Pronunciation: received or rejected

In his book Does Accent Matter? The Pygmalion Factor, John Honey writes that public school attendance or an RP [Received Pronunciation] accent were among the main criteria for being a British army officer in the world wars of last century. (Actor Dirk Bogarde is said to have attributed his promotions in WWII to his accent.) According to Honey, carnage in the trenches led to a relaxation in the requirement for an RP accent, and men were commissioned “whose voices betrayed their promotion from the ranks”.

Such was the prestige of an RP accent that its lack in these newly promoted officers — the “temporary gentlemen” of Pat Barker’s historical fiction — was apt to invite automatic disrespect from certain quarters. When one such officer inspected the cadets at a public school in Lancing in 1919, Evelyn Waugh (then in his mid-teens) helped organise the dropping of rifles to demonstrate against the officer’s regional form of speech. As a collective gesture it was perhaps more powerful than a Waugh of words would have been.

Honey describes the role schools played in creating a consensus that certain accents were authoritative, while others — whether from the mouths of students or teachers — were shameful:

There is little evidence that, in boys’ public schools at least, [RP] was systematically taught. New boys with local accents were simply shamed out of them by the pressure of the school’s ‘public opinion’. The prep schools, having pupils at an earlier, more formative age, were very important in this respect. In the decades immediately following 1870 there was a time-lag before non-standard accents died out among masters (and indeed headmasters) in the leading public schools. New appointees could be, and were, screened for accent. The boys’ reaction to that minority with ‘suspect’ accents who got through this screening depended upon their general effectiveness as teachers: a weak disciplinarian would find that his accent became another stick with which they would beat or bait him. In a popular man, respected for his teaching or sporting gifts, mildly non-standard speech forms were tolerated — even humoured — as part of the idiosyncrasies of a ‘character’.

As Orwell put it in Politics vs. Literature: “public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity, is less tolerant than any system of law”. Donning my biologist’s hat for a moment, I would say that conformity can be a powerful motivator of behaviour because it serves the structure and survival of a group. This instinct, which can manifest with great cruelty (ridicule, humiliation, isolation, and so on), probably serves an adaptive purpose. It binds a social group, strengthening its cohesion by dismissing outliers (or demanding that they cooperate), and thereby fostering a more effective and efficient system. It’s not pretty, but it’s very mammalian.

Update: There’s further discussion about this at Language Hat.


20 Responses to Pronunciation: received or rejected

  1. Aidan says:

    Very interesting topic. I had the dubious pleasure of attending a private school in Ireland that is a favoured establishment for parents who want their children to become politicians, doctors, lawyers etc. Many of the children are from country areas so they start off at that school with what would be pejoratively termed a ‘bogger’ accent.
    In the first year when I was there the effect you are talking about was definitely observable. Most of my classmates started to gravitate towards the Irish upper middle class/mid-Atlantic/unidentifiable accent. This was partly because those with the strongested country accents were the ones most likely to attract bullies. The school also gave elocution lessons as standard and from Day 1 there was a big emphasis on public speaking and debating.
    Funnily enough most of the country people ended up with two accents, one for the school/rugby environment and one for home. I would quite consciously switch accent when I went back home because our school accent would have attracted derision.
    When I lived in England in the 1990s I never found it to be as accent conscious as Ireland. Many people in my university had regional accents and, if anything, those with ‘toff’ accents were more likely to gravitate towards a more northern accent. Many English people mistook me for a Canadian because they could not place my (actually very generic) Irish accent. They expected everybody Irish to have a really strong accent so I diappointed many people ;-)

  2. Stan says:

    Aidan: Thanks for your interesting comment. I think it’s inevitable that people end up with a command of different accents, to be wheeled out as the context requires. John Honey looks quite closely at this ‘code-switching’ in Does Accent Matter? Phone voices would be a familiar example to most people.

    I think it’s also very natural, and undeserving of the suspicion with which it’s sometimes treated. People who grow up with a moderate to strong regional accent might begin to speak more ‘properly’ as a result of education or peer influence or for practical reasons (e.g., getting a job); or they might consider their dialectal manner of speech a source of pride and a fundamental part of their identity, not to be compromised. But accents can be very contagious. I know people who would spend a weekend in Donegal or Cork and return half-native!

