MOCKNEY, ESTUARY – AND THE QUEEN’S ENGLISH

In the last two days we have been treated to several (sadly superficial and unoriginal) press articles* revealing the efforts of posh persons to disguise their accents. The assuming of so-called mockney or Estuary English, and the seeming decline of so-called R.P is nothing new, and I wrote about it back in 2013…

 

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TEN WAYS WE DISPARAGE THE ACCENTS OF OTHERS…

 

* A nasal twang

* A thick brogue

* A supercilious drawl

* An incoherent babble

* A boring non-accent

* A provincial burr

* A Home Counties whine

* …what comes out is a kind of screeching

* Your phoney telephone voice!

* ‘…this fake ghetto-speak that seems to have swept across the country where rather than saying ‘like’ it’s ‘lac’, and ‘nine’ is pronounced ‘naan’. D’y’a know what I mean? Drives me so crazy I can’t listen to Radio 1 any more.’

 

The Greater London twang from a public school boy, the refined little ‘haitch’ from a Hyacinth Bouquet, the mysterious vowels of someone pretending not to be from Birmingham: these are all friendly little signs saying: I’m no threat to you, honestly; given half a chance I’d erase my entire self and start again.’

In 1966 Michael Aspel was carpeted by the BBC for selling records of elocution lessons featuring his voice and that of Jean Metcalfe, the ads for which implied, the corporation said, that broadcasting required a posh voice. For virtually the whole of the 20th century, and some would say still today, the English (and not the Scottish, Welsh and Irish) have been defined above all other markers (dress doesn’t count any more, the school they attended may remain a secret) by their accents. And not by simple regional variance as in other European cultures, but by nuances associated with social class. It was Alan Ross of Birmingham University who in 1954 coined the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ (later popularised by the writer Nancy Mitford) to differentiate the behaviour of the upper classes and the masses. Ross believed, though, that by the mid–fifties the upper class was truly distinguished ‘solely by its language’; its vocabulary and especially its intonation. It occurred to me that by this measure, looking at the rough statistics for public school and Oxbridge attendance, in the 1950s and 1960s, at least 94% of the population were speaking with the ‘wrong’ accents. Alone at the top of the linguistic hierarchy was what linguists rather unhelpfully termed ‘RP’ for ‘received pronunciation’, the non-regional high-status accent acquired from family or from one’s place of education and actively promoted by the BBC in particular. Some way below in terms of perceived respectability were the more neutral forms of south-eastern English and Morningside Scots (the lilting educated Edinburgh accent). Clustered at the bottom of the imaginary pyramid were all the regional accents of the UK, with surveys showing that some – Norfolk, Birmingham, Glasgow, Tyneside, for example – were perceived more negatively than others by the general population.

 

The late Malcolm Bradbury, novelist and critic, writing back in September 1994, asked rhetorically, ‘Is there today a standard English? Estuary English, sometimes called Milton Keynes English, seems to be bidding for the position.’ He was referring of course only to the English of England, not the multiple dialects and accents of the wider anglosphere. He went on to characterise this apparent novelty: ‘It seems to have been learnt in the back of London taxis, or from alternative comedians…it’s southern, urban, glottal, easygoing, offhand, vernacular…apparently classless, or at any rate a language for talking easily across classes.’ Interviewed in 2001 Shirley Jones, a 22 year-old student from Stockport affirmed, ‘Estuary English is nice to the ear…it’s 50/50 cockney and young southern professional… I prefer it to the northern accent but I resent it because of the stigma of not speaking it.’ The idea of a replacement ‘standard’ accent actually emerged in 1984 and was promoted by David Rosewarne of the University of Surrey (who chose the term since the accent he had identified straddled the Thames), later by Paul Kerswill and by the Linguistics and Phonetics department at UCL under the panjandrum of phonology Professor John Wells.

 

Estuary is only the most recent attempt to describe an accent, or rather a spectrum of similar accents, that have been heard across the Greater London area and in Essex, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex for a century or so. It has been linked to the exodus of true Cockneys from the East End since World War II, but my own grandmother, a teacher who lived in Woolwich in Southeast London, could distinguish precisely the regional nuances in a pre-war London-wide ‘lower-class’ accent. Something like what is now called Estuary was characterised by my father back in the early 1970s variously as the ‘home counties whine’, the ‘southern drawl’ and the ‘polytechnic accent’; sometimes simply as ‘adenoidal English’, as exemplified by David Frost when presenting TV satire programmes in the early 1960s. Before that ‘breakthrough’, broadcasting had permitted only RP (or the RADA English of trained actors) or the so-called mid-Atlantic accent of game-show hosts like Hughie Green. Certainly the broadcast media reversed its prejudices during the 1980s and 90s, actively welcoming regional and ‘ethnic’ accents as well as the deliberately classless ‘DJ-speak’ which had been evolving on commercial radio since its beginnings. It is now getting frustratingly hard even to find illustrative examples of RP on the airwaves.

