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’…