Friday, 26 August 2011

BBC Radio 4 feature by Baron Bragg - part 2

Melvyn Bragg mentiones Daniel Jones again by noting this:
At the beginning of the 20th century the phonetician Daniel Jones strove for precision tracking back to reveal how spoken English had evolved over the centuries. He was passionate to communicate the fluidity of pronunciation - and for him - how RP was clearer and simpler than a dialect spoken in the 14th century as he described in "Our Changing Speech". 
What one then hears is Daniel Jones talking about case and verb inflectional endings which vanished during the development of the English language. Your Lordship: Daniel Jones spoke about simplifications in morphosyntax, not about RP, not about the fluidity of pronunciation. And: by what standards was Chaucer's English flowing less easily and clearly? Chaucer's was the time of Early Middle English and RP didn't emerge until the 19th century. As Jack Windsor Lewis in his PhonetiBlog of the 12th of August aptly and succinctly puts it:
These remarks of Bragg's were an embarrassingly garbled representation of Jones's aims and attitudes, evidently concocted in desperation at the absence of any other recording of Jones more, or rather at all, relevant to his theme.
A few celebrities are mentioned and heard who dropped or had to drop their local accents to become successful in their jobs, e.g. Vidal Sassoon (who had to get rid of his Cockney accent to gain access to the salons of Mayfair) or the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, who had been sent to elocution lessons to eradicate her northern accent.

Next - and this is a kind of membrum disiectum - MB offers his listeners several sound samples of British soldiers held in German prisoner war camps during the First World War. These samples illustrate a variety of regional accents. They were recorded by the German scholar [wɪɫnhɛɫm dɜːɡən] (this is the way MB pronounces his name; I will post a separate blog entry on Wilhelm Doegen in due time). Those young captives read the parable of The Prodigal Son or recited poems or sang songs. After having played the snippets, MB continues:
If you listen carefully though [sic] what you can hear is the fascination Doegen had with regional variation.
No, Your Lorship! What you hear are the voices of regional speakers with crackles and other noise superimposed. No fascination is detectable in them!

MB then makes mention of the BBC and its considerable influence on the development of RP. An Advisory Committee was founded by Lord Reith in 1926. Its aim was to advise announcers on words of doubtful pronunciation. The initial board members were Robert Bridges, L.P. Smith, A. Lloyd James, J. Forbes-Robertson and D. Jones. As problems grew on how to pronounce particular words the committee was considerable enlarged. Jack Windsor Lewis describes the committee as a "club"

[...] packed with titled people, professorial people and so on. It really was a  ... a sort of club where people got together and swapped their prejudices except for Daniel Jones. There was hardly anybody who had a proper training in observing speech.
Not a very favourable verdict.

In sum, it must be said that what we are served in this transmission is very much of a hotchpotch: trivial information mixed with interesting snippets.What is sorely missed is a straight line of arguments; instead, MB prefers to zigzag. If all MB wanted to convey to us is that RP is on the decline and regional accents are preferred, then the transmission could have ended after about 6 minutes, but it went on and on for almost a full hour.

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