Tuesday, 29 August 2017

‘Bloody hell. Sodding, blimey, shagging, knickers, bollocks. Oh, God. I'm English!’: A Linguistic Analysis of Spike’s ‘Cockney’ Accent

Kicking off our Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Two posts in our Buffy Blog Series we have Holly Dann from the University of Sheffield exploring Spike's 'Cockney' Accent in 'School Hard.' Tell us what you think using the hashtag #BuffySlays20!

James Marsters’ English accent on Buffy the Vampire Slayer has undeniably divided opinions. His portrayal of Spike has made it on to both best and worst rundowns of on-screen accent attempts. Even Marsters himself admits that, particularly in those first episodes, his accent was ‘terrible.’ Personally, I found it very distracting at first, but did get used to it as the show went on, but this may be my accent-obsessed brain never switching off and over-analysing every voice I hear. If, like me, something about Spike’s voice has always niggled at you, but you can’t quite work out what it is, then read on. I am going to analyse Spike’s accent in his first ever appearance on Buffy in S02E03 'School Hard' and try to work out where he went wrong, what he got right, and whether it really matters at all.

 First off, we need to work out exactly what accent Marsters was aiming for in the first place and why. In various interviews, he has stated that Spike is supposed to speak with a working class London accent to help build his ‘bad boy’ persona: ‘Spike is British because Joss, [the director], wanted a bit of punk rock. I was supposed to be like Sid Vicious.’ Therefore, it can be assumed that Marsters was attempting to speak with something like a Cockney accent. Interestingly, this is actually pretty much how Anthony Steward Head, who is from North London, sounds in real life. Marsters has often said that he was given tips by Head on how to improve on the accent. It’s also worth noting that Spike was not always a ‘punk rock’ working Class Londoner; in S05E07 'Fool for Love' it is revealed that Spike was once an upper class Englishman and the Cockney accent was an affectation, along with his new name and ‘bad boy’ swagger (I’ll come back to this later).

Spike enters the show with a literal bang (sorry) in School Hard. Hard rock music is blasting from his car as he crashes into the Sunnydale sign and, clad in a leather jacket and combat boots, he steps out, lights a cigarette and muses, ‘home sweet home.’ Everything about him plays up to the ‘bad boy’ persona. This new villain is a stark contrast to the vampires Buffy has previously fought. Where the Master and his acolytes were archaic and ritual obsessed, Spike is modern, ‘cool’, and complex. His working class London accent is intended to help establish this character in the following scene, where he meets the Anointed One and his followers and promises to ‘do your Slayer for you.’

(Spike:"Me and Dru, we're moving in." - 'School Hard')
So, now for some linguistics: did James Marsters pull off the accent in his introductory scene? (NB: I am going to use the International Phonetic Alphabet here, but for those not familiar with the IPA, I’ve attempted to represent the sounds with re-spellings). The clip I am analysing starts 5:00 minutes into School Hard. If you can, go and have a listen to Spike in that scene, but if you can’t (I’ll never forgive UK Netflix for removing Buffy), here’s a transcript:

SPIKE: You were there? Oh please. If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock!
BIG UGLY: I ought to rip your throat out.
SPIKE: I was actually at Woodstock. That was a weird gig. I fed off a flower person and spent six hours watching my hands move.
So, who do you kill for fun around here?
ANOINTED ONE: Who are you?
SPIKE: You're that anointed guy. I read about you. And you got Slayer problems, that's a bad piece of luck. You know what I find works real good with Slayers? Killing them.
SPIKE: A lot faster than nancy boy there. I did a couple Slayers in my time. I don't like to brag. Oh, who am I kidding, I love to brag. There was one Slayer, during the Boxer Rebellion - Drusilla! You shouldn't be walking around. You're weak.
DRUSILLA: Look at all the people. Are these nice people?
SPIKE: We're getting along.
DRUSILLA: This one has power. I could feel it from outside.
SPIKE: Yeah, he's a big noise in these parts. Anointed, and all that.
DRUSILLA Do you like daisies? I plant them but they always die. Everything I put in the ground withers and dies. Spike, I'm cold.
SPIKE: I got you.
DRUSILLA: I'm a princess...
SPIKE: That's what you are.
Me and Dru, we're moving in. Anyone wanna test who's got the biggest wrinklies around here, step on up. I'll do your Slayer for you. You keep your flunkies from trying anything behind my back. Deal?