  3. Aidan says:

    I must check that book out as I am very interested this topic, reading your reply I remembered a post I did on this a long while back where I mentioned John Barrowman as the most extreme example of this I have ever heard.
    Changing accents is natural but some people go OTT especially when around Scottish people. If you are around North Americans it is hard not to adopt the nasal twang after a while. After living in Belfast for a year my pronunciation of two had changed to ‘tooye’ and I was full of ‘happy days’ and ‘at the minute’.
    I think that your accent will change more quickly if you are positive about the surrounding accent though.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    Interesting Stan!

    When my family moved from country to city way back in the day my brother and I were popped off to intensive elocution classes at the ages of 7 and 4 and thus spoke differently from our younger siblings and our parents for the rest of our lives. (My parents didn’t think the younger ones wouldn’t be quite so culchie as us older having being born in the city, ha!)

  5. Tim says:

    I love the diversity of accents in any given English-speaking country, not to mention how varied our accents are around the world. It always amazes me just how different two British people can sound.

    I’ve heard stories of those in my parents’ generation who were punished at school for writing with their left hand. It sounds similar to this approach to weaning people off their less refined accents and to my mind is utterly absurd. At least those who were persecuted by teachers for being left-handed were able to recover and reverted to what feels natural to them when there was no longer an inhuman presence looming over them with a ruler.

    On a sidenote, I like my own accent. It’s somewhat more refined than a great number of people from back home since I have always taken care to enunciate clearly and have spent a little time both travelling and interacting from an ESOL teaching position, where clarity is just as important as fluency.

    Plus, I love doing different accents and voices. It can be fun to mimic different accents – as there are so many to choose from. :)

  6. Hoover says:

    Public opinion is indeed incredibly strong.

    One of the most rigidly-enforced laws in London has never been passed by Parliament, and is the law that you must stand on the right hand side of the escalator.

    You can often get away with parking in the wrong place, speeding, shop-lifting and yobbish behaviour. But you absolutely must stand on the right.

    Jung: “Resistance to the organised mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organised in his individuality as the mass itself”

  7. Stan says:

    Aidan: Thanks for the link to your post on the subject, which I enjoyed. We covered some similar ground. I agree that the degree to which we incorporate aspects of a local accent would depend partly on how we feel about it; we would probably be much more stubborn if surrounded by an accent we didn’t care for! You’d find much of interest in Honey’s book, I think.

    WWW: There must have been a great variety of expression in your house, growing up! I suppose the earlier the elocution classes, the better, if the lessons are to stick.

    Tim: It’s true — there’s an amazing diversity of accents, so much so that they can be mutually incomprehensible despite being effectively the same language. It is, as you say, absurd to impose other-handedness on children. My father is left-handed but was taught to write with his right; he still does, but he draws and paints with his left. I admire good mimicry, partly because I’m hopeless at imitating accents myself.

    Hoover: That’s a good line by Jung, and a good observation from you about escalator etiquette. I’ve noticed the practice abroad (such as in London) much more than in Ireland, where it’s observed only haphazardly. Maybe we need an elaborately staged incident to alert the public to its utility.

  8. I’m glad that we have come a long way from the idiotic gesture of Evelyn Waugh’s. I’m just as glad that modern news broadcasters don’t all sound like Alvar Lidell or Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter!

  9. Ha, ‘Waugh of words’ is jolly good! And I agree that we somewhat subconsciously adapt our accents to our surroundings. I certainly speak Galway Irish in Galway and Dublin Irish in Dublin to a certain extent. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be as well understood, and communication is what it’s about.

  10. Jo says:

    When I was growing up in Australia, the flat, broad accent of the man on the street was considered lower-class. Those who wished to be thought of as cultured dahling, cultivated a plummy British accent. It is, or was, that strange post-colonial syndrome that makes people (even generations after colonization) cling to the mothership while dismissing anything that sounds too ‘native’ as lower-class. (I guess post-colonial India would be a good example also?)

