Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol 
by Lynda Mugglestone.
Oxford, 354 pp., £35, February 2003, 0 19 925061 8
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In his 1957 classic of demystification, Mythologies, Roland Barthes found a new argument with which to reopen the troublesome case of Gaston Dominici. Dominici was a septuagenarian Provençal farmer who in 1954 was tried for the murder of three members of an English family who had been camping close to his land. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment and he was eventually let out after doing only six years, his guilt having come to look less and less sure. (The case still hasn’t expired: there are dozens of Dominici websites on the Internet, some of them coming out for and some against him.) In his brilliantly tendentious commentary, Barthes suggests that the illiterate farmer was condemned in part because he didn’t speak the same language as the authorities who tried him. Or rather, he spoke the same language in name only, French, ‘the clearest there is’, as Barthes sardonically notes; but the sub-Alpine patois in which Dominici, his family and his neighbours can be imagined giving their statements would have been less than consistently transparent to the lawyers and judges conducting the trial. Because he was a French citizen, however, there was no question of him being allowed an interpreter, since that would give the lie to the principle that French is a single language covering the whole nation, any one speaker of which is to be assumed capable of following what any other speaker is saying. This assumption was, for Barthes, a ‘myth’ that might in such a serious instance have proved fatal, with the perhaps innocent Dominici being condemned out of his own mouth, not for what he did say but for what he couldn’t.

It wasn’t just his underdeveloped syntax and murky accent that told against him, but the psychological typecasting – ‘profiling’, our police forces now call this – to which they gave rise in the minds of those who were riled or frustrated when they lost track of what he was saying. In the village café, farmer Gaston might have merged decoratively with his rustic kind, but removed to the formality of a criminal courtroom he was an affront. What sort of man still needed to speak in that obscure and backward idiom halfway through the 20th century, in a country that prided itself on its vigilant and inclusive education system? The answer is just the sort of peasant patriarch, the Old Man of the Mountains, whom you could suppose all too readily turning violent, as Dominici was accused of doing, after being thwarted by the husband of an English camper he was looking to rape. What in fact might have brought the guillotine down on him was the prejudicial association in many minds between deformities of language and acts of delinquency, an association made all the more glibly when the delinquency is an act of violence. Why doubt that when an English jury hears evidence being given in a sociolect normally heard only in the mouths of television or film hoodlums, some at least of its members will presume that whoever speaks that way for real when on trial is capable of committing all manner of nastiness? It may be only a short step from putting the boot into the English language when standing in the dock to being sent down for GBH.

Lynda Mugglestone might have risked stretching her brief in Talking Proper to touch on dark possibilities of the kind Barthes raised in connection with the Dominici affair, that the conclusions other people jump to when they hear us speak and don’t like the sound of it may turn out to be more than simply disparaging. As, let’s say, when we find ourselves on the point of being mugged: do we, as Mack the Knife leans in, tactfully downgrade our vowels and give away our PIN in tones we hope he might find himself at home with rather than ones that will convince him resentfully that our credit limit is well worth tapping into? Such extreme tests of our vocal resources are not for Mugglestone, who, for all her startling title of News International Lecturer in Language and Communication at Oxford, steers clear, as a careful academic always will, of situations that would carry her beyond her sources. These have to do with class or, as her subtitle has it, with ‘accent as social symbol’. (I’m not sure that the master taxonomist of signs, C.S. Peirce, would have allowed accent to be classed as a ‘symbol’, which for him was a sign related to its object by convention, when the more refined term would be ‘index’, or a sign related to its object as a matter of fact, which an accent surely is.)

What Talking Proper does very well is to trace, in much solid, if also repetitious detail, the process by which, starting in the 18th century, spoken English came to incorporate the view that a particular way of pronouncing it was superior to any other and should be recognised as the phonetic standard. This idealised form eventually became known as RP, or Received Pronunciation, a term that dates back, I was surprised to find, to the 1860s, when the small number of those then professionally concerned with language were breaking free from the prescriptivism that had bedevilled any linguistics claiming to be a science, and were paying closer attention to the facts: the structural facts of how the elements of a language had to fit together in order for it to work, and the empirical facts of how it was daily put to effective use by its speakers. RP was a sociolinguistic fact of long standing, and as linguistics grew in objectivity, it became possible to acknowledge that RP existed without being open to the charge of wanting to impose it on the great majority of anglophones whose P was less than R.

RP was the ideal of those who already spoke it, either because that’s what they’d been hearing since they first lent an infant ear to the spoken word in the crib, or else had been coached later on into losing a first, rough accent in favour of a second, smoother one – coached into making a U-turn, you might say, after years of producing non-U English. The argument in favour of standardisation was that an accent which fell short of the ideal held its users back both socially and economically, but that if you learned to sound as your betters did, you gave yourself a chance of one day joining them in the higher reaches of the social pecking order. To the extent that it proposed to level accents up, and undo the influence of origins thought better concealed, the argument could claim to be egalitarian. Mugglestone is no prescriptivist, however, and would rather see humbug, not goodwill, in such a claim; and it’s true that to give explicit force in this way to the assumption that accent is a key index to social standing is to condemn the many who either can’t or won’t change the way they speak to remain for ever stuck below the salt.