Strictly speaking Estuary shouldn’t be confused with ‘mockney’ (mock-cockney) although it often is. The latter is the exaggerated or feigned working class London accent, typically employing glottal stops and ‘f’ in place of ‘th’, as used by violinist Nigel Kennedy, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and, in earlier times and with a camp inflection, by 60s icons Mick Jagger and David Bailey. ‘Mummerset’, the attempt, often by naturally posh-talking actors, at a non-specific West Country burr (made famous by the radio soap The Archers and parodied on the comedy radio shows Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne by the characters Arthur Fallowfield and Rambling Sid Rumpo), is very rarely encountered these days. It may also be significant that regional accents like Brummie, Geordie and Scouse haven’t been re-labelled in recent years. This isn’t to say that they haven’t evolved or been modified by contact with other styles of speaking. Linguists have demonstrated what they call ‘levelling’ of dialects and accents, whereby regional forms lose their most pronounced (sorry) features and incorporate elements from other sources. One phenomenon I have noticed, but which has not been commented upon in any depth is a tendency by younger speakers in most parts of the country towards an imitation of childish or ‘lazy’ pronunciations of individual sounds – again, ‘f’ or ‘v’ for ‘th’, ‘w’ for ‘r’ and glottal stops wherever possible, and of more rhythmic, drawled intonations probably unconsciously influenced by Australian and American speech patterns…

…Prestige comes from the places in which a particular form of speech is practised: the court, the universities, the capital city, the broadcasting authority. (BBC insiders used to tell each other that their ‘BBC English’ was superior because clear and simple, not because they were trusted opinion-formers: we may think otherwise). In a local setting the prestige pronunciation of family names is the one, however unexpected, favoured by the family itself; of place names it used to be that of the surveyor or the squire but now is that of a majority of local people. In the urban playground it isn’t the teacher’s English that is prestigious, but cool ‘yoof-speak’ – that multiethnic vernacular again.

So when horny-handed Uncle Gerald disses his niece’s ‘fancy’ pronunciation, or a Head Teacher despairs at her pupils’ ‘impenetrable dialect’, their criticisms could be idiosyncratic – a simple personal preference – or could stem from social prejudice, either regional or class-based. What they can’t possibly be is a reasoned, objective assessment of a cluster of English phonemes. It’s actually more complicated: Uncle Gerald doesn’t seem to have picked up on the fact that ‘posh-ish’, a modest, moderate form of the old RP seems to have made something of a comeback, thanks perhaps to the makeup of David Cameron’s government. At the same time, if that Head Teacher wants to get on the radio, or just hopes to do some paid podcasting for educational purposes, she would be well advised to play up any regional or ethnic inflections in her voice, any cues that will key into the diversity of the audience at large. (I’m still smarting myself at being turned down for the job of presenting a radio series on changing language on the grounds, according to the producer, that my voice ‘wasn’t working class or ethnic enough.’). These are the currents and cross-currents in the national conversation that reflect – or dictate – our reactions to the sounds we hear…

…If there is no scientific reason why one set of sounds is superior to another, why do both individual sounds and wider accents change over time, and why do those hurtful, discriminatory assumptions about them keep on coming? When the author Robert Graves returned to Oxford in October 1961 to take up the Professorship of Poetry, The Times reported him as saying, ‘Only the ordinary accent of the undergraduate has changed. In my day you very seldom heard anything but Oxford English; now there is a lot of North Country and so on. In 1920 it was prophesied that the Oxford accent would overcome all others. But the regional speech proved stronger. A good thing.’

“I speak Black Country. I speak History.”

– Dave, from Halesowen

In a 2012 survey British listeners said they found the dialect of the city of Birmingham, England to be ‘boring’, ‘wrong’, ‘irritating’, ‘grating’, ‘nasal’, and ‘whingey’; very interestingly, non-native listeners found it ‘nice’, ‘melodic’, ‘lilting’ and ‘musical’. Prejudice pops up even when the sounds in question sound exactly the same to outsiders. Black Countryman Steve, recorded for the BBC ‘Voices’ survey, opined:

The Birmingkham accent I don’t like. In the Midlands you’ve go’ the Black Coontray an’ Birmingkham an’ there’s a massive divoide there, bikos people in Birmingkham theyr’e called ‘Brummies’ or ‘0121-ers’ [from the phone prefix] an’ they ten’ not to mix too mooch wi’ the Black Coontray people, boot the Black Coontray – what you’ll foind is they’re the salt of the earth, they’re really noice people.’

The Black Country way of speaking is a marvellous example of the fact that regional English dialects – and American English, too, for that matter – have as much if not more claim to be the authentic voices of an English heritage, and not the Standard English of the southern educated classes, an essentially artificial variety with only a short history. The dialect of the Black Country area remains perhaps one of the last examples of early English still spoken today. The word endings with ‘en’ are still noticeable in conversation as in ‘gooen’ (going), ‘callen’ (calling) and the vowel ‘a’ is pronounced as ‘o’ as in sond (sand), ‘hond’ (hand) and ‘mon’ (man). Other pronunciations are ‘winder’ for window, ‘fer’ for far, and ‘loff’ for laugh – exactly as Chaucer’s English was spoken. Other features still detectable today resemble closely Shakespeare’s iconic version of our language in its Early Modern or Elizabethan incarnation.

