Magazine article The Spectator

Thick Accents

Magazine article The Spectator

Thick Accents

Article excerpt

Whenever, as happens with a frequency that makes me suspect the mechanical accuracy of my telephone, I dial a number that docs not exist, a woman tells me that the number I have dialled has not been recognised.

Now in the old days - that is to say, up until about three years ago, I think it was - the lady who told me this had a cultivated and velvety voice, and she enunciated her words beautifully in received pronunciation: so beautifully, indeed, that I was tempted to redial the unrecognisable number just to listen to her all over again.

Such a situation could not be allowed to continue in thrusting, new, young, egalitarian Britain. The lady has been replaced by a mere woman, who speaks in an adenoidal voice that brings to mind the Isle of Dogs on a wet Sunday afternoon. Every time I hear her, I want to scream and smash the phone. I think I am suffering from accent rage.

Maybe I am growing paranoid, but I believe there is an attempt in this country gradually to supplant received pronunciation. For example, in a railway station of my acquaintance, the pre-recorded messages over the public address system are intoned by a man who uses received pronunciation, but who, when he pronounces the word Newcastle, uses the short rather than the long 'a', the long 'a' being what would come most naturally to him. It is as if the stationmaster is frightened that Geordies would be offended if they heard a middle-class man utter the name of the holy city, and riot accordingly.

I have noticed the same phenomenon on various wireless stations as well. It is clear that certain announcers have been told to use the short 'a', the long 'a' having unacceptable connotations of social superiority. Moreover, in railway stations that have no compunction about using as announcers incomprehensible Nigerians and Punjabis for whom English is their seventh language, the announcements giving the good news that the stations arc no-smoking areas and that something nasty will happen to those who infringe this regulation is always given in what one might call exaggerated standard pronunciation, just as in Hollywood films the cultivated English voice always stands for unspeakable evil. Thus our population is being subtly indoctrinated with the idea that received pronunciation means prohibition and restriction. The glottal stop means liberty.

It seems to me unlikely, however, that the changes that have come about are the result of any welling up of an insistent or irresistible demand from below. Even the bolshiest Briton is so idle that he will not protest at received pronunciation, however much he might hate it. No: this is yet another sign of that peculiar combination of self-hatred and pusillanimity that characterises what Marxists used to call the ruling class.

Let me declare an interest. My father was born in a slum and his parents spoke such bad English that I could hardly understand it. He was a communist, but he took good care to learn to speak 'correctly'. (I thank God that he did.) To his dying day, I never heard him utter a single word in the accent of his place of birth.

He early recognised the social importance of accent in Britain, and adjusted the way he spoke. But this was not mere snobbishness on his part: he recognised as well that on the whole (no social law is absolute, of course) high culture in this country was associated with a certain accent. He was socially aspiring, but culturally aspiring also. …

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