The purpose of this project is to identify if the Queen speaks with the same polished Received Pronunciation (RP) accent today as she did 50 years ago and whether there have been any generational variations to the RP spoken within the Royal Family.
Firstly this project will introduce the subject of sociolinguistics with a focus on the differences between accents and dialects and the history and rules pertaining to RP. Secondly, current opinions and attitudes will be discussed along with recent research that has been carried out examining the decline of RP. Lastly it will analyse findings from my own comparisons of three Royal Family dialogues.
Sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between language and society, and how society influences or affects the way in which language is used by individuals or groups (Crystal, 2008). When a person talks it is easy to recognise regional differences in their speech as everyone has an accent or dialect and this can often lead to assumptions about their background, education and even their place in society.
It is important to understand the difference between an accent and a dialect as they are two very different aspects of speech. An accent refers to the differences in pronunciation only (Crystal, 2008), for example, a speaker with a southern accent would pronounce /a/ using long vowel /a:/ whereas a speaker with a northern accent would pronounce /a/ with a short vowel /æ/:
Long vowel, Southern
Short vowel, Northern
A dialect however refers to the features of pronunciation along with grammar and vocabulary such as sentence structure and use of verbs. For example:
She is a good girl
She’s a canny lass (Geordie/Newcastle)
How are you?
Ow bist old butt? (Forest of Dean)
He is frightened
He’s feeling frit (Lincolnshire)
I’ll visit in the Autumn
I’ll visit in the fall (American English)
An accent and a dialect can both give an indication as to the speaker’s geographical origin (Crystal, 2008). Due the growing variety of accents and dialects in the UK, a ‘Standard English’ (SE) has emerged that is taught in schools and used in print and broadcasting. It is also the standard taught to speakers of foreign languages.
The phrase Received Pronunciation was initially coined in 1869 by the linguist A J Ellis but the phonetician, Daniel Jones, was the first person to adopt it to describe the accent of the social elite (British Library).
Received Pronunciation (RP) is an accent that is associated with being typically British and is also known as ‘The Queens English’ or ‘BBC English’ as it is seen as a prestige accent (Graddol, Leith & Swann, 1996). No specific authority gave the accent its special status but as RP is spoken mainly in the south east it is generally associated with that area but it is found all over the country. It is a non specific accent as it gives no indication of a speaker’s geographical origin however it does reveal information about their social and educational background.
It was established over 400 years ago as the accent of the courts and the upper classes and was soon associated with a person having a respectable social standing along with a superior education, as during the 19th century, RP was the accent taught in public schools and universities such as Eton and Oxford and still remains today (Ember, 2001). It quickly became the accent preferred by the British Army and Civil Service and was seen as a voice of authority and power. The BBC also adopted RP when it began radio broadcasting in the 1920s because it was believed to be a neutral accent that could be widely recognised and understood. The BBC set up the Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1926 in order to advise it’s presenters on pronunciation. It wanted to eliminate regional accents in favour of RP. They even published a book called Broadcast English which gave guidance and examples of how certain words should be pronounced (British Library).
With the development of the mass media, divisions between social classes have begun to breakdown and as a result RP is no longer the preserve of the social elite (Crystal, 2008). Although it was more widely used 50 years ago, it remains the Standard English of the Royal Family, Parliament, the Church of England and the High Courts but in total there are less than 3 per cent of British speakers using it in a pure form in the present day.
The vowel sounds of RP are given in the table below:
RP is considered as an exaggerated and old fashioned accent by most people, with a strong ‘posh’ accent attracting ridicule and satire. In order to communicate effectively and come across as ‘normal’, many former public school students retain a regional accent or prefer to speak a form of Estuary English (REF).
One major distinguishing feature is the pronunciation of certain sounds. The Scots and Irish pronounce the /r/ consonant in all positions, whereas in RP /r/ is dropped before a consonant and in some dialects /h/ at the beginning of a word is often dropped (Changing Language). In England we can distinguish Northern, Midlands and South Western dialects.
Different accents mark social class, speaker’s life and career, and can indicate a speaker’s community values which could lead to less social acceptance. Therefore RP speakers are perceived as being more polite, well educated or ambitious. Dublin Irish and Edinburgh ranked next in social acceptance, and the table descends through Newcastle, Yorkshire, Cockney, Liverpool Scouse, Birmingham and Glaswegian accents (Giles & Bourhis, 1976). The Liverpool Scouse accent uses a very different form of intonation to RP. A fall is regularly preceded by a preliminary rise and a rise by a preliminary fall, which makes the language sound uneven. With RP there is no significant difference.