 

THE TEN BEST-LIKED BRITISH ACCENTS

According to a 2013 survey by Roxy Palace online casino

1. Irish – 28 per cent
2. West Country – 19 per cent
3. Geordie – 17 per cent
4. Mancunian – 11 per cent
5. Glaswegian – 8 per cent
6. Scouse – 6 per cent
7. Yorkshire – 5 per cent
8. Welsh – 3 per cent
9. Brummie – 2 per cent
10. Essex – 1 per cent

(Do you think the order here would have been the same thirty years ago, and can you see what’s missing?*)

 

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* It’s RP, or Standard English!

To many people’s surprise long-lost recordings unearthed in 2010 revealed that Queen Victoria had an unmistakeably German accent. A century later Lady Diana and Prince Charles were always going to be incompatible, some said, since they spoke in different ways: his accent a clenched military/nursery style from long ago; hers, a plaintive attempt at classlessness. Surely, though, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s English is an icon of steadfastness, a model to aspire to? For most people nothing is more respectable than ‘the Queen’s English’. But according to Dame Helen Mirren even Her Majesty has, unconsciously or perhaps deliberately, let her accent slide. Speaking in 2012 the actress, who was reprising her Oscar winning role as the monarch, said that Her Majesty’s words have become more ‘estuary’ as she has got older. ‘Her voice has changed, and I can use that – she had a terribly posh voice when she was young,’ Dame Helen said. ‘But now even the Queen, while she isn’t quite dropping the ends of her lines – though her grandsons do! There’s a tiny bit of estuary creeping in there’.

This was not the first time that the Queen has been accused of dropping her vocal standards. A millennial study of the Queen’s Christmas Day broadcasts showed that her accent had gone from ‘clipped’ in the 1940s to one more in common with a BBC Radio 4 announcer by 2000. In 2006 another study claimed that she had gone from ‘cut glass URP’ (Upper Received Pronunciation) towards the more democratic Standard Received Pronunciation and its close relative, Standard Southern British English. Now listen to a 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth make her first radio address to the children of the Commonwealth on October 13 1940. Then Listen to the Queen’s ‘thank you’ message to the nation after the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June marking her 60 years on the throne.

Ten per cent of the population would apparently hesitate to employ her son Charles, because his voice is too ‘posh’, if a survey published in 2012 is to be believed. The Prince of Wales is unlikely to be losing sleep over this revelation, but his is an affliction that the rest of the family has quietly been working on. In the survey about employable voices, people disliked accents that were too ‘plummy’, but the Royal Family’s has never been plummy. Nor does it resemble the once dominant ‘lah-di-dah’ tones of the County Set or the snooty Oxbridge drawl. If the Queen has moderated her accent, it remains distinctly that of a remote elite. Her grandchildren William and Harry, in contrast, have moved towards the standard speech of their friends from school and Army. They sometimes come close to a new way of speaking adopted by the privileged younger generation known as ‘yatties’ or ‘ok-yahs’ which mixes glottal stops with a rising inflection (interspersed with gushing squeals, mainly though not exclusively by the females).

As Daily Telegraph pundit Christopher Howse noted, the current Cabinet is, of course, equally expensively educated and equally petrified of being taken for toffs. ‘The Conservatives have bought up a job lot of glottal stops that New Labour had stockpiled for deployment within 45 minutes of being summoned to the television studio. It is just as silly for David Cameron and George Osborne to prune their consonants’, he observes, ‘like mangled old yews around their country houses, as it was for Edinburgh-born Tony Blair, educated at Fettes, the Eton of North Britain to affect a classless mateyness.’

It may not actually be class prejudice that explains the reluctance by a quarter of the 300 ‘bosses’ polled in 2012 to give a job to football legend David Beckham. In the case of Beckham’s voice it’s more probably his unique nasal tones rather than his Chingford accent that are rather off-putting. Nor is it her Dagenham origins that undermine the employment prospects of reality TV star Stacey Solomon, whom 46 per cent of bosses could not picture as an executive. In her case, it’s what she says, not the way she says it. ‘I’m like, ‘Oh fanks, Mum!’’ she suddenly exclaims, the next minute yelling: ‘I don’t even like coffee. I fink it stinks!’ The Vicky Pollard delivery can be done in any number of different voices, but none would inspire business confidence.

And anyway, do the speech patterns of successful businessmen impress the rest of us? The bosses in the survey approved, for example, of the accent of Peter Jones from the TV series Dragon’s Den. But Jones and his ilk haven’t really got accents. That’s the point. When he gives his Golden Rules for Success the Dragon sounds, not like the meritocratic version of classless that my father could produce, but neutered, like a recorded safety message on an airliner: ‘Place the lifejacket over your head and secure the tapes at each side.’

 

* Those articles are here:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-6642231/CRAIG-BROWN-reveals-dumbing-posh-accents-going-years.html

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/us-posh-boys-partial-bit-mockney-never-bar-st-jamess-club/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_tw

SOUNDS, SENSITIVITIES – and CELLAR DOORS

Another extract from a work in progress, or, if that project comes to nothing, a fragment from a series of jottings (see elsewhere on this blog for others): either way, I keep returning to my fascination with the symbolic, psychological, psychic effects of  the sounds of words…

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The traditional view of words and names is that, apart from those words that directly imitate natural noises, there is only an arbitrary link between sound and meaning. But a few psychologists and neuroscientists have claimed to find evidence that phonemes (the human speech sounds that constitute words) have an inherent, non-arbitrary emotional quality*. Their data suggests that the effect on feelings of certain phoneme combinations (nonsense examples they worked with included bupaba, which was received positively and dugada which was negatively perceived) depends on a specific acoustic feature which can be measured, namely, the dynamic shifts within the phonemes’ frequency.

