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This question has to do with how people perceive other accents. It seems that having a British accent makes someone seem more intelligent, even though that isn’t always true.

As funny as it is, I think someone with a British accent could approach me and start talking about dogs sniffing each other’s butts and I would still think, “man, this guy really does knows what he’s talking about.”

I have done some searching, but it seems there isn’t a definite answer answer for why a British accent makes someone appear sophisticated.

The top answer here suggests that maybe the association has to do with people’s original perception of those people to begin with. If you thought British people were smart and you heard someone with what you thought was a British accent you may be quick to think that person is smart.

This suggests the theory that the association could come from countries historical dominance.

What explains why (a lot of Americans for sure) think someone with a British accent must be smart?

Note: I’m not sure about good tags for this question

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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of different accents in Britain. London has 2 major accents - cockney is very different to the other and both are very different to Newcastle Geordie and the Manchester accents. Which accent are you referring to? $\endgroup$ Oct 8 '20 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ It seems that most or possibly all British accents get clumped into 1 accent. If you were British, I would assume you probably couldn't tell the difference between a Midwestern and Northeast accent in the US any more than I could tell the difference between those dialects. $\endgroup$ Oct 8 '20 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not so sure about this assertion "(a lot of Americans for sure) think someone with a British accent must be smart.". Could you refer to some studies that have this conclusion? To my ear (a foreigner, not a native English speaker), American accent sounds more modern, but neither accent seems to be smarter than the other. For me, with the same sentences spoken in the same context and same situations by similarly capable speakers, it's hard to believe that any accent should sound smarter than any other. Isn't it only the content of the speech and the way the speech is conveyed that matter? $\endgroup$
    – user287279
    Oct 26 '20 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ “British accents conjure stereotypes of high IQ and competence while Brooklyn and Southern accents get lower ratings on intelligence. This is not necessarily consistent with actual IQ scores, but the perception persists just the same. Psychologists also found that children living in Chicago rated northern accents as “smarter” and southern accents as “nicer.” Children from Tennessee, however, showed no such preference (Kinzler and DeJesus, 2012).” Found that here $\endgroup$ Oct 26 '20 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ “ … Statistical significance was obtained on physical attractiveness ratings and on intelligence ratings. p<.05. The results do not support accent prestige theory. ...” from T Samantha Anderson, et al. "How Accents Affect Perception of Intelligence, Physical Attractiveness, and Trustworthiness of Middle-Easter-, Latin-American-, British- and Standard-American-English-Accented Speakers," Intuition: The BYU Undergraduate Journal of Psychology: 2007; Vol. 3 : Iss. 1 , Article 3. $\endgroup$
    – user287279
    Oct 26 '20 at 7:06
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Short answer: This is still debated, but it might be due at least partly to social stereotypes.

Attitudes:

There are many British accents, but the one most likely to be used in comparisons to say, American, Australian, or New Zealand accents is called RP, or the Queen's English. Other accents used include MLE and Estuary, which are more common in modern times. American accents also vary, and the one most commonly used in regional comparisons is called Standard American English, or GenAm, or Network English. Much like RP, the Standard accent is most common in broadcast media.

Subject perceptions of accents are tested using the matched-guise and similar verbal-guise paradigms, in which speakers read the same content in different accents, while listeners, unaware of the manipulation, are asked to rate the speakers on various traits. A common finding in matched-guise research is that people in general prefer standard accents over foreign accents, presumably due to in-group bias. However, can exceptions be made for native speakers of non-standard accents, such as the way Americans rate British accents?

An early study by Stewart, Ryan, & Giles (1985) suggested that Americans indeed perceive British speakers as higher status than own-accent speakers. However, in a later study by Bayard et al (2001), Americans rated the American accent higher than British on many traits, including intelligence and class. Had attitudes changed in the intervening years? Or is the difference due to changes in method used? Results of other studies (eg, Scott, Green, & Rosewarne, 1997; Anderson et al, 2007; Gill, 2009; Wang et al, 2009) also question Americans' preference for the British accent. Even if a preference for the British accent exists among Americans, it may only reflect the RP accent (eg, Trudgill, 1983).

Reasons:

Several hypotheses have been proposed for why listeners might have preferences for some accents over others:

  1. The inherent value hypothesis is favored by many lay people - when asked about their preferences, they often claim that certain accents just "sound better".

  2. The imposed norm hypothesis suggests that certain accents are "standard" in a given culture, and consequently preferred over non-standard accents.

  3. The social connotation hypothesis is a variation that suggests that traits are associated with accents through social stereotypes, influenced by media.

An interesting way to test these hypotheses is to compare listener preferences when they don't recognize the accents that they are asked to rate. To this end, Giles et al (1974) asked Brits to rate Greek accents, and Giles, Bourhis, & Davis (1979) asked Welsh to rate French accents. Native speakers of the rated accents report clear preferences for one accent over another; however in both studies, listeners with no knowledge of the rated languages were unable to discern the accents and gave speakers similar ratings. This result challenges the inherent value hypothesis.

Furthermore, native speaker ratings do not correlate well with how similar accents are to the "standard" accents, challenging the imposed norm hypothesis. A study reported by Trudgill (1983) also demonstrated that native English speakers that can discern British accents give accents different ratings depending on which region or country the listener is from, contrary to both the inherent value and imposed norm hypotheses. Finally, ratings can differ significantly depending on what trait is measured (eg, intelligence, class, solidarity, success). Consequently, the social connotation hypothesis tends to be the dominant theory in current scholarship.

Controversy:

However, while some later studies (eg, Leemanna, Kollyb, & Nolan, 2015) corroborate the social connotation hypothesis, others lend support to the inherent value hypothesis (eg, Ladegaard, 1998; Hiraga, 2005; Gooskens, Hilton, & Schüppert, 2016; Wadas, 2020). It is also possible that accent cannot always reliably be separated from other differences in speech, or that subjects unable to discern accents have nonetheless developed implicit associations through media exposure. Additionally, accent preferences don't always align well with media stereotypes as reported by subjects. More research is needed.

If the social connotation hypothesis is correct, then preference for the British accent may be the result of American Anglophilia - basically, the British have done a good job of branding themselves overseas. Indeed, subjects from many countries (eg, Spain, Norway, Japan) prefer the British accent, but others (eg, Iran, Korea, Denmark, New Zealand, and Australia) seem to prefer the American accent - attributed to Pax Americana, or the USA doing a good job of branding themselves in those countries.

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    $\begingroup$ I applaud you and thank you for the research, this answer gives me exactly what I’m looking for! $\endgroup$ Oct 29 '20 at 0:27

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