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LANGUAGE AND POWER: The use of RP in Game


of Thrones
Ana Lusa de Castro Soares (UFES)

ABSTRACT: In this work, we seek to explore the reasons that underlie the choice of
Received Pronunciation, at the expense of other accents, in the American TV show
Games of Thrones, as well as what motivated the casting of a white actor to portray a
character whom is described as having dark skin in the books that originated the
series, namely, A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin. In order to do so, we
resort on the field of Critical Applied Linguistics, as well as Foucaults concepts about
discourse and power.
KEYWORDS: Game of Thrones; Received Pronunciation; Critical Applied Linguistics;
Power; Discourse.

RESUMO: Neste trabalho, procuramos analisar as razes que subjazem a escolha


da Received Pronunciation, em detrimento de outros sotaques, no programa de TV
americano Game of Thrones, bem como o que motivou a escalao de um ator
branco para interpretar um personagem que descrito como tendo pele escura nos
livros que deram origem srie. Para tanto, nos baseamos na Lingstica Aplicada
Crtica, bem como nos conceitos de Foucault sobre discurso e poder.
PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Game of Thrones; Received Pronunciation; Lingustica
Aplicada Crtica; Poder; Discurso.

1. INTRODUCTION
The Jazz Singer is the first motion picture with synchronized dialogue
sequences and the movie which started the Golden Age of Hollywood. Ever since, it
is common to hear standard American accents in several productions, despite of the
places and peoples that may be represented in such productions. Since the release
of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema, 2001) in
2001, epic fantasy movies and series have been reaching great success, conquering
millions of viewers around the world. One interesting fact about this phenomenon is

that although many of the productions are filmed in the United States, with actors
from many different English-speaking countries, the characters tend to speak in an
accent much similar to the Received Pronunciation of British English. Why does that
happen? What are the reasons that underlie this choice? Until not so long ago,
questions such as the significance of a choice of a certain variety of a language were
not even discussed.
Created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, Game of Thrones is a television
adaptation of "A Song of Ice and Fire, a story b the American author George R. R.
Martin. The series is broadcast in the United States by subscription channel Home
Box Office, best known as HBO. Game of Thrones is very well received by critics and
has already received several nominations and awards. The series is set in the Seven
Kingdoms of Westeros, a fictional scenario reminiscent of Medieval Europe where
the seasons last for years and even decades. The plot revolves around a war and
shows violent struggles between families - or noble houses - for control of the Iron
Throne.
A fact that stands out in the series is that, despite being set in a fictional setting
and having many American actors in the cast, the characters use a variety of English
very close to the Received Pronunciation (RP) of British English to communicate.
In this article, we discuss these questions in the light of Critical Applied
Linguistics. Critical Applied Linguistics, as Pennycook (2001) argues,
is more than just a critical dimension added on to applied linguistics: It
involves a constant skepticism, a constant questioning of the normative
assumptions of applied linguistics, and presents a way of doing applied
linguistics that seeks to connect it to questions of gender, class, sexuality,
race, ethnicity, culture, identity, politics, ideology
and discourse

(PENNYCOOK, 2001, p. 10)

By adopting this critical and skeptical position, we also wish to , challenge an


assumed centre, where power and privilege lie, and to rework the politics and
language that sustain them (PENNYCOOK, 2011, p. 16.4) in the object chosen for
this analysis.

2. DISCUSSION
2.1 - THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
In the 5th century BC, Angles, Saxons and Jutes migrated from Europe to the
British Isles, and the language spoken by them was to become English. In two
centuries, variations of English were being spoken by almost the entire territory.
French and Latin were influential in shaping the vocabulary of the language, due to
the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
According to the Enciclopaedia Britannica, British English is a collective term for
all forms of English spoken in the British Isles. But there is a lot of variation within the
British English. The variety considered the standard variety of British English is called
Received Pronunciation. As British English refers to forms of English spoken in the
British Isles, the American English term comprises the range of dialects spoken in the
United States. Although there is less dialectal variation within the U.S. territory, the
presence of distinctive accents on the East Coast of the country, for example, can be
detected.
Similar to "Received Pronunciation", there is a standard pronunciation of
American English, which is called "General American" (GA) or "Standard American
English" (SAE). Used in films, series, advertisement and official announcements on
radio newscasts, Standard American English has immense scope, related to cultural

phenomena such as the success of Hollywood productions, the growing popularity of


television series in the country and the strength of long consolidated U.S. music
industry there.

2.2 - LINGUISTIC VARIATION IN ENGLISH

In every language there is variation. A language can vary according to many


aspects: place, time, situation ...
All languages have an inherent dynamism, which means that they are
heterogeneous. Thus, there are distinct forms that, in principle, are
semantically equivalent in level of vocabulary, syntax and morphosyntax, of
the phonetic-phonological subsystem and practical-discursive domain

(MOLLICA, 2007. p. 9.,) (My translation)


Zaidan (2013), debates linguistic variation, claiming that language variation is no
strange phenomenon to Sociolinguistics.
That language varies in multiple forms (phonological, syntactic,
morphological, semantic and lexically) and as a result of the action of several
factors - or variables (geographical origin, age, socioeconomic profile, formal
and informal situation, etc.), reflecting and allowing differentiation between
individuals, groups, communities, states and nations does not seem to be a
controversial theme in the field of Sociolinguistics. (ZAIDAN, 2013. p.