At Laurentian University in Canada researchers examined the links between proper names and hearer’s emotions: The ten most popular boys’ and girls’ names for most years of the 20th century were studied in terms of the emotional associations of their sounds and their pronounceability. A set of historical and socioeconomic variables, namely, war, depression, the advent of the birth control pill, inflation, and year seemed to correspond with the scores that members of the public gave for name length, emotionality, and pronounceability.

At a more human level UK national treasure Stephen Fry tells us his favourite word is ‘moist’. He’s being arch and gently provocative as usual, but says that he just likes the sound of it. I have said that I find the sound of the word ‘mellifluous’ pleasant, but friends have told me they hear in it prissiness and fussiness. My own fondness for ‘buoyancy’, too has been a cause of bemusement for some.

Whether we are talking about ‘pure’ sounds that imitate the noises of nature like ‘plop’,  ‘buzz’ and ‘hum’ or the clusters of phonemes that form single words, or the longer more varied sequences of conversational noise, these acoustic disturbances are not just conveyors of information but can act as triggers provoking an emotional response in the hearer. How they do this depends on the associations they have for us and these may be intensely personal, may be social and cultural and may in many cases depend entirely on which language we are hearing and thinking in.

Hearing the slang word ‘chillax’ for the first time (it has now become fairly well-known, even embarrassingly part of the linguistic repertoire of a former PM) would probably have a different effect on a teenager, who might have recognised the blending of ‘chill out’ and ‘relax’ from a grandparent more likely to hear ‘chilly’ and ‘axe.’

The fact that our reaction to the sound of words is culturally conditioned and not simply ‘natural’ can be proved by asking people to listen to and comment on words that they aren’t familiar with; invented words or terms from an unknown language. The words sranje, mierda, hovno and mist don’t seem to upset English speakers who are exposed to them for the first time. They are all synonyms of English sh**t in not too distant languages: Slovene, Spanish, Czech and Danish respectively. An old friend from France used to complain that her word for dog, chien, sounded nothing like any of the animals of that species, whereas the English word, she thought, suited exactly.

When we move from words to longer examples of intonation, rhythm and pitch, it can be a mixture of supposed familiarity – we recognise the same sounds from a different context such as baby-talk or comic exaggeration – and unfamiliarity – we don’t know what it means –that leads us to find the sound of the Dutch language funny for example.

Where other accents – the regional British variants among them – are concerned, studies have found that people react positively or negatively first according to how closely the accent resembles their own and secondly to its associations, usually which prominent figures (typically actors, newsreaders, footballers) employ it and in which contexts it has been encountered (so a Northern Irish accent, once evoking the language of the Troubles is now, like the Scottish Connery lilt, linked to actors who charm and don’t threaten.)

Asked in 2008 to nominate his favourite word, then mayoral candidate and Tory MP Boris Johnson selected ‘carminative’, teasing both in its obscurity and in that the word formed from these four sonorous syllables denotes a cure for flatulence. Three quite different, and differently resonant, syllables were chosen by French artist Loris Gréaud as the title of his solo exhibition at London’s ICA, part of a large-scale experimental multi-media project dealing in the interplay between rumour and fact, in hidden meanings and in transitions and interruptions. It’s no coincidence that the London installation and the project itself go by the name of CELLAR DOOR. The coming together – not for the first time – of these two unremarkable English words is part of a curious sequence of borrowings and allusions, a sort of underground tradition or urban legend that Gréaud is just the latest to tap into.

It was J R R Tolkien in 1955 who first suggested that ‘cellar door’ was one of the most beautiful, if not the most affecting combination of sounds in the English language. He described the phrase on two occasions as being intrinsically inspiring, and since then a series of writers have used Tolkien’s cue to fabricate a quite spurious history of references to cellar door, according to which an American opinion poll, the author H.L.Mencken and various Chinese and Japanese visitors have all, apparently independently, pronounced it the most beautiful sound in English. The cult movie Donnie Darko popularised the idea for a pop culture audience, asserting that of all the endless combination of words in all of history, this was the most beautiful. The film script attributed the claim to ‘a famous linguist’, but the director Richard Kelly in subsequent interviews namechecked, quite wrongly, Edgar Allan Poe.

We can’t be sure of the personal and cultural associations, conscious or unconscious, that led Tolkien to favour this particular collection of phonemes, apart from ‘the door of the cellar’ there are no sound-alikes in English other than, and of course this might be significant, celadon, a colour which is apparently a sort of pale willowy green (and is named, curiously, after the shepherd hero of a 17th century French romance) and celandine, the French-sounding name of two different species of flower. It seems to be a prerequisite that cellar door is pronounced in a donnish British RP accent rather than in a provincial burr or North American twang; although for me, and perhaps for Tolkien, too, a Welsh lilt might help reinforce its quasi-mythic pretensions.

