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The Language of Game of Thrones: How Different Accents Tell a Story
It's not unusual for people who speak the same type of English to sound quite different. Pronunciation and vocabulary change depending on the region a person is from. In the UK, long years of history have resulted in quite distinct accents in different cities, which tell a rich story about that specific place.
For TV shows that take place in made-up places, accents are great way to help tell the audience a little bit about important characters. Game of Thrones, the popular HBO phenomenon, is no different. Many of the characters’ accents teach you a little bit about their history.
It’s worth noting that Game of Thrones is an American-produced show based on novels by American author George R. R. Martin. Many Americans can’t tell the difference between the various British accents, simply because they don’t interact with British people very often, and most accents they are exposed to in movies and television are typically southern English accents.
The North: The Starks and Jon Snow
House Stark lives in the North, so it’s fitting that Ned Stark is played by Sean Bean. Bean grew up outside Sheffield in Northern England and uses his native Northern accent to portray the Lord of Winterfell.
How to spot it: Although there are a few slightly different Northern English accents, they’re generally obvious by slight vowel changes. You may note that the words of House Stark, for instance, might sound more like “Winter is cooming,” with a “oo” sound as in broom.
What it says: Just as in the UK, there is a slightly different identity between the North and the South. The people of the North in George R. R. Martin’s world consider themselves separate from the rest of the kingdoms. The Northern accent of the characters emphasizes this split.
Putting on accents: Ned Stark’s sons Jon Snow and Robb Stark both grew up in the North, so it makes sense that the characters would have the same accent as their father. But Richard Madden and Kit Harrington, the actors who play these roles, are actually changing their accent onscreen. Richard has a noticeable Scottish accent in real life, and Kit Harrington has the Southern accent of his native London.
Born out of wealth: The Lannisters
The accent of the proud, powerful Lannister house is known as Received Pronunciation, which is an accent that typically represents wealth.
How to spot it: RP lacks any regional varieties and avoids non-standard grammatical structures. As a result, it’s often used as the standard for teaching non-native speakers.
What it says: “Received” has the original meaning of “accepted” or “approved,” emphasizing the fact that this was the supposedly “correct” way for the educated to speak. These days, only about 2% of the UK population speaks with this accent.
Putting on accents: Tyrion, a common fan favorite, is meant to speak in Received Pronunciation, like his father Tywin and the rest of the Lannister house. Peter Dinklage, originally born in New Jersey, does a decent job of it, but some avid fans can tell that he is putting an accent on. You can hear his native accent in the clip below:
Interestingly enough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Tyrion’s brother Jaime, is actually Dutch, but does a fairly good job of bringing out his inner RP.
The Family Outcast: Theon Greyjoy
Although Theon was born in the Iron Islands, he was forced to grow up far away from home in Winterfell with the Starks. Based on the area he grew up, he developed the local accent and carries a touch of Northern in his voice.
How to spot it: see above
What it says: Because Theon grew up away from his home, he changed the way he dressed and his views on the world. One of the most noticeable changes is his accent. Listening to Theon and his father speak, you can hear the difference between the two.
Putting on accents: Just like Madden and Harrington, London native Alfie Allen is hiding his Southern accent when playing Theon, which you can hear below.
The Other Starks
Wait a minute: not all of the Starks speak with the Northern accent. Arya, Bran, and Sansa have somewhat generic Southern accents, in fact.
How to spot it: These accents are referred to as Southern British English. Though there are many dialects of SBE, the one most commonly heard in movies and television shows is Estuary English because it is softer and a bit closer to US dialect so that broader audiences can understand it. It shares many similarities with RP, especially in the pronunciation of consonants.
What it says: In this case their accents might be explained by their mother Catelyn’s Southern accent. She moved up North when she married Ned and at times feels disconnected from the local customs, as shown in her different accent.
Putting on accents: Michelle Fairley, who plays Catelyn, hides her Northern Irish accent when she plays the devoted mother of the Stark children.
Do the accents of any of the other characters in the show seem to say anything about them? You’re sure to learn something from paying attention to the way characters speak – even if all you learn is that the actor could have used a few extra days with a vocal coach!