Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Accents: Received Pronunciation old and new

A young upper-class man (?) and Prince William for you to compare.
HRH the Duke of Cambridge weighs in on Ebola. (He's against it.) Incredibly, some American idiots in the comments are complaining about the fact that he has a "British accent."
Of course, they're brainless. As well, there's nothing more obnoxious than when Americans use that term "British accent". Funny how they call Ireland's accent "Irish", and Scotland's accent "Scottish", but England? They're the "British accent".
Of course there are different Irish (the north sounds different from the south: Gerry Adams vs. Barry Fitzgerald) and Scottish accents too. A Welsh accent is like a New Jersey accent in that I know it when I hear it but can't imitate it.
I confess that I'm no expert in accents myself, and recently made the mistake of assuming that an Australian guest conductor was British. (To be fair to myself, he admitted that he has lived in Europe for some time and watches a lot of British TV.) But at least I don't have a problem understanding Prince William!
As a representative of the British and dominions' head of state, Prince William is politely expressing concern. (I don't believe the authorities for a minute that we're safe. Raise our drawbridge and seal off Liberia.) He has a pleasant speaking voice but it's more downmarket than the clipped, extreme RP of his father and grandmother ("Who is Jupiter?" = "Hoo izz Joopitah?"); compared to them he sounds generally middle-class southeastern, fashionable in England.

I like the cut-glass accents myself, a favorite being Beatles producer George Martin's imitation 1940s BBC RP overlaid on his "cor blimey" London accent. (He took elocution lessons as a young man.) Not exaggerated like the young man in the clip above.

My late rector sounded like a tenor version of him; similar background.

And I love good mid-Atlantic, as in William F. Buckley Jr. and George Plimpton. I can tell now those accents are not English but couldn't as a kid.

Even though I had the honor of living in the motherland (I sound a smidge mid-Atlanticky; the English taught me some of it, such as the yod: new is nyoo, not noo), I admit I'm no Henry Higgins with its accents. As a kid I had trouble telling Australian from English accents but they are in the same family (because Australia was settled much later than America), plus with Cultivated Australian, which is trying to sound English, it's hard to tell. I can tell northern from southern England and "upstairs" from "downstairs" class accents, the difference between the Queen's and Michael Caine's accents, for example. There's "oop north," with now world-famous Liverpudlian being unique because it's part Irish, then the south pretty much sounds alike to me, and then there are the shades of Home Counties/BBC/RP, the Queen's and Prince Philip's speech being the most extreme now. Nobody younger than Prince Charles still talks like that. The Queen has unconsciously, slightly dialed it down over the decades, as linguists have pointed out.

Then there's the famous, originally fake accent of Loyd Grossman, an American-born TV star in Britain; bad fake RP on top of a slight natural Massachusetts accent (yes, some of those vowels are real). Oh, well. Anybody who makes spaghetti sauce and does charitable work (the man is a good adopted citizen: making nice food for hospital patients and saving old churches*; my guess is he's not Christian) gets a pass.

When I was a young boy the Queen sounded very up-market.
The pinnacle of upmarket, a kind of RP only the royals at the time spoke. "Hice" for "house," etc. The Queen used to give her corgis a "pet" on the "hid"; now it's a "pat" on the "head," more natural.
There remains some of the die-hard upper classes around. Fortunately. This chap's family still have estates in Ireland! Most impressed.
The "Young UKIP Supporter" video says it's not a parody but I'm not so sure. Isn't the British upper class usually sort of socially liberal (how they try to do noblesse oblige, social responsibility: Lord Mountbatten calling himself a socialist, for example) while culturally conservative? And they're Protestants and probably Masons; anti-Catholic in that creepy historically aware way. I thought the UKIP was more of a populist party (sort of like our Tea Party conservative movement) not having upper-class support. But you never know.

I understand the uncrowned king, Edward VIII (David, Prince of Wales; the Duke of Windsor) didn't speak "proper" RP, maybe as an affectation (inverted snobbery), even sounding mid-Atlanticky American as a laid-back, fun guy.

*Can we have them back?


  1. D'you live in a hice in the tine, or a hice in the count-treh?

  2. I'm on a train from London to Cambridge at the moment. Fortunately the recorded train voices remain quite proper RP!

    Re: UKIP supporters. This week the Guardian was sneering that troglodyte Ukippers are less affluent and less educated than PC progressives. That is the common view in London and similar bubbles.

    I like Loyd Grossman sauces, despite the peculiar missing L in his name! They're very good, and I get them when they're on offer at Tesco or the Co-Op (jars normally go for about £2). Like Bill Bryson, he has contributed to the preservation of his adopted country's heritage.

    I enjoy the Prince of Wales's speech. He even sounds quite good doing the weather: http://youtu.be/54FKp4Ib4Kk

    1. I remember Tesco (everybody calls it Tesco's but it's not). I should read Bill Bryson; I understand he's written a nice autobiography, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, positive about growing up in Des Moines in the '50s. He has a genuine blended accent; he swears he's not faking it and I believe him.

