Talking Proper

As the founder of Max Your Voice, I’ve just been to a fascinating lecture given by Professor Lynda Mugglestone. I’d already warmed to her before she started, because I thought that with a name like that, she was probably distantly connected to muggles and had magical powers. So much for the perception that names give us. The perception of the way we speak, said Professor Mugglestone, can still very much alter the way we’re perceived and even judged. She gave us some historical examples of how various figures had striven to get us to speak in English, in an accent that would dissolve any prejudice and get us listened to and even in some cases, made MPs. Even the writer Jonathan Swift, known for his liberal ideas was an advocate for a “prescriptive” or standard English accent.

Samuel Johnson didn’t care what people thought of his Brummie accent. His friend and biographer Boswell said “he speaks with a most uncouth voice”. Boswell had his Scots accent ironed out by an elocution teacher called Sheridan. In the 18th century it was as if you dressed with your fine and elegant accent as well as your fine and elegant clothes. Emma Hamilton was more at home in Italy where she hobnobbed with the Queen of Naples – speaking fluent Italian – than she was with the aristocracy in England, who despised her for her “bur” accent as much as her seductive past.

As late as 1930, inspectors of schools classified children who dropped their hs and gs as educationally defective. It made we wonder that such a harsh judgement would perhaps encourage the more successful to make sure their children spoke with a “prescriptive” or RP accent. The acknowledged accent for public schools has been RP and still is in some of them.

However, nowadays our perceptions have changed radically. Regional accents are sort out and used for the “honesty” they impart. People who’ve been brought up with RP have ditched it for a more acceptable accent for their chosen professions. Guy Ritchie, who’s father is an executive in advertising, has done this and Mick Jagger and Fern Cotton. Adverts for bleach have voice- overs using people with modern RP, suggesting that the cut glass accent demonstrates a clinical edge. M&S food have replaced the clear and crisp accent of Samantha Bond in their commercials, with the more regional sound of Caroline Quentin. Using her warmest Manchester, Julie Walters encourages us to go to LloydsTSB “for the journey” . Jane Horrocks does many voice-overs. Her skill as an actress has done wonders in making regional accents so popular. The most successful voice-over artists I’ve trained recently, have used their regional accents to get the work.

Is it any wonder that David Cameron has been urged to take his accent to the neutralisers? – as the Guardian said last Saturday. I think he’s started to sound bombastic and that’s what’s being picked up.

So the new socially acceptable accent is regional. If you’re really adventurous you could go slightly French, Danish, Spanish or Italian. It’s all good – as long as you’re clearly understood…

Next “Speak English Clearly” course starts on August 23rd.

Melvin Bragg’s programme on English accents is being broadcast on Saturday evening on Radio 4. The BBC have dropped their pronunciation department.

Professor Lynda Mugglestone’s book ‘Talking Proper’ is on sale at Amazon.

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