Speech and Pronunciation

I was giving an English lesson this morning to a young French engineer in his place of work in Rouen. It seemed appropriate, as his main objective is speech and pronunciation, to introduce him to the various accents and dialects in our language. These accents are a part of our local identity, and we are brought up with them. These days, there is less in the way of snobbery in England between received pronunciation (RP) speakers and those who speak grammatically and well, but in their local accent. I said to him that he might find it more useful to go for American English. Why not? He is learning English for his job, which might involve trade with US companies. No, he wants “standard” English, something that all English-speakers understand.

Spoken language is a part of our culture, something that has fascinated me for years. English culture is related to the topics of this blog. One problem with this blog is that we don’t hear each others’ speech. Of course, we can make Youtube videos (I don’t have a movie camera) but the result can be highly embarrassing unless we have had some training in public speaking and acting. To a keen ear, speech tells us a great deal about a person.

It is human to stereotype and make caricatures of others, especially those with strong accents like the Scottish (Glasgow docker, Edinburgh and Highlands), Irish, Geordies from Gateshead and Newcastle, the Cockneys (London and South-East), Scouse (Liverpool), Brummies (Birmingham), West Country (Oooh Argghhh!) and broad Yorkshire or yet the Lanky Twang (Lancashire). I am totally unqualified to comment on local accents in the United States (though I can distinguish between New York and Texas), Canada or other English-speaking countries. People in all countries and speaking the languages of those countries have local accents and dialects, like Marseilles French, Parisian and the “standard” French of the Touraine area. The purest Italian is spoken not in Rome but in Florence, or it used to be like that. Perhaps a German could tell me where good Hochdeutsch is spoken.

Personally, I was born in the north of England (Kendal, Westmorland) and brought up by a father who is a Yorkshireman with only the faintest trace of an accent. He was at St Peter’s, York in the 1940’s. In my day, you could speak in that school in any accent (usually Yorkshire) provided we spoke in correct English. In his day, I assume they had to talk RP. My late mother came from Surrey, and she kept a slight south-eastern accent all her life. Having spent some of my life down south and in London, I seem to have assimilated the accent of my mother to some extent, though I am fundamentally an RP speaker.

If you work at it, you can “elocute” (not electrocute) yourself, learning by imitation and acting. But, what for? From about the 1960’s, Socialist and egalitarian ideology has tended to discourage elitism and characteristics of the upper classes including the use of RP. In England, we are encouraged to keep our own local accents or adopt a moderate south-eastern accent (without the caricature of a stage second-hand car dealer or safe-breaker in Wormwood Scrubs).

On the other hand, we find there are affected and non-affected, more natural, ways of talking RP. The most amazing caricature I came across was expressed by the dotty Romantic Ladies of the Empire of Aristasia, who encouraged living in an archaic imaginary subculture, away from the modern life they called The Pit, and educated girls using questionable methods. See The Invisible Empire of Romantia.

Here is a couple of documentaries discouraging RP in favour of local accents.

The young lady in the second video talks in a generic south-eastern accent replete with glottle stops. I find her speech quite pleasant, though bordering on the “common”, and articulate. She reflects the anti-elitist opinion of many people in our country, and I can understand her position when giving the caricatured imitation of someone like Queen Elizabeth II. According to her, BBC English is now a moderate and cleaned-up south-eastern accent. I would disagree. Listening to BBC Radio 4 or TV broadcasts, many still use RP but without the “1920’s” caricature, a neutral and natural way of speaking for those used to it. There are two versions of RP, neutral and natural and the la-di-da speech of the 1920’s beautifully reproduced in the old 1981 version of Brideshead Revisited. Anthony Blanche, the camp aesthete, mixes affected RP with a French accent.

Here are some more caricatures, which are rather wonderful, but a little absurd to modern ears.

Stiff upper lip, Jeeves!

The important thing is that I can go to any English-speaking part of the world and be understood. I have been to the US and bought things in a supermarket and saw raised eyebrows because of my RP English. They love it! But, I could never be one of them or even some of our own people in England. We need to keep it natural. Living in a non-English-speaking country like France can cause us to caricature things somewhat. As I advised my pupil, the best thing is to listen to the wireless and news broadcasts on the Internet, watch films in English and documentaries about contemporary life.

Spending time each day listening to English news broadcasts, watching documentaries and films and getting to England whenever possible keeps me in touch and prevents me from developing a caricature way of speaking as I have seen in other English expatriates. I have always found RP pleasing to the ear, as spoken by the likes of Jeremy Irons, who was the leading character in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and one of our great contemporary English actors. His RP in Brideshead Revisited almost alone remained without affectation. He is heard in the above clip.

