Villainous English accent from Severus Snow

4 min


Alan Rickman would have turned 75 on February 21st. Today we decided to honor the memory of the great British villain, who in real life was the soul of the company.

Alan Rickman’s English is very recognizable. And even among native speakers, it sounds special. This is because it is one of the cleanest received pronunciation accents among actors. “Crystal clear and perfect for villains” like his named at The Times.

Today we will figure out what is so special about the accent of Alan Rickman and his movie characters.

Why Alan Rickman’s accent is so recognizable

Rickman received an aristocratic accent at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he entered at the age of 26.

Despite the fact that the actor was from a simple family, and even began to engage in acting at a fairly mature age, the teachers managed to turn the classic London into a real “posh” – aristocratic, which Rickman successfully used in films and in public.

And the second reason is physiological. Since childhood, Alan Rickman suffered from temporomandibular joint dysfunction syndrome – “clenched jaw” syndrome, in a simple way.

Overly tense jaw muscles do not affect speech, but limit movement. Pay attention to articulation. With a calm tone of conversation, the actor’s mouth does not open wide. All articulation is carried out by intonation and lip movements.

Actually, this is the reason for the deep, smooth and viscous speech of the actor. And when Rickman added a touch of arrogance in his roles, it made him just the perfect villain.

And thanks to the characteristic and very recognizable pronunciation of vowels “in the nose”, the voice of Alan Rickman became one of the “perfect” voices according to the BBC.

It is also interesting that Alan was fluent in Irish and Welsh accents, but as he himself said, filmmakers never asked him to use them in roles.

Deconstructing Rickman’s accent with Severus Snape

Let’s trace the peculiarities of aristocratic English using the example of the most famous actor’s role – Professor Snape from the Harry Potter franchise.

In fact, Rickman did not add any accents to the character, except for his own. After all, the book Snape had to speak with a West Midlands accent – there is quite a lot of Welsh in him. But the cinematic Snape speaks good Upper Received Pronunciation, which is also called “aristocratic” or “high” English – it was Rickman who spoke it.

However, the Potions professor has several speech differences from Upper RP, which betray the character’s simple origins. Everything in order.

Sound [r] after the vowel in the sh-accent is almost always omitted.

Notice how Rickman pronounces the words “Potter”, “stopper”, “bezoar”, “other”, “aren’t”.

This is especially audible at the end of words. Mister Potter is pronounced Mis-teh Pot-teh. And at the end, the vowel sound is articulated with a slight aspiration, which forms a very recognizable accent.

However, this also occurs in the middle of words. The passage contains the word “aren’t”. But it is pronounced like aunt – [ɑːnt]… Sound [r] simply replaced with a slightly aspirated elongated vowel.

Sound [t] – forever and ever

Another notable feature of Upper RP: sound [t] pronounced clearly in all words. Especially in cases where it is doubled.

This is very noticeable when comparing RP with an American accent. In the United States, the word “better” sounds like “beder”, but in the poch-accent double [t] articulated very clearly. The word “Potter” from Snape’s lips confirms this.

To hell with diphthongs and triphthongs!

“High” English ignores the vast majority of diphthongs and almost all triphthongs. Because it is not proper for an aristocrat to break his tongue, trying to correctly articulate all these sounds.

There is only one example in the above passages, but it is indicative – “powerful”. In classic RP, it sounds like [ˈpaʊəfl] – triphthong [aʊə] perfectly audible. But Severus pronounces the word like [ˈpa:fl], replacing the triphthong with an extended sound [a:]…

And in the word “down” the vowel sounds so wide that instead of [daʊn] sounds [deʊn]… In general, this is typical for an accent, when narrow vowels become wider and change to a more open position.

The only nuance that distinguishes Rickman’s speech from Upper RP is intonation.

In “high” English, the differences between upward and downward intonation are very important.

For musicians: differences in intonation during normal speech among native speakers of a poch accent can reach an entire octave. This is a lot and very unusual for the ear of both foreigners and native speakers with more mundane accents.

Here is an example of such a speech:

In modern culture, the queen’s accent is quite acceptable – it was considered her hallmark for decades. But such differences in intonation from ordinary people are considered more bad manners than a successful attempt to pass for an aristocrat.

Severus Snape, played by Rickman, speaks almost monotonously, emphasizing only significant words in intonation. But even so, he does it more with pauses, rather than changing the tone of the voice.

However, Alan Rickman did not use a number of features of the Upper RP accent either in the image of Severus Snape or in real life.

For example, he did not jotate long vowels or accentuate the sound [ju] in the word “you”. In a poch-accent it is very similar to the Russian letter “u”, so for a Russian speaker who learns English as a second, it sounds rather strange.

Bonus: Rickman’s American accent in Die Hard

In Die Hard, Rickman played a German. Rickman managed to mimic the German accent only partially – it sounded more like a minor variation of RP, and not like a classic hard German accent.

More notable is his switch to an American accent when MacLaine meets Gruber on the roof of a building and he pretends to be one of the hostages.

If Upper RP has English sound [r] almost always omitted, then in this dialogue he appeared. “Work”, “New York”, “hear” – sound [r] is audible here quite clearly.

In general, the scene with the meeting appeared only after Rickman proved to the director that he could speak American English believably.

Alan Rickman gave us some of the finest villains in film history. And his poch-accent was one of the reasons why his characters were so colorful.

What is your favorite film with Rickman?

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