      Gillian Anderson's an interesting one, besides being thermonuclear hot. Born in Chicago, she grew up in London and I think lives there, so when she's on British TV she sounds just like a Londoner who lived in America for a long time; the accent sounds real with a few American pronunciations. But when she's here, she sounds like Dana Scully; American. She says she doesn't do it consciously. Fake?

  3. No, read 'A Walk in the Woods' by Bill Bryson and then his other books. It's his best though I've read all of them and enjoyed them. A good break from reading religion or politics. I wouldn't agree with Bryson on either of those but he's funny and perceptive.

    1. Bryson's Britain travel book, "Notes from a Small Island", is also uproariously funny.

  4. You Americans just love our accents. My father is a Yorkshireman, but speaks an unaffected RP learned through public school. My mother spoke a soft southern accent (brought up in Surrey) and her mother spoke broad Cockney (and was a true one, born in Stratford-by-Bow, East End of London). For a time, I assimilated Estuary English when I lived in London, but I speak more like my father these days - plain RP. Isolation from England has probably influenced my speech in English in other ways. I remain of northern origins and I tend to adapt to some extent. Here is an old article I wrote on speech and pronunciation - https://sarumuse.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/speech-and-pronunciation/

    1. We sure do! Reminds me of stars like Rex Harrison and Peter Noone (Herman's Hermits; kind of a mixed accent of two regions: Mancunian meets stage Cockney?), not big at home but becoming famous in America simply because they were good at sounding English.

      Reminds me: amazing how young English stars such as Kate Winslet can imitate us perfectly (she can turn an American accent on and off like a switch) but it's very hard for Americans to convincingly fake English accents (witness Loyd Grossman). Young English people have heard our TV and movies all their lives so they're at least bi-dialectal, linguistic chameleons, more if they fake the Jamaican accent that's now fashionable (along with Estuary or Mockney: glo'al stops, mate), like American white kids trying to sound like American blacks (which they've been doing in various forms for decades, trying to show they're hip). So the admiration is sometimes mutual.

      Hugh Laurie of "House" (a hit TV show here) sounded perfectly American (some people didn't know he's English); it's surprising to read or hear him explain he struggled with the accent the whole time.

      Yorkshire dialect is so hard for me to understand that like with Scots you can argue it's a separate language, like Sicilian is to Italian, Portuguese to Spanish, Afrikaans to Dutch, or Ukrainian to Russian. Related with mutual intelligibility but different enough.

      I had trouble understanding the first broad Cockney speaker I met. "EastEnders" squared. I read that this talk is being replaced in the East End with that Jamaican sound, either real or fake. What of rhyming slang (criminal cant to confuse the cops)? I understand it's still alive. (American = septic; septic tank -> Yank.)

    2. If you have problems wi't' Yorkshire accent, hey up, lad - get down 't' pub for a pint! Eeh bah gum! - try Geordie from up Newcastle and Durham. Why aye, hinny, wah yer gannen yam! Wha, gan canny! I don't guarantee the spelling but that's what it sounds like.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_708KvQAY_s - Warning, some f*** words.

    3. Been to Durham. Thanks for the Geordie clip. It's English but requires careful listening. I admit I don't understand half of what you wrote but that's rather the point.

    4. A family from Lancashire go on holiday to Benidorm and order some food. The father thinking his pie is lacking in gravy calls the waiter over saying " 'ast tha Bisto fort pah?' and the waiter says in a southern English accent, "I'm sorry, mate, I don't speak Spanish."

  5. The young UKIP man sounds and acts very unnatural. There are inconsistencies, and we would probably find his natural accent is Estuary English! He seems a but of a jerk to me. Even his reasoning seems to lack fluency. Despite the video claiming not to be a parody, it seems like one to me.

    1. I agree. Probably some liberals putting us on.

  6. I think we Yanks are fascinated by class. Here's an amusing clip from the 1938 film "Holiday", depicting a world that is long gone. Two cousins in a Mid-Atlantic blue blood family are sneering about the prospect of a NY working class slob marrying into the family. The slob, of course, is played by former Bristol street urchin Cary Grant---who developed such a patrician image among Americans. Grant, like any old Edwardian street entertainer, knew how to play the part.

    Kate Hepburn is also in the film. I've always found it funny that she never changed her accent when playing British characters, and nobody noticed.


    1. Cary Grant ended up with a very slight English accent; it ended up sounding mid-Atlantic cool, American to Brits and British to Americans.

      Kate Hepburn spoke old Connecticut Yankee, which she grew up with 100 years ago. Like John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and a few others, she never tried to or couldn't change her screen accent. Guess it was close enough to English accents (the non-rhotic, etc. southeastern English settled New England so there's a family resemblance) that it passed with American viewers.

  7. Indeed. I remember doing a school project on famous British actresses when I was a kid---I included Hepburn!


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