Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Queen's English Down the Gutter!

As a teacher of English, I am obviously always interested in anything having to do with the evolution of the English language. English is a very dynamic and diversified language and as we argued before there is no such thing as ‘purity’ in a language and, if I may add, contrary to common belief, English is not threatened by standardization. In fact even American English is growing more diverse.

Because my English is American (with a “Midland accent” if I am to believe this fun but unreliable site, which really means not a very distinct regional accent), and because I am more exposed to American English on a daily basis I am not so familiar with the changes in British English.

Yet, there is also an interesting evolution in British English. Of course, in Britain it is the Queen who sets the standards, even though most people do not speak the Queen’s English (which is obviously upper-class) but a rather more common form called Standard Received Pronunciation (RP) which is close to the English spoken in south-east England (also called Estuary English).

Interestingly, because Elizabeth III has been a queen for so long (54 years), and because her words have been recorded in that entire period, they offer some interesting material, so a team led by a professor of phonetics has recently studied all of the Christmas broadcasts made by the queen during her reign (Telegraph).

The findings are interesting: the Queen herself no longer speaks the Queen's English! Shocking!

Her speech has followed the general trend from cut-glass URP (Upper Rec-eived Pronunciation) towards the more democratic Standard Received Pronunciation and its close relative, Standard Southern British English.

According to the author, it reflects a general change towards a more classless British society since "half a century ago the social classes were much more demarcated." In fact, according to the study, not much changed in the first decade of her reign (1952-1962) but by 1977 the researchers detected subtle hints that the Queen's vowels were changing.

"That changed with the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the much greater blurring of boundaries," the professor said.

"I don't think the Queen changed consciously at all. What the study suggests is that we all participate in sound changes, whether we like it or not. The Queen has merely altered her way of speaking in line with her host community in south-east England."

Most of the changes have occurred in vowel sounds in the middle and at the end of words.

Here are some examples:

In 1952 she would have been heard referring to:

  • thet men in the bleck het”, when now it could be "that man in the black hat".
  • the citay and dutay” rather than “citee and dutee” today,
  • hame” rather than “home
  • and she would have been “lorst” back in the day when now she is simply “lost”.

As for the queen, she is at least aware that her grand sons, the princes, "sound a bit Estuary." That may be why the American broadcaster CBS decided to provide subtitles during a recorded interview with the princes. Too east-enders for the American audience maybe? (The Guardian)

The British being so British tend to take the whole thing with humor although some of course lament that the Queen’s English is going down “the gutter of crowd-pleasing uniformity, where everyone must sound the same in order to prove they are "real".”

The rest of us of course knows that it is not true and that English is not becoming more unformed but actually more diverse precisely because more people speak it.

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