  11. Stan says:

    Jams: Well said. Here’s to variety in the sound of speech (so long as it’s intelligible)!

    PFW: “Waugh of words” was the original title of the post. Maybe I should have left it. I don’t know if I speak Dublin Irish, but like you I slightly adjust the register I use in different social situations, mostly for the reason you mention.

    Jo: The first time I noticed the phenomenon you refer to was probably as a kid watching American films or TV: characters with a British accent were almost invariably posh or evil (or both). Political history definitely plays a part in our present perceptions of accents.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    As a linguist I am very interested in your last paragraph (after the Orwell reference) as I think it ties in with language (or dialect) learning. Have you written on the subject, or can you suggest references? Perhaps you can email me on the topic, thank you.

  13. Accent in Britain is still tied up with class: the Dublin-born George Bernard Shaw wrote more than a century ago in the opreface to Pygmalion that “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” and that’s still true. But because the British can’t place Irish accents by class, an Irish accent has often been an advantage in those seeking a career in broadcasting in the UK.

  14. Stan says:

    Marie-Lucie: I emailed you this evening, and I look forward to your reply.

    Terry: Shaw’s famous line is amusing but sweeping. I agree with you that the difficulty of assessing the socioeconomic status behind some Irish accents puts their owners at an advantage in some professional areas, such as broadcasting. But the degree of Irishness in these accents can be modest. For example, when I was a child I thought Terry Wogan was British!

  15. Claudia says:

    Great post, Stan. As soon as you mentioned pronunciation what came to mind were the 6 months my British boys (at 8 and 10) tried to encourage their French Canadian mother to say the difficult English th. The tongue demonstrations were so amusing! “There, Mom, your tongue on your upper teeth. Go: THE, THAT, THIS…Not DE, Mom!” It was easy with the exercises, but not in the spontaneous conversation. They finally gave up, graciously. “It’s OK, Mom! People like the French accent.” Maybe it’s true but how I wish I didn’t have it! Specially when I’m attempting to use the elaborate vocabulary I’ve learned through extensive English reading. Often, I have to spell sophisticated words that I’m never able to pronounce with nonchalance, even if I practise beforehand.

    When it comes to the French, Oh! la,la…I face people from across the sea who speak with the Parisien accent, and believe that French Canadians are all uneducated lumber jacks. It seems that rolling their rrrrrrrs gave them a PhD in grammatical knowledge. Actually (as some of you, in English) I find it very easy to take on any French accent, and expressions, depending on the person I’m speaking with. The joual is a lot more fun to imitate than the Parisian. And toé, moé (instead of toi, moi) gives me giggling fits when I decide to retort to it. Be it just to annoy a snobbish group!

  16. Claudia says:

    À ta santé, mon ami!

  17. Claudia says:

    Of course it was: the tongue touching inside the upper teeth….Still can’t do it!

  18. Stan says:

    Claudia: Merci pour l’histoire agréable. Tes fils avaient raison — l’accent Français, c’est vraimant charmant, et quand l’anatomie refuse de coopérer, il faut accepter les limites! As you noticed, it’s difficult in free-flowing conversation to arrange one’s speech organs in an unaccustomed way. Generally we become committed to a set of speech sounds at a very early age, which makes it difficult later to distinguish or produce sounds that we weren’t exposed to in infancy.

    Apparently my French accent is quite good, though I always found it difficult to roll my rs. In university, my German lecturer told me I spoke German with an Austrian accent! I think that was the influence of Irish, which I spoke reasonably well at the time. The English th that you mention is a signature sound in Irish English, owing to our Hibernian heritage. You might enjoy the brief entry in Terence Dolan’s dictionary and the detailed phonetic (and poetic) notes at Irish Matters.

  19. John Cowan says:

    Curious that the English have the slow driving lane on the left (as a consequence of driving on the left), but the slow (indeed, stopped) elevator lane on the right. In North America, they are both on the right.

  20. Stan says:

    Curious indeed, John. I wonder how that came about. Ireland’s slow driving lanes are also on the left, but our elevator etiquette seems largely absent.

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