Celador isn’t Welsh but is a real word in Spanish: pronounced with initial ‘th’ in Castilian Spanish, with ‘ts’ in the Americas historically it means ‘guardian of the bedchamber’, nowadays more prosaically it denotes a hospital orderly, a classroom supervisor or sometimes a prison guard. Spanish and Latin American friends tell me that for them the sound of the word is as humdrum as its modern meaning: it has no special resonance for them.

Although one explanation of the origins of language, known as the bow-wow theory, holds that all words started out as imitations of sounds found in nature, it’s clear that by now, apart from the obviously onomatopoeic like splash and plash and smash, sound and sense have become quite disconnected. The word voted the most beautiful in a British Council survey in 2004 was ‘mother’, for most of us redolent of tenderness, but downbeat and abrupt in terms of its component sounds. Conversely and perversely James Joyce had earlier proposed ‘cuspidor’, a nice noise, but a nasty receptacle.

The notion, though, that the sounds of a word might evoke certain feelings in the hearer, quite independently of its literal meaning, is a commonsense one, and linguists know the phenomenon variously as phonaesthetics, psychoacoustics or sound symbolism. But these emotional or aesthetic effects are not consistent and vary quite unpredictably across cultures and even among speakers who share a common language. ‘Mist’ which seems pleasant on the ear, means ‘crap’ in other Northern European languages. Stephen Fry may like the word ‘moist’, but it ranks high in lists of people’s unfavourites (‘phlegm’ and ‘panties’ even higher) and a teenager told me the other day that it’s now the most horribly offensive thing you can say in London street slang.

Playing of course on its literal sense, but helped by its new status as a linguistic talisman ‘cellar door’ has been used as the name of a host of wine merchants, wine bars and wine magazines and of a slasher movie, too.  A café in Guernsey, a London cabaret venue, a Jazz band, an Indie band, a metal band, a literary magazine have all adopted the title: spelled as in Spanish it’s the name of a well-known TV production company: a novel printing typeface, Kellermeister, turns out to be inspired by it, and dozens of Internet blogs contrive to work the phrase in somewhere in their mashups.

Why is it that there seems to be this need for a mantra, a magic set of sounds that can be constantly reinvoked? Is it those phonemes: that front vowel, sibilant and lateral, along with the allusion to something always hidden just beyond our field of vision that combine to give cellar door its unique charm? Whatever lies behind it (pun intended), and however impressive Gréaud’s work actually is, I’m afraid that I’m quite immune to the two words in question: for me ‘seller’ only evokes the housing crisis at the time of writing, and door rhymes with ‘sore’, and ‘poor’ – and most tellingly of all – with ‘bore’.

 

* I have not yet had time to digest this very interesting paper from July 2017, but here is the link…

https://peerj.com/articles/3466/

 

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PRONOUNCING (ON) PEDANTRY

John Walker (1732-1807) did for pronunciation what Dr Johnson had done for vocabulary. He published the ‘idea’ for his pronouncing dictionary as early as 1774, along with an unusual advertisement asking ‘a few men of reflexion’ to communicate to him ‘whatever may have occurred to them.’ The book finally appeared in 1791 with the resounding title:

A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language: to which are prefixed Principles of English Pronunciation: rules to be Observed by the Natives of Scotland, Ireland and London, for Avoiding their Respective Peculiarities; and Directions to Foreigners for Acquiring a Knowledge of the Use of this Dictionary.

Walker was strongly prescriptive. The accent of cultured London, he told his readers, is ‘undoubtedly the best.’ Everyone else is mispronouncing the English language, especially those who are ‘at a considerable distance from the capital’, meaning the Scots and Irish. London Cockney, however, is ‘a thousand times more offensive and disgusting’ than those provincial varieties. ‘Elocution Walker’ became a household name in Britain and in North America, and his book went through more than a hundred editions. It provided the public, hungry for prescriptions to guarantee the social safety of their language, with an immovable authority, and helped to create a new climate of ‘linguistic correctness’ out of which emerged the elite forms of speech that came to dominate the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

‘Pronunciation…is a sort of proof that a person has kept good company, and on that account is sought after by all, who wish to be considered as fashionable people or members of the beau monde…All other dialects are sure marks, either of a provincial, rustic, pedantic or mechanic education; and therefore have some degree of disgrace annexed to them.’ Thomas Sheridan (1719 – 1788)

This sometime actor and teacher of elocution (father of the dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan) wrote the extraordinarily verbose (and that’s just the title) British Education: Or, The source of the Disorders of Great Britain. Being an Essay towards proving, that the Immorality, Ignorance, and false Taste, which so generally prevail, are the natural and necessary Consequences of the present to defective System of Education. With an attempt to shew, that a revival of the Art of Speaking, and the Study of Our Own Language, might contribute, in a great measure, to the Cure of those Evils (1756).