Not that many people seem to have stood out openly against the notion that a standardised accent would be a general good. Someone who thought it was, if not a bad thing, then certainly one not worth spending time acquiring, was the no-nonsense ruralist William Cobbett, who declared that ‘the differences’ in pronunciation ‘are of very little real consequence . . . though the Scotch say coorn, the Londoners cawn, and the Hampshire folk carn, we all know they mean to say corn.’ Cobbett believed that the ignorant should be made to worry about their grammar, not their accent, since defective grammar could fairly be taken as a sign of ignorance whereas a local accent could not. His son, however, yearning it may be for classier vowel sounds than the mummerset he’d had to tune into at home, went in the opposite direction and held that mispronouncings were ‘offensive’. The more realistic of those arguing for standardisation knew from the start it was never going to happen, that local departures from the ideal were ineradicable, whether or not those who were guilty of them wanted better for themselves. Swift, in his misanthropy, decided that a wrong accent was ‘irremediable’. Cobbett senior, in his bonhomie, wasn’t concerned about that, declaring, rather prettily, that ‘pronunciation is learnt as birds learn to chirp and sing,’ as though nature and nurture had joined forces in order to thwart the efforts of the improvers – a point of view his son, once he’d flown the nest, can only have taken as an invitation to prove him wrong.

Mugglestone draws her evidence for the most part from the considerable literature of what we would now want to call phonetic counselling, or the guides to pronunciation in which right practice was distinguished from wrong and the orally deficient brought to see the advantages that were there to be had if they moved their accents up-market. These guides went through many editions and could at times take ingratiatingly facetious forms, as though those producing them had finally lost their nerve and begun to doubt whether all this top-down speech therapy was getting through. Thus one of the illustrations in Talking Proper reproduces the title page of a sixpenny manual called Poor Letter H, Its Use and Abuse, which first appeared in the middle of the 19th century and was directed at those whose social aspirations might be running ahead of their command of the other sort of aspiration, so that they dropped aitches when they shouldn’t have done and voiced them when they should have been dropped. The manual purports to have been written by the problem letter itself, alias the ‘Hon. Henry H.’ – though putting an unaspirated ‘Hon.’ in front of the name is hardly playing fair with uncertain readers, who might be tempted to aspirate it out of the deference accorded to rank.

Having worked her way along the self-help shelf, Mugglestone goes for evidence of a more relaxed but equally instructive kind to the novelists, or those of them who choose to represent variations in pronunciation or usage orthographically, the more recognisably to bring out the differences between their characters in terms of the class or locality they belong to. A metropolitan writer such as George Eliot, who had been brought up in the Midlands, wasn’t going to let all that she’d once experienced of country speech patterns go to waste. In Adam Bede, she puts her observations on the linguistic divide between rich and poor into the mouth of one of her characters, Mr Casson, a former butler turned pub landlord, and well placed, therefore, to act as a stand-in for his author: ‘They’re cur’ous talkers i’ this country, sir; the gentry’s hard work to hunderstand ‘em. I was brought hup among the gentry, sir, an’ got the turn o’ their tongue when I was a bye.’ Eliot knew on the other hand that a novelist might go too far in her wish to represent regional speech accurately, to the point where ” it would become unintelligible, forcing a reader either to say the words visible on the page out loud in the hope of understanding them that way, or else to give a groan and skip them. But, for an example of the gentry getting to grips with the ways of the country folk, and of a dropped aitch being made to speak volumes, let the palm go to another novelist for whom regionalism mattered, D.H. Lawrence. ‘I don’t in the least want to turn you out of your hut,’ says Lady Chatterley to the gamekeeper. ‘It’s your ladyship’s own ‘ut,’ replies her rough trade, demonstrating by a single apostrophe that real men have no business aping their betters.

The movement towards standardisation took off in the second half of the 18th century, as an important tributary of that wider bonding movement which Linda Colley traces so well in Britons, whose effect was to imbue the scattered and diverse island population with a new sense of nationhood. The attempt to nationalise the language in this sense wasn’t in fact quite new, as Mugglestone begins her book by showing; there were signs of it taking shape much earlier on. The Elizabethan writer George Puttenham, for example, thought that an ideal pronunciation should be based on ‘the vsuall speech of the Court and that of London and the shires lying about London within lx. myles’. This mileage allowance was sufficiently generous to bring within range the University of Oxford, long looked up to as a stronghold of the well-spoken. Indeed, ‘Oxford English’ was what some of us were told once upon a time we should be aiming to speak, and that had more to do with our accents, I suspect, than with our grammar or our mastery of clause-structure. The university should now be planning to get that honorific tag back into circulation, so as to be able to promise future students a euphonious return on their top-up fees.

