From late September to early December, I flew twice a week to Los Angeles (to teach at UCLA) and every time I stepped into Southwest’s baggage-claim area at LAX, I heard an announcement that stunned me: “Welcome to Los Angeles International Airport. Southwest Airlines uses Carousel 1 . . .” The words weren’t jarring – it was the accent: a Julie-Andrews-like voice of extreme, unapologetic Britishness. Spoken by the Andrews soundalike, the baggage-claim directive was soothing, distinct, and smart-sounding – the antithesis of most public-address voices in U.S. airports. For example, at Southwest’s main LAX arrival/departure terminal (which it shares with another airline), the voice that warns people to be vigilant about their luggage (“your safety is our priority”) is that of a man with nasal and intelligence issues. Put bluntly, this man sounds like a dufus with a cold – the last person you’d listen to about the importance of airport security.
Why did Southwest go British at its LAX baggage-claim area? “There’s no stratgegy behind it,” Southwest spokeswoman Paula Berg tells me in a phone interview. “It’s one of our employees who’s British. She had done acting and theater in her past. She has a nice, pleasant voice, and she was comfortable doing it.”
Berg, who frequently travels through LAX, adds – with a slight redundancy – that the Julie Andrews-like voice “is pleasant. It’s different. And it does capture your attention. It works.”
Yes, it does. I’m always amazed at how well people respond to British voices. For the most part (notwithstanding Cockney accents), U.K. voices are superior to U.S. voices – the proof coming not just at LAX but nearby Hollywood, which has always relied on British accents to give characters a dignity and smartness they wouldn’t have otherwise. The list is endless and includes Roger Allam in “Speed Racer,” Christopher Lee and Ewan McGregor in “Attack of the Clones,” Ian McKellen in the “X-Men” franchise, Hugh Grant in the just-released “Did You Hear About the Morgans?,” and (to throw in an older film) Sir Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence in “The Great Escape.” This last movie starred Steve McQueen, who was then the highest-paid actor in the world, but it was Pleasence – the diminutive, bald-headed thespian from Lincolnshire – and his countryman Attenborough (from Cambridge, England) who stole every scene they were in.
“More educated, more genteel.” That’s how Americans feel about British accents, U.S. linguist and author Rosina Lippi-Green told the BBC, adding that the accents are appealing because “it’s a way of speaking that is all tied up with the Old Country, the Queen.”
Americans, in other words, like the accent’s connection to royalty, even though our Founding Fathers rejected the British crown in a bloody war that begat this country. In fact, the first U.S. president, who was born and raised in Virginia, loved Britsh accents – so much so that George Washington likely “spoke with a modified British accent,” according to Washington historians William M.S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton. So, even George Washington was pulled in by the sonority of the British voice. It’s something to think about the next time you’re at LAX – or a movie theater – and you hear a British voice of distinction.