He developed his ideas in A Course of Lectures on Elocution. Less bothered by the supposed mispronunciation of words, he fulminated against what he saw as a lack of eloquence – particularly the correct level of dramatic delivery –in public speaking. Central to Sheridan’s work was his emphasis on the importance of ‘tones’ to eloquence. These tones, which correlated with the expressive effects one can give to their speaking, were something Sheridan considered an important part of persuasion. He stated, ‘The tones expressive of sorrow, lamentation, mirth, joy, hatred, anger, love, &c. are the same in all nations, and consequently can excite emotions in us analogous to those passions, when accompanying words which we do not understand: nay the very tones themselves, independent of words, will produce the same effects.’ For Sheridan, how a message was communicated, whether by an actor, a preacher or an ordinary speaker, was as important as the message itself. He used the example of someone saying in a calm demeanour, ‘My rage is rouzed to a pitch of frenzy, I can not command it: Avoid me, be gone this moment, or I shall tear you to pieces’ to show the importance of tones…

…While nineteenth century schoolteachers tired their pupils out with rote-learning of sounds and chanting, the twentieth century saw more ingenious confections, ostensibly designed to instruct and practice, actually intentionally or unintentionally a source of torment. The first is often used, to tantalise, and then to teach, speakers of other languages who are hoping to get to grips with ours…

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard but sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth as in mother
Nor both as in bother, nor broth as in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear, for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose–
Just look them up–and goose and choose
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword
And do and go, then thwart and cart,
Come, come! I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful Language? Man alive!
I mastered it when I was five.

 

I have used this poem myself with visiting students from abroad and have become used to the expressions on their faces as I read it aloud. The polite amusement and gentle puzzlement giving way slowly to a mélange of incredulity and fear, settling into a sort of resigned misery.

So now for something quite a lot more vexatious…another ‘poem’, this time for you the native to attempt…

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,…

…Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

This tongue-twisting mind-bender, which is reputed to have cost a number of native-speakers their sanity (perhaps they tried to derive some meaning from it?), is an excerpt from the poem The Chaos. It was written in 1920 by ‘Charivarius’, the pen-name of Dr Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946). The doctor was, like other keen observers of the foibles of the English, Dutch, (just like Dr G.J Renier, author of The English: Are They Human and P. Boogaart who wrote The A272: An Ode to a Road). What is more he was himself a puzzle, in that he was said to pronounce Charivarius (it means a cacophonous, mocking serenade or a series of discordant noises and comes, tellingly, from the Latin for ‘headache’) in several different ways, none of them acceptable in normal English, while he never told anyone how to pronounce his surnames…

‘…the best speakers of standard English are those whose pronunciation, and language generally, least betray their locality’.Henry Sweet (1845-1912)

The Edwardian Henry Sweet, to be very uncharitable, was, in a stuffy age, one of our stuffiest linguistic prescriptivists, a dry old stick who quite lacked the saving silliness of Nolst Trenité. But his theme has again become part of the public conversation in recent times. Elocution lessons enjoyed a resurgence in popularity following the success of Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, in which King George VI overcomes his battle with a lifelong stammer thanks to help from a therapist.  George Bernard Shaw famously claimed that ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him’. Carol Walker probably wouldn’t go that far. But as head of Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough, she insisted in 2013 that pupils moderate their Teesside accents and local dialect – to drop the ‘nowt’ and ‘yous’ and ‘gizit ’ere’ – in order to improve their chances in life.

What was perhaps most interesting about this story was that when it surfaced in the national press the sky failed to fall in. A few years ago, Mrs Walker would have been accused of cultural discrimination – of imposing arbitrary standards of ‘proper’ English on her poor charges. Of course, the idea of RP was always something of a fraud: if you listen to recordings of Gladstone, his tones are pure Scouse (and we learnt recently that Richard III may have plotted his villainy in a Brummie twang). And today’s favoured TV accent is more Brian Cox than David Attenborough. Yet as Mrs Walker’s decision suggests, there is still such a thing as ‘Standard English’ – it’s just that the definition is a bit broader. Her kids don’t need to start chanting ‘The rain in Spain’, but they do need to be able to make their way in the wider world.

It was only one year earlier that a primary school in Essex became one of the first in recent history to offer its pupils elocution lessons to help them lose their accents. Pupils at Cherry Tree Primary School in Basildon, are being taught to ditch their Essex accents during weekly lessons from a private tutor. Teachers say they have seen a vast improvement in their pupils’ spelling and writing since the lessons were introduced – with some parents even admitting they are now corrected on their pronunciation at home by their own children. The Essex accent has been thrown under the spotlight around the country following the success of the reality TV show The Only Way is Essex. However, Terri Chudleigh, English literacy coordinator, who first came up with the idea, said, ‘This is not about being ashamed of the Essex accent. I have an Essex accent and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s about helping the children to speak properly so they can improve their reading and writing and obviously have a better education. I really wanted to get someone in because I noticed the children weren’t saying words correctly and were therefore misspelling them. We had lots of youngsters writing ‘sbort’ instead of ‘sport’ and ‘wellw’ instead of ‘well’.’ During weekly sessions at the school, children run through fun speech exercises with names like ‘ho hum’, ‘stifled smile’ and ‘tongue boot camp’ before being encouraged to experiment with ‘posh voices’…

 

SOUNDS, SENSES AND THE SELF

 

 A good friend of mine died young, of a surprise heart attack, at fifty. If I were reminiscing I could dig out one of many photographs to remind myself of his face, but no need. It is his voice that stays with me always. The utterly distinct tough-guy accent (unlike my father’s never modulated according to hearer), confounding class categorisations by blending his native Geordie and alma mater Magdalene College, Cambridge (pronounced, he would scathingly remind us, ‘maudlin’, of which much more later); the urgent hectoring tone used to denounce barmen when the ale was off, or friends who had failed to vote for Old Labour. Here in print, or even by imitating them out loud, I can’t do justice to the nuances of their accents, evoke their individuality with real precision: I wish so much that I had recorded them both, and all the other now silenced voices, when they were still alive.