I am in a mixed mind about elitism in speech or anything else. Priests are trained to hide their social origins through their speech, dress and generally upper-class manners, at least as it used to be. It was the same with us public school boys. When I began my apprenticeship with a firm of organ builders at 17 years of age, I was working with men speaking Durham Geordie (or similar to true Geordie)  and I was used to speaking RP. Within a few days, they were calling me Lord Charles – I fully understand. Perhaps RP speakers would be encouraged either to cultivate their original accents or a moderate south-eastern accent with a few glottle stops! In the end, what does it matter if we are being ourselves and not a caricature of someone else? Just talk natural! My way of talking is “unaffected” (or as unaffected as I can make it) RP – and I am unashamed.

In my own family, my brother and one of my sisters speak RP with a “Yorkshire tinge” and my other sister has cultivated the accent of my home town. Her husband Julian has a pronounced Westmorland accent, and I admire people who unashamedly speak their language and keep their audible identity. Diversity within a single family indeed! I remain Northern, but I was considerably influenced by the South when I was in my teens and twenties – and it stuck.

Speech and language fascinate me, and it has not been by accident that I have become a “language professional”, teaching English as a foreign language and translation. Listen to our great actors like John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

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12 Responses to Speech and Pronunciation

  1. Michael Frost says:

    Fr. Anthony, I play board games with a gaming group. One of our games is Troyes, where thematically one of the activities we’re competing is to complete the famous cathederal. The pronunciation of the city is driving us nuts. We’ve seen a couple different ways phonetically to do it and even listened to some web sites that purport to pronounce it. But the best we get is that it is either T-r-wa, where the r has some odd trilling like sound, or T-k-wa, where the k is the ch sound like Loch in Scotland. How is this city pronounced? Are there any French regional dialect variants?

    • The French “r” is rolled in the back of the throat. It takes a lot of practice for English-speakers, and even now, I sometimes miss it, do an Italian trilled “r” or the English “ruh”.

      Here’s the Marseilles accent, but you’ll only really appreciate the difference if you speak French reasonably well.

      • James C says:

        Alas, Father, I learned French before I studied Spanish and Italian, and my teacher was most excellent indeed—I do a perfect French “r” from the throat effortlessly, but now I cannot effectively trill it in Spanish/Italian without using my throat! Years of trying have been fruitless.

        As for me, I now speak a general American (and something more subtly Anglo-American when I’m in other countries), but I notice that I switch to my native accent without trying when visiting family in rural NY state.

      • James C. says:

        I’ll add that my native accent is a significant contrast, and certainly not something non-Americans (or even many in other parts of the US) associate with New York! An example:

        When I was studying in Cambridge some years ago, my history instructor had a rather posh RP accent, very refined. Imagine a mixture of Eleanor Roosevelt intonation with Queen Elizabeth II pronunciation. She wore hats all the time too.

        I once asked her where she was from. “Glasgow!” was her reply, in a thick brogue.

      • Och aye, Jimmy. Gimme tha’ bootle o’ beeerrrr!

  2. Stephen K says:

    Father, Michael, you both might be interested, if you are not already aware, of the influence of an Australian, William Tilly on public English pronunciation in the early 20th century, particularly of American English heard in the cinema. Here is a link that gives a brief summary: http://epress.anu.edu.au/tal/mobile_devices/ch06.html . ( If one listens carefully to American films of the 1930s and 40s particularly, and of many of the leading (as opposed to character) actors and actresses, you will hear a remarkable consistency.)

  3. Neil Hailstone says:

    I’m not sure about English speakers across the world being able to understand each other easily. Yesterday I had to converse with a plumber here in New Zealand where I am a visitor from the UK and that was difficult indeed. Thankfully I must say he was an excellent tradesman

    • Do you speak RP or broad Cornish? 🙂

      • Stephen K says:

        The thing about accents, Father, is that they differ principally over the vowels. In other words, it is the vowels that make an accent on the whole. The point I was making about William Tilly is that he identified a kind of “neutral” (for want of a better word) vowel pronunciation that avoided extremes. What you call RP is itself something of a spectrum of formation, but in the main in its middle range is akin to what Tilly conceived of as “world English”. The large part of Australians do not speak the extreme of what is caricatured as “strine” or ‘broad Australian’ but rather what is known as ‘general Australian’ and by and large pronounce vowels not too differently from middle of the range RPs. Where they differ is in the damage they may wreak on consonants, and the tendency at one end to make diphthongs. However, though one would certainly easily distinguish an Australian from a BBC reader, the ‘general Australian’ vowels will not be too different. (The Australian equivalent to BBC RP of the pre-1960s was what was called “cultivated Australian” or “ABC English” because our national broadcaster encouraged the same crisp enunciation.)