Cockney consists of a variety of non-standard features, as well as elements of southern Standard English (henceforth: sStE). I’ll just focus on a few of the key features here. First, it is non-rhotic, meaning that Cockneys don’t pronounce the /r/ in words like ‘farm.’ It is also similar to sStE in its pronunciation of words like ‘bath’ [ɑː] (bahth) and ‘strut’ [ʌ] (struht). Marsters’ success in producing these variants is pretty inconsistent (this will become a theme). While he manages to avoid producing rhotic /r/, he does tend to overcompensate for the lack of /r/ with some elongated vowels and, notably, the occasional addition of a ‘y’ [j] sound. This is what’s gone on in that bizarre pronunciation of ‘there’ in his opening line: ‘you were theyah [θɛjə]’. In the phrase 'a lot faster', there is an attempt to produce the sStE ‘ah’ [ɑː] vowel, but instead he uses a lengthened American variant [æ:] (‘faaster’), which is actually lot closer to a (distinctly un-‘punk rock’) Westcountry accent. He fares a little better with the ‘strut’ vowel, producing the ‘uh’ [ʌ] sound in ‘fun,’ ‘flunkies,’ and ‘love,’ but somehow pronounces ‘luck’ with a northern English [ʊ] (‘lohck’).

Regarding the more traditional Cockney vowel sounds, there are a lot of inconsistencies in Spike’s speech. For example, the Cockney ‘ai’ vowel in words like ‘price’ is traditionally monophthongised to something like [ɑː] (‘prahce’) or rounded [ɒː ~ ɒɪ] (‘proice’). Marsters does occasionally attempt this, but often misses the mark. For example, his pronunciation of ‘I’ is, in places, something like [ʌ] ‘uh,’ as in the phrase ‘uh fed off a flower person,’ On other occasions, his ‘ai’ vowel is pretty close to sStE: ‘do you know what I [aɪ] find [aɪ] works real good with Slayers?’ (Also: note here the use of the American intensifier ‘real’).

Marsters has a bit more luck with the non-vocalic sounds of Cockney. Although they are inconsistent, there are examples of (h)-dropping (‘who do you kill for fun around ere’), (g)-dropping (‘me and Dru, we’re movin in’). However, these features are found in almost every working class accent in England and are certainly not unique to Cockney. There are no instances of the more distinctly Cockney features, such (l)-vocalisation (e.g. ‘kill’ as ‘kiw’) or (th)-fronting (e.g. ‘anyfing’). In addition, there are no instances of intervocalic glottalisation (not pronouncing ‘t’s in the middle of a word). In fact, he produces the word ‘getting’ in ‘we’re getting along’ with a North American tapped [ɾ] (‘gedding’). He never does quite get the hang of those glottal stops, which plays a large role in the Spike’s classic staccato-like speech.

Finally, there is one example of dialect lexis in this scene: ‘nancy boy.’ This is indicative of Spike’s tendency throughout the show to use very stereotypically British words. For example, the word ‘bloody’ is used to excess, to the point that, I would argue, it sounds unnatural to the British viewer. Spike’s use of stereotypical British lexical items is typified by his outburst in S06E08 'Tabula Rasa': ‘He's got his crust all stiff and upper with that nancy boy accent. You Englishmen are always so... bloody hell. Sodding, blimey, shagging, knickers, bollocks. Oh, God. I'm English!’. Spike’s choice of English words is always highly stereotypical and usually not constrained to a particular region of England. This is an unsurprising writer’s choice, as if Spike were to use some lesser known Cockney dialect words, they would almost certainly be lost on a predominately American audience.

To summarise, Spike’s accent in his introductory scene in School Hard is recognisably English, but couldn’t really be described as Cockney. He has a mishmash of linguistic features from across England and, occasionally, a bit of his natural American accent slips through. However, the inclusion of highly stereotyped working class accent features, such as (h)-dropping and (g)-dropping, and British slang (‘nancy boy’) are enough to support the vision of this character as a gritty ‘bad boy,’ and are a stark contrast to the archaic speech of the other vampires.

Overall, the while Spike’s accent is certainly patchy, inauthentic, and highly stereotyped, I would argue that it does not detract from the character or the show. First, Marsters’ American roots go undetected by many of the viewers. Additionally, this persona is just that: a persona. The character of Spike was created after William became a vampire and affected the ‘Cockney’ accent a part of his reinvention. For me, the inauthentic accent serves as a reminder of Spike’s lovesick past as ‘William the bloody awful poet’ and the ‘bad boy’ persona is, perhaps, just an act. Finally, and most importantly, Marsters’ consistently stands by this mishmash accent throughout the show. As a result, what starts as a device to bolster a ‘punk rock’ look in a throw-away villain, becomes an integral quirk of one of Buffy’s most-loved characters.

Holly Dann is a PhD candidate in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. Although she is an avid festival-goer, she was not at Woodstock, and, to our knowledge, she has not fed off of any flower people. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post, but can I just point out that Charlotte Bosseaux has an article with almost the same title (using the quote from Spike) in our special issue of Gothic Studies? You may find that article complements yours