A baby’s gurgling laugh elides into the sound of water trickling over pebbles; lovers ‘bill and coo’, share ‘sweet nothings’; girls’ eager conversation echoes flocking birdsong; revivalists’ ‘speaking in tongues’ reaches to the spirit language of the upper air; the rattling ‘doom-roar’ of a Death Metal band dissolves into rolling thunder. We respond to the affecting cadences of language, from the simplicity of lullaby via the complexities of poetry and rhetoric, back to the elemental vocalising of holy chant and mantra. We may look at linguists’ theories of the origins of language itself and discover that they are far from definitive. Commonsense connections between volume and aggression, speed and stress, for instance, satisfy us well enough, but science has yet to explain the precise relationship between phonology and psychology: why some words evoke reactions that are seemingly quite at odds with literal meaning. We learn that the unique sound of a loved one’s conversation may linger in the mind when even their face has disappeared from memory.

Having a sound knowledge of your own native language should be quite straightforward, even instinctive, but the English language is something special. Its convoluted history means that even the most common terms may be pronounced in different ways; linguists disagree among themselves on the rules that we should apply, while the many accents of English trigger widely different responses – from fawning admiration through polite puzzlement to knee-jerk hostility – in those who hear them…

 …When we move from words to longer examples of intonation, rhythm and pitch, it can be a mixture of supposed familiarity – we recognise the same sounds from a different context such as baby-talk or comic exaggeration – and unfamiliarity – we don’t know what it means – that leads us to find the sound of the Dutch language funny for example.

Where other accents – the regional British variants among them – are concerned, studies have found that people react positively or negatively first according to how closely the accent resembles their own and secondly to its associations, usually which prominent figures – typically actors, newsreaders, footballers – employ it and in which contexts it has been encountered, so a Northern Irish accent, once evoking the language of the Troubles is now, like the Scottish Connery lilt, linked to actors who charm and don’t threaten. Only rarely does a truly unusual, unplaceable accent arrest our attention, scramble our responses. My late friend’s was one such: its unfashionably precise articulation and its stern delivery was intimidating, but its sonorous qualities (worthy, someone said, of a [Richard] Burton or a [John] Gielgud) could overwhelm the hearer in other ways, to persuade, enchant, bamboozle, seduce…

It’s hard to imagine a cultural phenomenon that’s more important than the development of language. And yet no human attribute offers less conclusive evidence regarding its origins. The oldest and best-known theories of how language began all depend on sounds and how they are interpreted, refashioned and manipulated:

The Bow-Wow Theory

According to this influential theory, endorsed by Rousseau among others, language began when our ancestors started imitating the natural sounds around them. The first speech was onomatopoeic, marked by echoic words such as moo, meow, splash, cuckoo, and bang.

BUT…

Relatively few words in any language are actually onomatopoeic, and these words vary from one language to another. For instance, a dog’s bark is heard as au au in Brazil, ham ham in Albania, and wang, wang in China. In addition, many onomatopoeic words are of recent origin, and not all are derived from natural sounds.

The Mama Theory

This theory posits that language began with the easiest syllables attached to the most significant objects.

BUT…

Once we move beyond the most primal connections, such as that between suckling baby and mother, the theory falls short of explaining anything.

The Ding-Dong Theory

This theory, sometimes ascribed to Plato and Pythagoras, maintains that speech arose in response to the essential qualities of objects in the environment. The original sounds people made were supposedly in harmony with the world around them.

BUT…

Apart from some rare instances there’s no absolutely conclusive evidence in any language of an innate connection between sound and meaning.

The La-La Theory

The eminent Danish linguist Otto Jespersen suggested that language may have developed from sounds associated with love, play, and especially song.

BUT…

As Professor David Crystal notes in How Language Works, this theory still fails to account for “the gap between the emotional and the rational aspects of speech expression.”

The Pooh-Pooh Theory

This theory holds that speech began with interjections – spontaneous cries of pain (“Ouch!”), surprise (“Oh!”), and other emotions (the teenager’s “Meh” of indifference).

BUT…

No language contains very many interjections, and, Crystal points out, “the clicks, intakes of breath, and other noises which are used in this way bear little relationship to the vowels and consonants found in phonology.”

The Ta-ta Theory

Sir Richard Paget, influenced by Darwin, believed that body movement preceded language. Language began as an unconscious vocal imitation of these movements, like the way a child’s mouth will move when they use scissors, or my tongue sticks out when I try to play the guitar. This evolved into the popular idea that language may have derived from gestures.

BUT…

Once again, the theory fails to prove an unarguable connection between more than a very few instances of such a link.

The Yo-He-Ho Theory

According to this theory, language evolved from the grunts, groans, and snorts evoked by heavy physical labour, or the rhythmic chants of those engaged in it.

BUT…

Though this notion may account for some of the rhythmic features of language, it doesn’t go very far in explaining where the extraordinary range of words quite unassociated with work come from.

 

 

 

 

SOUND EFFECTS

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“One of the most limpid and luminous letters is ‘L’. The suffix ‘-ita’ has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I required too. Hence: Lolita.”

