More on pronunciation…

Is received pronunciation such a good idea? It is a while since I wrote Speech and Pronunciation and the subject also appeals to John Beeler. That tends to be the way I talk, and I brought many a smile to a supermarket assistant when I visited the US. Our posh talk really tickles them!

On the other hand, I descended from a solid Yorkshire family (I was actually born in Westmorland – don’t talk to me about Cumbria!) and spent many years living in York and being interested in the way we pronounce words. Our little country is one of many accents and different ways of pronouncing words. All that has been influenced by travel and television, and much has been lost.

There is also a question of history. See Original Pronunciation and the Prayer Book which brings in another dimension, that of Shakespeare specialists studying how English was pronounced in the early seventeenth century. The demonstrations they give sound something like a mixture of West Country, Midlands and a smattering of Yorkshire. The West Country extended “R” has continued more in American English than anywhere in modern England. We found it in the Irish brogue. Was English really pronounced like that in those days? How do they know? The justifications they give are quite convincing and plausible. Puns and rhymes “work” in the reconstructed original pronunciation, and not in our Queen’s English.

We English have made close associations between accent and social standing, and that has caused a considerable amount of damage. There are extremes and caricatures of received pronunciation that are quite grotesque! Most of us speak as we were taught by our parents, schoolteachers and friends. The best we can do is to talk naturally and without affectation.

Apply the Shakespeare English work to the language of the Prayer Book. That would be interesting. I have heard those texts read with many regional accents that are spoken in England. I still hear the broad Yorkshire accents of lay readers and non-stipendiary priests to this day in association with certain texts, in contrast with the Vicar or the cathedral canons and their Oxford and Cambridge accents.

It would also be interesting to see how Latin would have been pronounced in the late fifteenth century. I suspect it would be like the way it has been pronounced in France and Germany, but I have never studied the question. We just have to wait and see what linguists come up with…

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6 Responses to More on pronunciation…

  1. I wish that I could find Adrian Fortescue’s leaflet/pamphlet: How to Pronounce Latin. Dr F.Britain’s little book Latin In Church has a good deal about the different ways of pronunciation, but isn’t as funny as Babylon Bruis’d and Mount Moriah Mended, by Britain.

    • I have taken the easy way out and continue to use Italian pronunciation as we had in seminary. It’s not easy to change a way of pronunciation once you’re used to one.

      • Patricius says:

        Well, I was always taught “weni, widi, wiki,” at school. When I first went to a Latin service when I was fifteen – ironically to an Anglo-Catholic service of Benediction! – I was amazed at the Italianate pronunciation of the variable parts of the service. I have made a compromise for my personal use of Latin but I am not sure how tenable or consistent it is. I pronounce v’s as v’s, ae as a long a, c’s as hard c. It gets on my nerves when people put on an over-the-top Italian accent when pronouncing Latin. Why not just say the words as you would with an affected English accent?

        My Irish grandmother had to take elocution lessons precisely because to be heard speaking with a brogue was looked down upon in the Protestant community. My mother and I had nothing of that sort but she was taught never to drop her t’s, as was I. Many of the other children thought me “posh” at school and in adulthood I have more than once been compared with Kenneth Williams.

  2. ed pacht says:

    One thing that has helped teach me of the timelessness of Cranmerian English has been to hear it read from the traditional Prayerbooks in a variety of local pronunciations. I’ve heard it in “Received Pronunciation” by English priests, with a Scottish burr, in broad Bostonian and backcountry Yankee cadences, in the melodious tones of the Deep South, and in the crisp and flat General American accent. I have heard the same words from West Indian and East Indian lips, and with a variety of ‘foreign’ accents — and in all that, the timeless words lose neither their musical elegance nor their content. However, what does grate on my ears is those who feel compelled to read the services with an affected accent that they do not speak naturally.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ed pacht referring to reading with an “accent that they do not speak naturally” makes me think of another aspect of this subject: distinctions of said, chanted, and sung (with sung including meter, notations, tempo) – not something I know much about, theoretically, but it ‘comes into the picture’ practically often enough.

    For example, I’m in choir singing Schubert’s Mass No. 5 at the moment, and sometimes he shows when you should sing the ‘i’ in ‘eleison’ by giving it its own note, but often he does not, and then a decision has to be made when to move from the ‘e’ to the ‘i’.

    And this affects various (possible) diphthongs. For example, I have a recording that attempts a historic English Latin pronunciation in “Adeste fidelis”, which means that the ‘i’ of ‘Venite’ is pronounced like ‘eye’ rather than ‘eee’: but that sort of ‘i’ sound is (so far as I can tell) actually a diphthong, so one must decide when to move from the ‘ah’ part to the ‘eee’ part of the ‘eye’…

    • ed pacht says:

      You raise an interesting thought. Diphthongization of ‘long’ vowels is a characteristic of most dialects of English. What you give as ‘eee’, for instance is not a simple prolongation of a single close vowel like ‘i’ in Italian, for instance, but transitions from a more open to a tighter version of the sound. Likewise the English long ‘o’ transitions from an ‘o’ sound to a ‘u’ sound, and our English long ‘a’ is not equivalent (as is often asserted) to the French ‘e acute’, but transitions to an ‘i’ sound.

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