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What's with the accent?

The queen's own tight-lipped speech has softened over the years.

By Christopher Andreae / December 7, 2010



"You don't sound as if you come from Glasgow," says the salesperson on the phone line.

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"Well, I don't. I just live here. I originally came from Yorkshire – but" (preempting further comment) "I don't sound as if I'm from there either."

On reflection, I sound as if I could have come from anywhere. In Britain, that is. Not a trace of a short, blunt northern "u." Not a trace of round and rich West Country speech. No Welsh lilt. No Cockney glottal stop. A merciful absence of Geordie. What I speak is a kind of "Received Pronunciation" acquired by virtue of upbringing and schooling. Proper and private. My speech is nonregional.

Once, I lived in the States. I made a conscious decision on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, soon after my arrival. The bus driver and I didn't understand each other. I was faced with a choice: modify my speech or just speak English louder. I opted for No. 2.

When I came to live in Scotland, my choice was similar and my decision (to which I have stuck for 30 years) much the same.

But has one modified one's accent without realizing it? Possibly. The queen definitely has. Listen to her launching a liner in the 1950s. Tight-lipped and sharp-voweled: "Bliss Awl Whew Seal in Ha." But many speech patterns have flowed under the bridge since then. Today, Her Majesty has far more "normal" inflections.

At one time "the queen's English" was a standard. The BBC was also part of the plot, and there was a recognizable nonregional enunciation issuing from announcers on radio and TV. Something of this remains. But increasingly, regional accents are actively invited. And there is a subtle shift in the character of Received Pronunciation itself. More and more, it is being replaced by – some would say "eroded" by – Estuary English.

EE has been recognized since the 1980s. It's a modification of RP, making it closer to the daily speech of people who live on the Thames estuary east of London. But it has by now gone way beyond its regional beginnings. One of EE's distinctions is to pronounce the "y" at the end of words differently. Instead of "lovely" it is "lovelay." "Funny" is "funnay."

I came face to face with EE and its persistence during rehearsals for the last production our drama club put on. Ambitiously, for amateurs, it was Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." Most Chekhov I have seen in Britain has been performed in Received Pronunciation, so I felt safe auditioning. I avoid Scottish plays out of mere kindness toward Scottish audiences. They shouldn't be subjected to my attempts to produce a Scottish accent.

But this recent production caught me out. I got a part. Only then did the director explain that she wanted to indicate the different levels of society in the play by having the "toffs" with RP, and the "serfs" with – you guessed it – Scottish accents. My character was not a toff. I attempted persuasion. Our director stood firm. Unswayed.

In the end I thought: So be it. If the audience chuckles at my pathetic efforts, don't blame me.

As with other productions, I was asked to advise the Scottish members of the cast how to hone their English accents. The director also asked me to help make the member playing Gaev use an upper-crust English accent – rather than his undoubted Estuary English.

It proved a losing battle. As soon as he was acting, questions of "correct" accent were forgotten, and in the end our Gaev was unrepentantly an Estuary man.

But what about Firs, the ancient retainer (my role), and his Scottish accent? There was some glee at tables turned on me for a change. I was given plenty of help. But of course there are lots of different Scottish accents, and each of my advisers had a different take on my would-be accent.

At home I have to put up with a long-running joke about my attempts to do accents. When I try Welsh, for example, she asks why I am speaking Pakistani. This spouse-based teasing in mind, I informed my Best Critic that on no account was she to come to see "The Cherry Orchard." So of course she came.

On the way home afterward, she said rather quietly, "Actually your Scottish accent wasn't bad." From a Scot, such hyperbolic, eloquent, overweening, untempered commendation is not to be sniffed at. I was so overcome I had to stop the car and wipe my forehead.

Not that anyone knew, of course, which part of Scotland my generalized accent might have come from. Privately, I think it may have been a kind of Estuary Scottish...

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