Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

05 October 2017

‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells:’ RP, the BBC, and language attitudes in modern Britain

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

At the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library (2010-11), we asked visitors to submit recordings of their voices in specially designed telephone booths. Around 15,000 speakers took part, and the outcome is the Evolving English VoiceBank and WordBank – a collection of accents and words from all different communities, all over the UK, and all around the world.

Participants could also give additional information, including any other languages they speak at home, and thoughts about their own accents. This resulted in thousands of fascinating recordings in which speakers shared the life stories and family histories that have shaped their speech. There’s the North Londoner born to Eastern European immigrants, for example, or the native Romanian who grew up in America, but lives in New Zealand and now speaks like a Kiwi.

At this stage, participants often volunteered their own opinions about language. Rather encouragingly for the curators, these were usually very positive; more often than not, speakers expressed affection for their regional accents, or regret for having lost them:

speaker (b.1952) started in Newcastle upon Tyne, but I’ve lived most of my life in the South, so it’s mainly Southern. And also I had elocution lessons which buggered up whatever Geordie accent I had.

This positivity is actually fairly surprising, given the prevalence of linguistic prescriptivism in the mainstream media. Our hopeful, tentative interpretation is that the exhibition may have in some ways improved the language attitudes of its attendees, by celebrating the diversity of English and debunking popular myths that there is only one correct way to speak. By the time they reached the recording booths at the end of an exhibition which rejoiced in dialect, perhaps participants felt able to rejoice in it, too.

Inevitably, however, a number of the responses reflected all-too-familiar negative attitudes towards so-called ‘non-standard’ speech:

speaker (b.1932)

The words I dislike – uh I like what I suppose is uh the English that used to be spoken on Radio 4 but we have so many regional accents now, that I I dislike, I dislike people who say ‘but’ [pronounced to rhyme with ‘put’] and people who say ‘tuh’ when they mean ‘the’ or going ‘to’…um, uh it’s it seems to me that Radio Four, sadly BBC Radio Four uh has many more uh accents on it than it needs to {LG} if I can put it like that that’s a prejudice I know, {BR} uh I’m not too wild about these Scots, strong Scots voices, or Welsh voices the sing-song Welsh voices, I accept that’s what they’re like, but I like things in moderation. Not excess.

By ‘the English that used to be spoken on Radio Four’ it’s likely the speaker is referring to ‘Received Pronunciation’ or RP for short – the regionally neutral, (but social class-specific) accent that has come to be the prestige ‘standard’ in England. RP isn’t better or worse than other types of English, and is no less susceptible to change (just listen to some old recordings of the Queen if you don’t believe me), but it has come to enjoy disproportionately prestigious status – partly because it began life as the language of boarding school pupils and Oxbridge students, and partly because, for many years, it was the only accent you could hear on public broadcasts.

In fact, BBC newscasters still represent only a very narrow range of accents – the ‘national’ varieties of middle-class educated Scotland and Wales are present (think Carol Kirkwood and Huw Edwards), but the English of listeners from Tyneside, Merseyside, the West Midlands, the South-West and so on are almost nowhere to be heard. One notable exception is BBC Breakfast Business presenter Stephanie McGovern, whose Middlesbrough accent regularly attracts complaints and indeed abuse from the public. Even today, then, we are only accustomed to hearing regional accents occasionally on-air, and predominantly this is on sports and music programmes. Their absence from news and more ‘serious’ programming only strengthens the myth that they shouldn’t be there in the first place – an idea that threatens not only diversity but social mobility too.

TV announcer Russell Evans made this point recently in an article, having been slammed only last week for pronouncing ‘thunderball’ with an f sound when reading the National Lottery results. This is a common linguistic phenomenon called ‘TH-fronting’; it is hated by some, but it’s also a process so common that linguists estimate we’ll all be doing it by 2050. So if we’re talking about ‘moderation rather than excess’ there’s no doubt that it is RP that’s over-represented in broadcasting, rather than regional accents.

The idea that there is a “correct” way to speak is the sibling of the perspective which says there is a correct way to look. My detractors have been bold enough to vocalise their perspectives, but generally these views are held in silence – declining the interview candidate, rejecting the university application and opposing the promotion. The impact? The homogenous groups deemed as most valuable to the workforce remain prevalent, and we all miss out on the diverse insights, alternative perspectives and talent which numerous studies show aid our collective productivity.

You can listen to more reflections on accent and linguistic identity recorded at the British Library on our One Language, Many Voices page.