53) (My translation)

Linguistic variation can be well observed in English, a language that is directly


linked to diversity. One of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with
approximately 1.5 billion speakers, it is the mother tongue of over 350 million people
and the most widely taught language in the world. According to Zaidan (2013),
speakers of non-traditional varieties of English are today in a ratio of three to four
speaker of the language in the world, that is, three quarters of the use language is

non-standard. However, there is undeniable difference of power associated to some


varieties of English, which are much more valued and desired than others.
Although apparently the view that a variety / dialect has more value (is
inherently better) than another is, in general, outdated in academia, the
treatment given to

English, both in theorizing about its system as in

educational settings, always ends up revealing the presumption of an


essence, a "core, a supposedly more" pure and better reference that
guides language practices (ZAIDAN,

2013, p. 55). (My translation)

To Zaidan, one of the many factors that contribute to this devaluation of nonstandard varieties of English is the limited comprehension of the linguistic
phenomenon, which leads people to see variation as a form of diversion/distortion,
granting the production of non-standard speakers the status of interlanguage, that is,
an incomplete, not proficient language and placing the native speakers, generally
American or British, in the highest place of an imaginary continuum, an idealized
scenario (ZAIDAN, 2013, p. 55).
2.3. LANGUAGE AND POWER
The role, function and power of English worldwide is not a new theme to Critical
Applied Linguistics. In 1992, Robert Phillipson published the book Linguistic
Imperialism, in which he discusses the role of English and its importance for the
preservation of power structures in the postcolonial world. After Phillipson,
Canagarajah, Pennycook and Rajagopalan are some of the most influential scholars
of Applied Linguistics who dealt with this subject. Mahboob and Paltridge discuss
Phillipson, Canagarajah and Pennycooks works in an article called Critical
Discourse Analysis and Critical Applied Linguistics, published in 2012. According to
them,
While both Canagarajah and Pennycook note the power of English, they also
highlight the importance of studying how English is appropriated and resisted

by people in different parts of the world. Critical language policy research


also seeks to describe and explain how people in various parts of the world
have internalized the notion that English is the language of national
development. As a result of this belief they maintain and promote English as
a national or an ofcial language, often at the cost of local languages. For
example, Mahboob(2002) examines how the language policies in Pakistan
devalue local language and encourage the adoption and use of English.
Such ideologies, rather than leading to national development, naturalize the
power of English and ensure that the existing power relationships are
maintained. As such, they can be seen as hegemonic practice.

(MAHBOOB; PALTRIDGE, 2012, p.2)


As Mahboob and Paltridge state, in many parts of the world, English is
associated with development. The relationships established by power and discourse
have been broadly discussed by Michel Foucault, in several of his works. About
Foucaults ideas of discourse, Weedon (1987) affirms:
discourses, in Foucaults work, are ways of constituting knowledge, together
with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations. Discourse
transmits and produces power; it undermines and exposes it, renders it
fragile and makes it possible to thwart it

(WEEDON, 1997, p. 107)

Foucault (1991) also states that each society has its own regime of truth, i.e.,
each society will operate in different ways as far as truth is concerned. Each society
will accept different types of discourse as true or false, and distinct societies will have
distinct instances to distinguish true and false statements. The status of who says the
truth also varies. Discourse, and the notion of what is truth as well, is socially
constructed, as we can conclude. Language is a component of discourse. It is clear
that ones manner of speaking, together with other aspects, such as nationality, race,
sex, social status, will constitute someones discourse. And this discourse will be
valued and perpetuated or not by those who hold the power. Truth, morality and
meaning are created through discourse, and will correspond to what those who are in
the center, who are empowered, want it to be.
2. 4 THE CASTING OF PRINCE OBERYN IN HBOS GAME OF TRHONES

In addition to the language and discourse-related issues discussed above,


another matter drew attention to the construction of discourse within HBO Game of
Thrones: when the series finally had the chance to cast one black actor for a leading
role, a white Chilean actor was chosen instead, which generated discussion and the
wrath of many racial equality militancy groups.
Prince Oberyn Martell, one of the central characters in the third A Song of Ice
and Fire book and in the fifth season of the T.V. show, is a man from Dorne, a
pensinsula in the southern part of Westeros. The description of the men from Dorne
in the book is the following: The salty Dornishmen were lithe and dark, with smooth
olive skin and long black hair streaming in the wind (MARTIN, 2000, p. 520). Prince
Oberyn is then described:
The princeling removed his helm. Beneath, his face was lined and saturine,
with thin arched brows above large eyes as black and shiny as pools of coal
oil. Only a few streaks of silver marred the lustrous black hair that receded
brown his brow in a widows peak as sharply pointed as his noise. A salty
Dornishmen for certain.

(MARTIN, 2000, p. 521)

By this extract of the text, we can conclude that the Prince Oberyn of the book, a
salty Dornishmen for certain (MARTIN, 2000, p. 521), has dark skin like the rest of
his people. The decision to cast a white actor to portray him in the series shows
again a desire to be associated with what is regarded as true by a parcel of the
society that holds the power.

3. FINAL CONSIDERATIONS
In the light of the studies cited and the discussion developed above, it is possible
to conclude that the choice of using RP in Game of Thrones at the expense of other

accents is not an innocent choice, and neither is the decision of casting a white actor
to portray a character that has dark skin in the book. There is a very conscious
agreement that, by using a variety of English which corresponds to the assumed
center of power and choosing an actor who also belongs to this assumed center of
power, the discourse reproduced by the series will be more easily taken as the truth,
and will, therefore, have more symbolic value.

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IEL Instituo de Estudos da Linguagem. Universidade Estadual de Campinas,


Campinas, SP.