Just over a year since I defended Meghan Markle‘s speaking style*, the Daily Mail returned to the subject with the latest interview given in his new US home by Prince Harry, in which, along with dropping several ‘truth bombs,’ he was perceived to be modifying his natural accent to sound more American. I once again pointed out that what linguists call ‘accommodation’** or ‘convergence’, the phenomenon whereby participants in a conversation alter their pronunciation and intonation to sound more like their interlocutors, is something quite natural and unsurprising. I have found my own natural rhythms and tones subtly changing when spending time with speakers of Australian or North American English, and the posh-sounding Brit who morphs into a cockney or northerner when the plumber or builder visits is a stock target of mockery on social media. In the case of the royal family, wits remarked long ago that Prince Charles and Princess Diana‘s incompatibility could have been predicted by listening to their differing accents – the former’s clipped, tense, military-sounding while his bride attempted a more muted, classless diction with glottal stops and ‘Estuary English’ vowels.
The Mail’s article, in which they mercifully didn’t distort what I told them (though ‘new wave’ should read New Age), is here…
It is sometimes hard to observe the impartiality required of someone who poses as an expert in one or other field. For me it has been particularly difficult to embrace – or to feign – objectivity in trying to record and analyse the language controversies of the last two years. Tracking the rancorous, divisive language of the campaign for Brexit, the gaslighting and firehosing indulged in by Donald Trump’s media supporters and, more recently still, the mixed messaging, pivoting and bamboozling (to use the kindest words I can think of ) accompanying the UK government’s managing of the pandemic, has sorely tested the fraying, threadbare notion of even-handedness (itself unsurprisingly mocked these days as ‘both-sidesism’ or ‘whataboutery’).
In fact, of course, anyone reading my posts (elsewhere on this site) on the toxic terminology of populism and the ‘coronaspeak’ generated by the virus will quickly see that I have fallen short, on many occasions allowing my impatience and disapproval to show through a veneer of scholarly restraint.
I did not even want to engage with the latest controversy to erupt into the UK’s national conversation. I am, at a considerable distance, not in favour of hereditary monarchies. I try never to read the press reports of the behaviour of royal family members, and, above all, never to be tempted to comment, however flagrant the untruths being traded by politicians or the unfairness of the campaigns mounted by the tabloids or the expressions of envy, spite and malice by ‘royal correspondents’ and the population at large.
In any case, who am I to pronounce on such subjects? An obscure lexicographer and sometime teacher of languages, a very long way down the lines of succession and without a constituency or a following. Nevertheless, among the invariably hostile treatments of some of the younger royals, I could not help noticing some which seem to be based on linguistic discriminations, language-based prejudices and false assumptions about how language works. Thus it was (horrible expression, I apologise) that I agreed to talk to Bridie Pearson-Brown of the Daily Mail about this week’s ‘bombshell interview’ between Oprah Winfrey and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, hoping I admit, not just to offer some objective comments, but perhaps to redress the balance of ‘analysis’ in the poor Duchess’s favour.
Here is the article in question, which appeared halfway down a front page containing several dozen articles focusing on the same celebrity, most of them – no, I think all of them – overtly or implicitly hostile.
This wasn’t in fact the first time I had commented on Meghan Markle’s way of speaking. Last time, too, I tried to counter the xenophobic assumptions and the ‘misogynoir’ sneering, the framing of her coming to terms with her changing linguistic surroundings as something insincere or evidence of bad faith. That article, from May 2020, is here. Its precepts still stand…although predictably Prince Harry was yesterday accused of ‘sounding American’ (the expert ‘analysis’ of his intonation and word-choices was wrong: he simply softened a couple of British consonants in accommodating Oprah)…
Why Meghan sounds American again: Linguistic expert reveals Duchess of Sussex has her native accent back as she’s no longer displaying ‘linguistic accommodation’
By Bridie Pearson-Jones for MailOnline
Meghan Markle’s accent has returned to her natural Californian as she is ‘relaxed’ and is no longer displaying ‘linguistic accommodation’, an expert revealed.
Speaking to Femail, Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College, London explained: ‘There’s a thing called linguistic accommodation where you change the way you talk to fit in with the people around you.
‘This is very very common even within the UK, if you’re speaking to a Geordie, someone from Liverpool or an Australian you begin to very slightly change your accent to become closer to them.’
During Meghan’s time in the UK, fans noted that her accent appeared to becoming more British as she spent more time in the country.
Viewers said Meghan Markle sounded British in a 2018 ITV documentary, Queen of Her World, where she appeared to reunite with her wedding dress
Tony continued: ‘For most people if they’re authentic and sincere they will keep their basic accent with slight changes. I’ve seen friends from London move to Newcastle – and you’ll start to hear bits of comments of the local accent.
‘It might take a normal person six months or a year for their accent to change, but when you’re a celebrity and have to be on show and are super self-conscious about image it will happen faster. I don’t think its surprising that it would be a more conscious choice for someone like Meghan, as she’s tries to project herself in a way that will fit in with environment.’
Tony, who knew Princess Diana ‘slightly’, added that he doesn’t imagine Prince Harry’s accent will become American despite the move to California – but the current generation of royals have eased their accents to sound more like a common Brit.
‘The British ruling classes are very attached, so I can’t imagine Meghan’s husband sounding American,’ he said. That said, since Princess Diana joined the family, the royals have modified their natural accent to sound less posh.
‘I was very conscious when she changed her accent, then William and Harry did too. They use the ‘non-posh’ glottal stop – so they pronounce words like ‘bottle’ as ‘bot-al’ to sounds less like the extreme British upper class. This is why the young royals sound very different to the Queen or Prince Philip.
‘Now Meghan is back in California, she’s reverting to her natural accent. It maybe not the same as her parents or what she had as a young girl – but it’s a glamorous, educated, prestigious Californian accent which is, much more relaxed than a British accent or even an American east coast accent.
‘Nobody can tell if she’s made a conscious decision to change her voice, but she’s very bright and aware and under intense scrutiny so I think it would be understandable if she did.’