I remember way back in the 1980s, seeing the distinguished thespian Michael Horden on the BBC’s ‘Breakfast Time’; although known to my generation as the narrator of the original series of ‘Paddington’, he was present in his capacity as a respected Ak-tor and bemoaned the dumbing down of the English language in terms of Americanised pronunciation. The word he seemed especially annoyed by was the way in which ‘Super’ was no longer being pronounced in his own archaic pre-war RADA way, i.e. ‘S’yupah’. He was most insistent his way was the right way. What the late Mr Horden would think of changes in pronunciation since the 80s would be interesting, though the English language (and the variance in pronunciation from one generation to the next) has never stood still.
When it comes to the centuries prior to the invention of recorded sound, we are dependent on writers that reproduced slang and common colloquialisms of their era within the pages of their novels. Dickens regularly put cockney lingo in the mouths of his characters, with his earlier works rooted in the late Georgian society he had known as a child. Both ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and his short story collection, ‘Sketches by Boz’, were written and published before Victoria came to the throne; the latter is an invaluable verbal portrait of the way in which London’s poverty class spoke in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, but ‘Pickwick’ itself features the celebrated Sam Weller, who pronounces his own name as Sam Veller. Pronouncing W as V sounds utterly alien to modern ears, but its usage in early Dickens implies this was the cockney speech he had grown up with, one that may well have extended into the twentieth century.
Unlike the French, who regard their language as a precious museum artefact that has to be preserved in amber, the English have always spoken a language with immense flexibility and a willing susceptibility to change. One only has to think of Chaucer’s Middle English or Shakespearean English to realise the changes that have taken place over the last six-hundred years, with each influx of ‘immigrants’ having its own impact on the language, whether the Danes, the Saxons or the Normans. The development of the English language into the one spoken within these Isles today has a history far too long and winding to fully explore here, but it is worth remembering that the journey remains an ongoing one.
It is thanks to recorded sound that we can hear the changes that have taken place over just the last sixty-seventy years. The vaguely comical Noel Coward form of Received Pronunciation that is commonplace in British movies from the 30s-50s was also adopted by the BBC and is still associated with the Corporation, even though few of its announcers and presenters speak that way today. One only has to listen to broadcasts from as recent as the 1970s to hear the distinct difference between then and now.
Anyone this century who has retained the mellifluous richness of the old speech, from the much-missed art critic Brian Sewell to cricket commentator Henry Blofeld and the surprisingly young Tory MP (and ‘Minister for the eighteenth century’) Jacob Rees Mogg, has been sold as an eccentric merely because of how they speak, the smooth velvety clarity of their diction harking back to a long-gone age that can now only be celebrated with post-modern irony. The working-class revolution of the 60s, as reflected in the overnight success of ‘Coronation Street’ and the novelty of The Beatles choosing not to eschew their Liverpudlian accents, has had ramifications for speech that continue to echo throughout the lingo fifty years later.
This week, linguists at the University of York have published a report called The Sounds of the Future. In it, they predict certain current forms of pronunciation will vanish within the next half-century, though the panicky manner of reportage in the likes of the Daily Telegraph (all the fault of multiculturalism, apparently) fails to acknowledge that it would be highly odd, going by past experience, were the language to not change whatsoever by 2066. In only the last fifteen-twenty years the pernicious influence of so-called Estuary English has had a massive impact on speech, especially in media circles. The execrable ‘Votin’ promo ad for the Remain camp in the EU Referendum and posh boys such as Cameron and Osborne dropping their Gs at the end of words are highly visible examples of this trend.
Over roughly the same time period, there has been an undeniable development in slang amongst the young, which owes its presence to the prevalence of white teenagers aping the Jamaican-derived patois of black youth, something that has also been adopted by British-born Asian teenagers from the 90s onwards. These phrasings weren’t present during my own adolescence in the 80s, so I can at least pin it down to the last twenty years; the appearance of comedy character Ali G at the dawn of the twenty-first century was one of the first media figures to bring this linguistic change to a wider audience.
The University of York report predicts the ‘th’ sound will be gone within fifty years, mainly because they claim it’s hard for foreigners living here to pronounce; but the title of this post is lifted from a stage musical produced by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop as far back as 1960, so predictions that ‘f’ will in many cases supersede ‘th’ is hardly anything new. Text-speak is also held up as one of the guilty parties responsible for the upcoming changes, though as Text-speak is a written as opposed to a spoken slang, it’s hard to see it causing a large-scale overhaul of common speech.
The report predicts regional dialects are also destined to die out, but regional dialects themselves don’t stand still either. Many people from parts of Yorkshire today would probably struggle to decipher recordings of elderly Yorkshire folk from, say, the 40s and 50s; my own maternal grandparents (from Huddersfield) would often slip into ancient colloquialisms that I didn’t always understand. And there are certain regional accents I can’t say I’d miss if they vanished for good, to be honest. But this is what happens with the English language; it keeps moving. And that’s what makes it arguably the richest and most fascinating language on the planet.
© The Editor