“When Will the English…: The Current State of the Language in Great Britain

Pygmalion - Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard0 and Eliza (Wendy Hiller)

Prof. Higgins, in perfect received pronunciation, denouncing the Cockney tones of Eliza in the film version of G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion (1938). Modern audiences know it as basis for the musical My Fair Lady.

by Marque A. Rome

On 18th November the Bangkok Post informed interested readers of the following: “The Education Ministry plans to kick off its six-week ‘train-the-trainer’ programme for the first group of 500 Thai teachers to teach English in state-run schools in March next year. Deputy Education Minister Teerakiat Jareonsettasin, who oversees the programme, said…teachers will be trained by 50 British Council English specialists.

“‘The 500 teachers will live in what we call an immersive environment for six weeks, speaking only English.’ …He was also confident the teachers would be fluent in conversational English in six weeks: ‘These 500 teachers do have some training. They are already qualified teachers, so we do not start from zero.'”

I sympathize with Deputy Education Minister Teerakiat’s impulse, and I understand his motivation: according to Ministry of Education figures, out of some 43,000 English teachers in Thailand only six are fluent in something approximating correct English. Clearly there is a problem. Where better to go for ‘specialists’ to sort out this dismal circumstance than the well of English pure and undefiled, Great Britain?

Oh, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Finland, Russia — almost anywhere else might be better. Why? Because they have standardized pronunciation and grammar; whereas, among the English, who have always struggled to agree on acceptable standards for their bastard tongue, official policy now is that there is no ‘correct’ English. Such official lack of policy might be relatively innocuous in nations with a dominant group whose conventions amount to a de facto standard (as, say, in Thailand where Thai as spoken in Bangkok would be the standard with or without official policy).

But in Britain it is linguistic suicide. There, a babel of tongues now holds the field and English as we imagine it should be is a dying art form.

It was not always so. Before 1994 the language still had its champions of rectitude. Some readers may recall the scene in Act I of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (himself, ironically, an Irishman). Prof. Henry Higgins erupts furiously at the flower-seller Eliza’s unlettered Cockneyisms: “Woman! Cease this detestable boohooing instantly…. A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live. Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespear and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.”

The fact is that Britain then was — and still is — riven by a baffling number of local accents, so much so that one might tell instantly the social antecedents of any interlocutor. As Shaw has Higgins, an expert in phonetics, explain: “You can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue. I can place any man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.”

How many accents does Britain hold today? No one seems to know. 56 principal accents are recorded, but each of these may have a dozen sub-species. In 1850, a survey by London’s Metropolitan Police counted 36 distinct accents only for the City of London (that is, the roughly one-square mile area where lies the financial district). As is noted on the Website online-english-lessons.eu: “Many students tell me they want to learn ‘English English’ (as opposed to American English, for instance) – they are often surprised to learn just how many variations of English accent exist here in the UK.”

What used to be regarded as proper pronunciation in Britain is not called that: it is known as ‘received pronunciation’ or ‘RP’. Though native nowhere, it derives from the southern counties and was the conventionalized speech of educated people, of gentry, and, pre-eminently, of British Broadcasting Corporation announcers. It is not old, having emerged from British public schools (which were in fact private schools) during the 19th Century. This pronunciation held sway among a small but important class of people till quite recently, and was the language taught by pedagogues; but it was never spoken by more three percent of the people.

Its dominance was cemented by use on the BBC. That ended abruptly with news, on 27th January, 1994, that a new regime was in place; reported thus in the Guardian newspaper:

“BBC to be less cut-glass

“The cut-glass accent of home counties Britain is to be banished from the air waves by the BBC in favour of more energetic and vigorous voices from the regions.

“Parts of the BBC were lagging a ‘little behind the sound of the nation, beginning to sound a bit antique’, Liz Forgan, managing director of network radio, said yesterday.

