standing in a cold, damp field in the north of England, waiting to be hit by a lump of wet leather. Much prefer American football, which I never had to play.

      Incidentally, I am told I still have a London accent, despite growing up in the north.

      1. Yes Paul, football, Alex Scott played for Arsenal and was a fixture in the England Ladies’ team. I worked in London for 16 years, living on the Kray twins’ old East End manor. How old were you when you left The Great Wen?

      2. About four and a half. Born July 1953, moved just after Christmas 1957. Spent 15 years in County Durham and at Leeds University before moving back to London. And for about 15 years I was living just round the corner from the house in London in which I was born.

      3. Little wonder, Paul, if you lived in London again, as an adult. I picked up Londonisms in my years there. My younger brother lived in Hackney for a few years, 2 or 3 miles north of me, and picked up different Londonisms.

      4. But I don’t think I ever lost my London accent throughout my school years. My school contemporaries found it hilarious. I kept the long ‘a’ pronunciation in things like “bath”. There’s a Geordie word “clarty” meaning muddy and my attempts to pronounce it were met with laughter. (But I did eventually remember to use a short ‘a’ in Newcastle.)

        Even at secondary school, teachers asked where I came from as I didn’t have a local accent.

      5. I should think retaining some of your southern vowels was due to home environment, parental influence.

      6. Possibly, but my sister and brother who are younger than me have definite northern accents (and they both lived in the south for much of their adult lives).

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