LONDON — For years the world needed only turn to the airwaves to hear the proper form of British English being spoken on the BBC. Nary an American accent or word was heard.
But now the British Broadcasting Corporation has veered away from its strict ways, embracing not only all forms of English heard in Britain, but those heard in the United States as well.
Many of the BCC's announcers and newsreaders 20 or 30 years ago spoke with "Oxbridge" accents marked by a cool, clipped style. But now the BBC does not insist as strictly on the use of "standard English," sometimes known as Received Pronunciation, which was introduced in the 1920s and 1930s by Lord Reith, the BBC's first director-general.
Graham Pointon, head of the BBC's pronunciation unit, says that three years ago the director of radio announced that she wanted the "full richness of various types of English accent in Britain" to be heard on the airwaves. Since then, Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh accents, as well as English variants such as Yorkshire, Birmingham, and Liverpool accents, have proliferated on radio and television here.
The door has opened for American English as well."If a person speaks American English and is fully understandable,we would have no objection," Mr. Pointon says.
"But if a person uses American English badly, he or she will be treated in much the same way as anyone speaking badly in a Scottish or Welsh accent," he says.
"For the most part, we are much more tolerant of regional accents than we used to be," Pointon says, though he adds: "I have to concede that some listeners are not."
AN interesting case arose earlier this year when Paul Gambaccini, an American broadcaster, was hired to announce classical music programs on BBC Radio Three. So many listeners complained that Mr. Gambaccini was taken off the air.
Audience research indicated that many people were not objecting to his American accent, or to his use of American English, but to what some listeners thought was a too-ingratiating speaking style. Gambaccini was hired by the BBC to compete with a commercial classical music station whose presenter has a rich Irish accent to which few listeners object.
Peter Donaldson, the BBC's chief announcer, says certain "unwelcome Americanisms" are tending to creep into BBC broadcasts. He cites "gunned down" instead of "shot" as an example, while conceding that the Americanism "conveys a greater sense of drama." He tries to discourage announcers from accenting words in an American style, such as saying "RE-search" instead of "re-SEARCH."
But Donaldson also concedes that there is a two-way, trans-Atlantic traffic in words and emphases. "We try to get our announcers to say 'HA-rass,' rather than 'ha-RASS,' which is American," he says.
"But in fact a century ago 'ha-RASS' with the accent on the second syllable was widely used in Scotland, and seems to have been exported to the United States," he says.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT ENGLISH
*One out of 5 people in the world speaks English at some level of competence.
*By 2000 it is estimated that over 1 billion people will be learning English.
*Worldwide, more than 1.4 billion people live in countries where English is an official language.
*More than two-thirds of the world's scientists read in English.
*Three-quarters of the world's mail is written in English.
*Eighty percent of the world's electronically stored information is in English.
*Of the estimated 40 million users of the Internet worldwide, the majority communicate in English.
Source: English 2000