In Britain, there are also some differences in the language of classes in expressions for the same situation. For example, when making an apology to someone, upper class people tend to say, “Excuse me”. On the other hand, working class people tend to say “Pardon.”. Likewise when asking a speaker to repeat something, upper class people say “what?”; working class people say, “Excuse me”.
These differences in the language between the classes have had an influence on everyday life. Generally, people have two types of reaction to that situation: trying to hide their language, or keep speaking their own language. Many regional speakers feel embarrassed by their accents. It seems that much social pressure is felt generally because of the long-standing prestige given to RP. Certainly to linguists, RP is only one of many accents, although its special identity as a class accent is evident.
The significance of accents and their cultural and social associations is well represented in films and on television in Britain. The critically acclaimed 1964 film My Fair Lady based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, is often referenced in linguistic discussions as a great example of how social class and accent were, and still are, inextricably linked in Britain. George Bernard Shaw modelled his leading character on Henry Sweet who claimed: ‘The English have no respect for their language and will not teach their children to speak it â€¦ it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other man despise him’. This extract illustrates precisely the social crisis concerned with dialects now and then. Over the past years, numerous television series have also provided viewers with a glimpse of the lives and accents of the Cockney population of London, such as the popular long running television series EastEnders.
RP does have social associations. While it is not exclusive to any particular class, it is, nonetheless, typical of the upper and the upper-middle classes. In sociolinguistic studies it has become clear that RP is the dominant norm in pronunciation for most of the middle class. But few people who move up in society “modify” their accent in the direction of RP, thereby helping to maintain the existing relationship between class and accent. This is why RP compared to other accents, has more prestige and is seen as more pleasant sounding, and its speaker is viewed as more ambitious and competent and as such, better suited for high status jobs. Although this speech style still carries notions of prestige, regional varieties of English are acquiring status equal to RP.
I have chosen to analyse three pieces of dialogue of the Royal Family as they are perceived as the archetypal speakers of RP. To begin with I am going to analyse the Queens first televised Christmas speech which was broadcast in 1957 and I am going to compare it with her 2007 Christmas speech broadcast 50 years later. This comparison will show if the Queen still talks with a polished RP accent or if there have been any variations due to modern influences. The third dialogue I am going to analyse is of an interview Prince William gave in 2010 during the World Cup bid. By comparing how a younger member of the Royal Family speaks with an older member will show how variations of RP within the Royal Family have changed through the generations.
I will choose several sentences from each dialogue and phonetically transcribe the words in order to carry out the comparison and I am going to specifically look at variations in vowel sounds.
FINDINGS & ANALYSIS
Analysis of the Queen’s Christmas Broadcasts shows that even the Queen has adopted a more modern version of RP over time.
A very distinct feature of RP is the pronunciation of the consonant /o/ – /É’/ as /É”:/. In Her Majesty’s first televised Christmas broadcast in 1957 the Queen pronounced the word /often/ as /É”:fÉªn/. However in her more recent broadcast in 2007 she was pronouncing it as /f«n/.
Transcript of Prince William’s first sentence when being interviewed by Tim Lovejoy for FATV
Are you excited?
Prince William’s Answer:
Very excited. Um cant wait for the first game, um, obviously gonna um go through the group games really quicklyâ€¦
/veri:/ /ekÊƒaÉªtÉªd/ /ÊŒm/ /cÉ‘ËnÊ”/ /weÉªÊ”/ /fÉ”Ë/ /Ã°/ /fÉœËÊƒÊ”/ /geÉªm/ /ÊŒm/ /É’bvi:ÊŒsli:/ /gÊŒnÉ™/ /gaÊŠ/ /Î¸ru:/ /Ã°/ /gru:p/ /geÉªmÊƒ/ /ri:li:/ /kwÉªkli:/
Prince William has a modern RP accent. This is shown in the way he pronounces /very/. Using pure RP it would be pronounced /v‰ri:/ where as Prince William pronounces it as /veri:/. He also uses a glottal stop when pronouncing words that end with the consonant /t/: /cÉ‘ËnÊ”/ /weÉªÊ”/ and /fÉœËÊƒÊ”/.
Interestingly Prince William uses the blend word /gonna/ /gÊŒnÉ™/ instead of saying /going to/ /gaÊŠÅ‹ tu:/ as it would be said in Standard English.
When comparing the Queen’s RP accent with Prince William’s the results show that the Queen’s 2007 accent is more similar to Prince William’s than her 1957 accent.
Although the RP accent remains to carry notions of prestige, regional varieties of English are acquiring status equal to it.
This research shows that even the Queen herself, the archetypal speaker of RP, cannot retain the RP accent as there has been a drift in her accent towards one that is characteristic of the younger members of the Royal Family.
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