  • Vladimir Nabokov, 1973

“Ant and Dec sound fine to me, but Cheryl Cole is like nails down a chalkboard.”

  • Posting on BBC web discussion, 2013

 

The children’s literacy charity I Can allows you, for a small donation, to adopt an English word and keep it for a year. Last year I received a certificate confirming that ‘mellifluous’ belonged to me; this year I hope to get ‘buoyancy’ if no-one else has bagged it first. I like both these words because, unlike very many words in our language, their sound seems to match their meanings. Their sounds are rather difficult: mellifluous because it’s rarely heard, has several syllables and comes from Latin in which it meant ‘flowing with honey’. The spelling of buoyancy is odd – it comes from Dutch – and that might confuse someone meeting the word for the first time. It seems to look and to sound at the same time capacious and light, to both float and bounce simultaneously…

At Laurentian University in Canada researchers examined the links between proper names and hearer’s emotions: The ten most popular boys’ and girls’ names for most years of the 20th century were studied in terms of the emotional associations of their sounds and how easily they could be articulated. A set of historical and socioeconomic variables, namely war, depression, the advent of the birth control pill, inflation, and year seemed to correspond with the scores that members of the public gave for name length, ‘emotionality’, and ‘pronounceability’…

At a less elevated level UK national treasure Stephen Fry has told us that his favourite word is ‘moist’. He’s being arch and gently provocative as usual, but says that he just likes the sound of it. But the sounds that make up moist will have a very different effect on those fluent in multiethnic youth slang, in which it is currently one of the most powerful terms of disapproval on the street. I have said that I find the sound of the word ‘mellifluous’ pleasant, but friends have told me they hear in it prissiness and fussiness. My fondness for ‘buoyancy’, too has been a cause of bemusement for some…

Whether we are talking about ‘pure’ sounds that imitate the noises of nature like ‘plop’, ‘buzz’ and ‘hum,’ or the clusters of phonemes that form single words, or about longer more varied sequences of conversational noise, these acoustic disturbances are not just conveyors of information but can act as triggers provoking an emotional response in the hearer. How they do this depends on the associations they have for us and these may be intensely personal, may be social and cultural and may in many cases depend entirely on which language we are hearing and thinking in. Hearing the slang word ‘chillax’ for the first time (it seems that even the Prime Minister is now aware of it, if not entirely sure of when to use it) would probably have a different effect on a teenager, who might have recognised the blending of ‘chill out’ and ‘relax’, from a grandparent more likely to hear ‘chilly’ and ‘axe.’

 

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SOUNDS, SYMBOLISM AND SENSE

 

A small fragment from my jottings on the fascinating and under-examined subject of language sounds…more extracts will follow

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The traditional view of words and names is that, apart from those words that directly imitate natural noises, there is only an arbitrary link between sound and meaning. But a few psychologists and neuroscientists have claimed to find evidence that phonemes (the human speech sounds that constitute words) have an inherent, non-arbitrary emotional quality. Their data suggests that the effect on feelings of certain phoneme combinations (nonsense examples they worked with included bupaba, which was received positively and dugada which was negatively perceived) depends on a specific acoustic feature which can be measured, namely, the dynamic shifts within the phonemes’ frequency.

Socrates, too, according to Plato in the Cratylus Dialogue of 360 BCE, ascribed the origins and the correctness of names and words to a measurable relationship between their sounds and the things they represented, observing, for instance, that the tongue is most agitated and least at rest in the rolling of the letter ‘r’ (ρ or ϱ ‘rho’ in his native Greek) thus fitting it for evocations of violent movement or percussion. We can consider to what extent this rule might be applied to English, bearing in mind examples like ‘battered’, ‘beaten’, ‘bruised’, ‘banged’, but Hermogenes in any case then intervened and with a host of counterexamples demolished Socrates’ proposition, forcing the sage to admit that ‘my first notions [were] truly wild and ridiculous’. In 1690, the English philosopher Locke argued in An Essay on Human Understanding that if there were any connection between sounds and ideas, we would all be speaking the same language. Leibniz in New Essays on Human Understanding, published in 1765, responded with a point-by-point critique of Locke’s essay, admitting that there is clearly no perfect correspondence between words and things, but neither is the relationship completely arbitrary…

…In 2013 scientists carrying out an analysis of popular names given to 15 million babies found that male names were much more likely to contain broad and ‘larger’ sounding vowels that were emphasised and sounded more masculine when spoken. On the other hand, the majority of female names sound ‘smaller’, allegedly projecting a more feminine, dainty impression of the person. The study’s co-author, Dr Benjamin Pitcher of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, said: ‘The origins of names may vary but this study suggests that there is an association between the size of the sounds in first names and the sex they are associated with.’ According to Dr Pitcher and his team, the names which sound larger and prove popular with parents who have boys, or sound smaller and are given to girls are linked to the calls of wild animals. They claim that mammals, including humans, associate deeper, booming vocal sounds with larger individuals, but higher-pitched sounds are usually from smaller individuals. It has to be said that reports of this study were not universally applauded when they appeared in the UK tabloids online. Comments ranged from ‘…being paid to state the bleeding obvious’ to ‘utter nonsense – and the male names they quote all sound girly to me.’

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