“She told the Broadcasting Press Guild that listeners who would appreciate the music on Radio 3 were deterred by its presentation. ‘Radio 3 has not found a presentation style that is energetic enough and vigorous enough. I do not say it is bad, but many people have found it off-putting, and so unlike any other feature of English life.’

“Work had already begun on trying to make the network sound ‘less cliquey and alienating’.

Liz Forgan 120115

Dame Liz Forgan: she thought received pronunciation ‘off-putting’, and so banished it from the BBC — which, if her choice of vocabulary is any indication, is what we might expect from her.

“Ms Forgan, educated at Benenden School, Kent, and herself a model of received pronunciation, said she did not want presenters to sound like her.

“Her remarks follow observations last year by John Birt, the BBC’s director-general, who said Radio 4 was too heavily skewed to the southern home counties.

“More regional accents have been introduced to Radio 4 in the last year, with Andy Kershaw presenting a Sunday morning travel magazine. Gerry Anderson, an accomplished Northern Ireland broadcaster, is to launch a live daily afternoon show on the network next month.

“Ms Forgan said that she wanted to get away from the view once expressed by Sir Ian Trethowan, a former director-general, who had heard a Brummie voice on the radio, and said: ‘What is that sound doing on the BBC – get it off.'”

For her efforts in democratizing the Beeb, Forgan was made a dame of the British Empire.

Today, perhaps two percent of the British still speak RP. All agree its use is in decline. Even the gentry have abandoned it. Kate Middleton, a commoner, reportedly speaks RP more correctly than her husband, the Duke of Cambridge and future heir apparent, who speaks what is termed ‘Estuary English’, described as a “faintly Cockney-fied accent of the Southeast”.

Is this a serious problem? It depends on how one views it. In Britain now, the word ‘bottle’ is commonly pronounced without the ‘t’ sound, “bo’erl”, a glottal stop doing duty for the missing ‘t’. “They say ‘ahm’ for arm, ‘naa-it’ for night, and ‘le’er’ for letter,” wrote Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson on 7th August, 1994, in the Independent. He saw nothing alarming in the change: “For at least a century,” he observed, “accent in England has been two things: a vertical indicator about geographical origins, and a horizontal caste-mark separating ‘top people’ from the rest. From this intersection between place and class has come much odious social farce and – in those parts of the British Isles where it was taken seriously – a vast amount of unnecessary misery.

Neal Ascherson 120115

Scotch journalist Neal Ascherson, who comes from a land where the denizens might well applaud ‘dissolution’ of English.

“At the top were those who spoke with ‘received pronunciation’…. (Received by whom, and from whom?) The speaker of RP would refer to all the rest as ‘having accents’….

“So it came about that, until recently, top people who lived near Cape Wrath spoke in exactly the same accent as top people who lived near Penzance. Their origins might be totally different: the first only two generations away from a Gaelic-speaking warlord, the second the descendant of a Tudor property shark or a Victorian mine-owner. But they had merged into a single ruling culture. They talked the same, thought the same and wore the same baggy clothes. They were the universal British ruling class.

“Now that culture is dissolving.”

Indeed it is; to be replaced by… what? “The voice of children’s TV entertainment,” Ascherson wrote: “that brassy, relentless patter with its East End flavour. (Isn’t the ancestor of all showbiz presenting the patter of stall-holders in city street markets?). As diction, it is warm, cheeky and inviting. Whatever the accents of parents, this has become the voice in which the nation chats up its children.”

Thus RP is dead; Estuary English, with its East End working class, Cockney-fied character, is its tenuous heir; and most of the nation speaks language so differing in pronunciation from the orthography it might as well be French. BBC announcers now speak in dialects once reserved for comedy routines, and teachers are hired with working class accents.

Michel Selby with dog 120115

Ministry of Education adviser Michael Selby: he also teaches dogs.

I wonder if Thailand’s Ministry of Education and their American adviser, Michael Selby (hitherto an investment councillor) realise this. It should be interesting to see how much these Thai English teachers take home from their six-weeks course — and even more interesting if a few come away talking like mechanics from East London.


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