Back in the 18th century, not everyone who enrolled at Oxford could be trusted not to let the place down when, fresh from the shires, they first opened their mouths. In 1759, one of the leading figures in what Mugglestone calls the ‘prescriptive crusade’, Thomas Sheridan, father of the playwright (and an Irishman), is to be found giving an intensive course of lectures in the Sheldonian, cost one guinea, ‘on ELOCUTION, and the ENGLISH LANGUAGE (so far only as relates to elocution)’. The professional elocutionists had arrived, that’s to say, and were to remain in business for a long time to come. Their services were advertised and sold more to girls and young women than to boys and young men, since good elocution was held to count for even more in the home than in public life, seductive and easy on the male ear in the one setting, authoritative merely in the other. ‘Is there any acquirement more domestic, more peculiarly feminine?’ asked George Vandenhoff, author of a Victorian manual called Lady’s Reader. These guides were written by men and written to let women know what men expected of them: to speak soothingly, correctly and not too much. Faulty elocution by the fireside could, it appears, torpedo a marriage: ‘Our readers may remember that one of the grievances felt by the wife against the husband in the Clitheroe Abduction case was that he accused her of dropping her h’s.’ (She had presumably been careful to keep them coming during the successful courtship.)

Women weren’t the elocutionists’ only target, however: middle-class boys came in for their share, too. Mugglestone quotes an account by the headmaster of a Victorian public school who had hired the Rev. D’Orsey (‘Instructor of Peers, MPs and clergy’, ran his business card) to come to the campus and try to ‘cure mumbling among my hobbledehoys’. The Rev. D’Orsey’s robust method, which he employed with hobbledehoys though not, surely, with peers, MPs and clergymen, was to humiliate them by making them do their mumbling out in front of the class and then give his own imitation of them, to the general ‘joy and mirth’. Maybe the accents the boys brought with them to school responded to initiatives like these, and maybe they didn’t; or maybe they both did and didn’t, since our accents when we’re young are more flexible than they later become, so why not imagine these boys doing RP as to the manner born when face to face with their headmaster and easing back into a convivial mumble among themselves?

Today, for sure, there are no Rev. D’Orseys doing the rounds in schools or anywhere else, and no elocutionists to be found listed in the Yellow Pages. Unless some of the hobbledehoys you pass in the street, ears stopped by the speakers of their personal stereos, are taking sly lessons in what was long ago on euphemistic offer to the girls of Somerville as ‘voice production’, elocution is a dead letter and they can go on pronouncing as they please. This isn’t entirely good news. There are accents and accents: the pleasing, the nondescript and some down the bottom end that we’d like to say were ugly, at the risk of being told that such an aesthetic reaction is a patent blind, that to object to someone’s accent is just plain snobbish. The one objection that demands exemption from that charge is the objection to accents that flirt all the time with unintelligibility, so that you end up feeling as the presiding judge will have felt struggling to fathom the cacophonies of Gaston Dominici. It’s possible at those times to sympathise with the fearlessly out-of-step Beryl Bainbridge, quoted near the end of Talking Proper for demanding that elocution lessons be made compulsory, so that ‘uneducated regional accents’ might be ‘wiped out’.

Lynda Mugglestone’s book was first published five years ago, but has been reissued in a stretched version, its reappearance so soon proof in itself that, accent-wise, we are living in unstable times. This reprise contains an extra chapter at the end, on ‘The Rise (and Fall?) of RP’, where Mugglestone turns from the historical to the topical and takes a look around at the way we speak now. Some will find the question-mark there reassuring, having come to the conclusion in recent years that, as an ideal, RP was done for, that where once it was the pronunciation at which it was proper to aim, it is now a handicap, an accent that it is important to talk your way out of, or at least put a few rough edges on, so as to reassure those within earshot of your anti-elitist credentials. It doesn’t take long in this context, of course, for the question of EE to arise: Estuary English, the accent that has achieved acronym status in no time at all, and which could hardly declare its local origins more nakedly. Linguists see it less as an entity in its own right than as a compromise, falling somewhere midway between good old Cockney and good old RP. To adopt it, provided you know what exactly is then required of you vocally, is to demonstrate that you are a citizen of a classless society – or, as those of us who like on such occasions to reach for Russell’s invaluable paradox would rather put it, that you belong to the new class of the classless. According to Mugglestone, both the late Princess Diana and her foremost eulogist, Tony Blair, learned, with or without having had lessons, to drop into EE at moments when RP might have driven a wedge between speaker and audience, giving one to wonder whether they remembered to forget the glottal stops once they were safely back inside Kensington Palace or Number Ten.