        The thing is that people like the Queens and the Royal Family do not really speak anything like true RP. Their vowels are quite mangled in comparison. It’s what you might call, pejoratively, ‘posh’ and RP is not ‘posh’. The beauty of learning about William Tilly and his ‘world English’ is that if you listen carefully to actors like Laurence Olivier or, on the other side of the Atlantic, someone like Robert Young, and concentrate on their vowels and not their consonants, one hears exactly what I am talking about. Though there’s no comparison between the average Australian and Olivier when it comes to the attractiveness of the speech, because Olivier enunciated his consonants so crisply and clearly, nevertheless, there is a greater degree of vowel commonality between the general Australian accent and RP than with the NZ or South African accents. I think Olivier illustrates what I am getting at better than Jeremy Irons, by the way, who speaks his vowels less ‘neutrally”.

        I hope you and readers can get an idea of what I am trying to convey here. I’m not using the technical language because I’m not an expert on phonetics and linguistics. But I am musical and have a good ear for sound and I strongly recommend readers to explore the world of ‘world English’ as you will hear it in British and American films of the 1930s. It will be a revelation!

      • I think a lot more thought needs to be given to RP. Though I have half my roots in Cockneyland (my maternal grandparents were born within the sound of Bow bells – Stratford by Bow), I would hate to be told to speak “Estuary English”. My mother was a true southerner from Surrey and her parents were hard-working folk through the first half of the twentieth century. I never heard her drop an “h” or glottle stop a final consonant. There is a kind of inverted snobbery with the girl whose Youtube clip I showed in this article who wants to make an artificially modified London accent the “new RP”.

        I speak RP myself, my mother being a southerner and my father being public school and son of an Army officer. I came to admire RP as a crystal clear way of speaking our language, but without the affectations and caricatures such as I described, already satirised by men like Evelyn Waugh, born in 1903 and who lived through the between-the-wars period. There seem to be several RP’s: the old affected speech of the upper class and “wannabes” with distorted vowels and diphthongs, the natural speech of most of us who have lost our accents or trained ourselves out of them (I had a chip on my shoulder about being a northerner in my teens) and well educated people with traces of their original local accents. I have nothing against local accents, as long as they are real and natural. Similarly, we should defend the use of naturally spoken RP without caricatures and affectations.

        I must listen to Laurence Olivier more attentively, not the Boys from Brazil, as he imitates a German accent (as an Austrian Nazi-hunter), but some of his other work. Of course “Australian” is fundamentally southern English from the end of the eighteenth century but with developments due to isolation from England. I have to admit that, though I like Jeremy Irons’ speech, it is highly “worked on” through his training as an actor. It is quite “contrived”. I do watch quite a lot of classic films from the 1930’s (first talkies) to the 1950’s, and that is very instructive. There are quite a few phonographs and gramophone records going back much earlier and to the 1890’s and that is also very interesting.

        Here is King George V in 1930, much less affected than one would have imagined: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS8cFkPSjtI
        Winston Churchill in his famous We shall fight them in the trenches speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkTw3_PmKtc
        Charlie Chaplin’s beautiful speech at the end of The Dictator: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcvjoWOwnn4
        Oldest spoken word recordings, in particular Oscar Wilde and G.K.Chesterton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtU7SwMyUqM

        Those were the days!

        I am old enough to recognise how south-eastern English has degraded from my grandmother’s (1884-1971) generation to my gently-spoken mother – to the louts and the pretentious dropping their “h”s and glottle stopping their final consonants all over the place, and calling it something worthy of being a “New RP”. Languages need to be preserved, as I observe also here in France with the use of Franglais and texting on mobile phones. Fortunately for them, they have the Académie Française. We have Oxford University and the Queen, but perhaps something more than that is needed. Language and speech are indeed precious gifts.

      • Stephen K says:

        Father, just one more thing, if I may. The link I referred to first appears to be one of a series and here is the link to another essay, saying interesting things about the history of the general Australian accent and touches a little on its situation vis-a-vis RP:and attitudes towards it: http://epress.anu.edu.au/tal/mobile_devices/ch08.html

  4. Neil Hailstone says:

    Fr Anthony
    More or less RP but with some Cornish getting a look in.

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