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.