Sunday, 21 August 2011

BBC Radio 4 feature by Baron Bragg - part 1

On the 6th of August 2011, BBC Radio 4 transmitted a programme called "RP RIP". Its author is Melvyn Bragg.
credit: BBC
Melvyn Bragg (= MB) was born in 1939 in Wigton, a village near Carlisle. In his childhood he spoke General Cumbrian and the village dialect of Wigton, the latter being a dialect which contains a lot of Romany words. Both dialects are closely related to Old Norse. He attended Nelson Thomlinson School, a grammar school in Wigton, and then read Modern History at Wadham College, Oxford. During these years a (not so) near-RP accent was 'drummed' into him. Illustrating his own speech development is how he begins this BBC 4 feature entitled "RP RIP". This immediately reminded me of MB's BBC Radio 4 series 'Routes of English' broadcast at the turn of the century, in which he also talked about Wigton and its dialects in a special feature called "Talking Posh", which was transmitted in 2001.

credit: Pembroke College
credit: BBC
Among others Professor Lynda Mugglestone from Pembroke College, Oxford, and Clive Upton were interviewed in 'Talking Posh'. In 'RP RIP' they appear again, and also a new expert is to be heard, who is introduced by MB as "pronunciation lexicographer": Jack Windsor Lewis.

To call Windsor Lewis a lexicographer is much too narrow a description and illustrates the somewhat superficial research undertaken by MB. 'Speech sound observer' (or 'phonetician') would probably be more appropriate.

There was ('past tense' because the feature is no longer available) a chance to hear sound snippets of quite a few (partly historic) voices, e.g. those of

- - Daniel Jones, phonetician
- - G.B. Shaw, Irish playwright
- - John Ebdon, former BBC presenter
- - Beryl Bainbridge, English novelist
- - David Liddiment, trustee of the BBC Trust
- - Baroness Joan Dawson Bakewell, English journalist and TV presenter
- - Baron John Charles Walsham Reith, former director of BBC
- - Arthur Lloyd James, phonetician
- - Alistair Cooke, journalist and broadcaster
- - Tord Alvar Quan Lidell, BBC announcer
- - Wilfred Pickles, Yorkshireman and BBC newsreader
- - Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister.

After having described his own speech-forming years MB reports the results of an article in a recent edition of the Journal of Sociolinguistics (not even the year of publication is mentioned; I found the source in the meantime, so here's an update: vol. 11 (2001), issue 1, pp. 74-93; Coupland, N., Bishop, H.: "Ideologised values for British accents") in which the authors report that 70% out of 5000 people across Britain "are proud of their accent". This includes, of course, RP speakers, does it not? MB then raises the questions: "Whose [= accent] do you like? Who could you trust?" A few seconds later, a similar proclamation is issued when he tells us that "today we seem to prefer it [= a regional accent] to RP". To corroborate this, Susie Dent, a broadcaster for Channel 4's word game 'Countdown' tells us that she "dreams of suddenly coming out on Countdown in a sort of broad Lancashire burr". MB repeats his mantra: "RP has ruled supreme [for 400 years], but today it's losing its appeal".

Enter Lynda Mugglestone. In her usual enthusiastic and lively manner she proposes the idea that some regional accents are an index to honesty, as can be seen in the banking sector where Scottish and Irish speakers are employed. Her daring hypothesis is that "RP is gradually being marginalised". One must not forget, however, that in 1974 Peter Trudgill had published a statistic that displayed a figure of 3 per cent for British RP speakers. If this figure is correct, then one must say that in the seventies of the last century RP was as much a marginal accent as it is today.

Next, we hear several sound snippets of voices who criticise regional accents, e.g. Beryl Bainbridge. MB then turns to Daniel Jones. Jack Windsor Lewis is interviewed (what was MB's question?).

credit: JWL
He describes the terminological changes Jones undertook, first calling the accent Standard English, then Public School English and finally Received Pronunciation. MB does not take this up but makes the following comment: "Jones' version of RP, once a voice to inspire trust, a voice that wouldn't lie, an emblem of truth, has become the accent of duplicitous politicians of the disconnected elite", which he pronounces as [ˈɛliːt]. And what about all those business people, scholars or members of the clergy who speak RP? (Another of MB's minority pronunciations is /'i:məneɪt/ for <emanate>.) And once again the message that "RP [...] is slowly going out of fashion" is drummed home.

credit: Guardian
The story then takes a new twist, when Cheryl Cole is mentioned, who was sacked from the American TV show X Factor because of her Geordie accent. Producers of the show were concerned her Geordie accent would be too difficult for an American audience to understand.

I listened to several interviews with Miss Cole and I must say that though she has a regional accent she is not very difficult to understand once your ears are tuned in to it, which doesn't take long.

MB tells us that Americans seem to prefer the "voice of the upper-crust English" such as Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry. They represent the "lovable fops" as MB puts it. However, RP voices are also used to indicate villains, such as Ralph Fiennes in 'Harry Potter', Terence Stamp as the principal villain in 'Superman 2', Ian McKellen as Magneto in the 'X-Men' films, Paul Bettany as Silas in 'The Da Vinci Code' etc. All of them are classified as "posh Brits" - what a hubris! MB's theory is that this development is the "fault of Alec Guinness in 'Starwars'". Your Lordship, would you care to give us some facts corroborating your theory? No? It's not a theory then, but a mere conjecture.

MB then tells us that in April of 2010 Helen Mirren hit out at Hollywood casting Brits as villains in movies. Were there any reactions from the American film industry? We aren't told. What's it got to do with the assumed marginalisation of RP? We've got to draw our own conclusions.

To be continued


  1. Sounds about as annoying as I had feared.

    Anyway, I don't believe this 3% figure, and certainly not that it went significantly down since 1974. I hear RP everywhere on the streets and in the shops (yes, Tesco, not Fortnum's), and astonishingly not even that few people who speak it in a rather unmockneyfied version (maybe preglottalisation, but not glottal stops for older t, less open diphthongs &c.).

  2. Trudgill arrived at this figure by extrapolating the number of RP speakers within a random sample of Norwich English. And it was him who gave an article of 2001 the title "The death of RP?".

  3. It is my considered opinion that Melvyn Bragg knows about as much about language as a tea-leaf knows about the history of the East India Company.