The Princess is quoted here as having said ‘There’s a lot of it about’ (did she mean a lot of glottal stopping?), a remark of which Mugglestone gives a phonetic transcription in a notation which all but a small handful of her readers will be unable to make head or tail of. This is to add insult to injury: do glottal stops have to be as hard to take visually as they are to listen to? Admittedly, books like Talking Proper, which have a running phonetic theme but are not meant to be read only by linguists, face a problem, since all they can do is to display the vagaries of pronunciation when what we would like is to be able to hear them. Hearing them helps, especially if you’re one of the many who aren’t always sure just how, say, a long vowel differs audibly from a short one. I was once at a lunch at which the late Kingsley Amis gave the table a hilarious and I’m sure exquisitely accurate resumé of the Great Vowel Shift in English, and how it would have sounded had it all taken place between courses, in roughly a minute and a half. That, I reflected at the time, is the only way to teach phonetic history. Short of having a Kingsley Amis to hand, the publishers of Talking Proper could have gone in that direction and tucked a CD inside the book’s back cover to add a very useful audio to its visual dimension.

Mugglestone would have done us a favour, too, had she brought together in one place the remarks she makes in passing on phonetic notation, and how that changed over time. The early makers of English dictionaries seem not to have troubled themselves with displaying pronunciations or the point where the stress in a word should fall, either because they didn’t know of a good way of doing so or because they didn’t think it mattered; it was enough that they should be regularising the spelling. In the middle of the 18th century, however, lexicographers became more ambitious. Samuel Johnson, uneasily aware that ‘sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints,’ limited himself in his great dictionary to indicating stress ‘by printing an accent upon the acute or elevated syllable’. Subsequent dictionary-makers went further, by using a macron or a breve, for example, to indicate whether a vowel should be long or short. In 1780, Thomas Sheridan went furthest of all in his General Dictionary of the English Language, by respelling the headwords with a view to eliminating wrong pronunciations, a method followed also by John Walker in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, which went through more than a hundred editions, and by William Cobbett in his survey of the regional possibilities when it came to pronouncing the word corn. In Walker, the pronunciation of chop-house (‘a mean houfe of entertainment’), is given as ‘tshop’house (tsho4 p´ho3 u3 ƒe)’, the superscript numerals being a coded way of indicating the values of the vowels. Respelling potentially mispronounceable word-forms remains a common resource, on the lines of a cinema poster I recall from my youth for a movie entitled Désirée, whose accent-strewn foreign name was followed by the injunction ‘Call her Daisy-Ray’. The better sort of dictionary, however, went over long ago to giving phonetic transcriptions of words, which can take time to master and, if Mugglestone’s transcriptions are anything to go by, have now become positively esoteric, off in pursuit of the phonocentric dream of a form of representation that catches every fleeting vocal nuance. So is this where a moribund prescriptivism plans to make its last stand? Hardly. Were we to follow it, a notation of that order of pedantry would indeed leave our speech organs with scant room for improper manoeuvring, but since we can’t understand, let alone act on it, the phoneticists are back in the clear.

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Vol. 25 No. 19 · 9 October 2003

John Sturrock says that in the 18th century ‘not everyone who enrolled at Oxford could be trusted not to let the place down when, fresh from the Shires, they first opened their mouths’ (LRB, 11 September). Oxford has been badly let down rather more recently than that. During my first tutorial on Milton in 1991, I started quoting from Paradise Lost. My tutor – I shan’t name him – stopped me in mid-flow, shaking his head. He said to me: ‘When I hear you quoting Milton in your Liverpool accent, I keep thinking you’re about to ask me where the nearest chip shop is.’

Tony Pastor
London SW11

I migrated to Australia in 1960, and so have missed the rise of Estuary English and the ascendancy of the glottal stop in the UK, which John Sturrock discusses. But I do remember my mother telling me in the 1950s that the reason my father, born in 1897 and the fourth child of a successful Edinburgh doctor, spoke standard ‘U’ English, was that my grandmother, a determined matriarch, decided that her youngest, at least, should be stripped of his Scottish accent; she therefore prevailed on his father to send poor Ralph Alexander on the lengthy and perilous train journey to Clayesmore, a private school (in Dorset, I think), from which, in due course, he emerged purged of his Doric and therefore, I suppose, sounding more genteel.

My father never spoke of this, but it must have been an experience worthy of record in one of those searing novels about the tyranny of education and the suffering of pupils. My mother, who would have gloried in a husband with a Scottish accent, was tight-lipped about it. As all my grandparents died before I was born, I cannot judge how much my grandmother was motivated by snobbery, and how much by a genuine desire to give my father a social advantage. All the rest of the family, I presume, spoke educated lowland Scots.

Gillan Bridgwood

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