Review article reproduced from Bulletin of the International Association of University Professors of English, issue for Autumn 2000

The establishment of the English RP accent : a flawed interpretation?

John Honey
University of Botswana

permanent address 13 Greenlands, Cambridge CB2 2QY (UK)

review article

Lynda Mugglestone, 'Talking proper' : the rise of accent as social symbol. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1995. £40 (now available in paperback, £14.99).

A standard form of written English, in the sense of a variety whose geographical provenance is undetectable, had its origins in developments in the 1420s in the central government bureaucracy in the capital, and, as Dr Mugglestone confirms in this book, was "clearly in existence" by the late 17th century (M10, i.e. Mugglestone, page 10). But, as with many other European languages, a standard variety of spoken English took much longer to emerge. Nevertheless, "over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, a clear sense of an emergent standard of spoken as well as written English" became perceptible (M14). This interesting and valuable book, now available in paperback, tells the story of how that perception became widespread, to the point of establishing RP as the hypothetical model of present-day British English, at least as taught to foreign learners. Dr Mugglestone's account, however, also opens up a number of serious and disputable issues which it is the intention of this paper to explore.

Most of the elements of the standard accent were in place by the end of the 18th century, and in the period c. 1760 to 1800 five times as many works on elocution appeared as had done so before those years. Dr Mugglestone suggests that initially the intention of these authors was simply description, or at most consciousness-raising in regard to accent, but that into the 19th century the tide of prescription became ever stronger. A set of shibboleths was identified, among which h- dropping - for the novelist Gissing, this was the "fiend"; for the commentator Kington-Oliphant "the fatal letter" M211) - was by far the most prominent; indeed, it was to be used by D.H. Lawrence to mark the social distance between Lady Chatterley and her gamekeeper (M107). After a period of uncertainty about the correct pronunciation of the vowel in fast and path, this settled down by the later 19th century in its present form. Other persistent concerns surrounded intrusive r and post-vocalic r, the vowels in cup and bull, and -in for -ing, (though she does not deal with that alternation commonly found, for example, in the second syllable of 'somethink' and 'nothink').

As the D. H. Lawrence example suggests, one of the most important and useful sections of this book deals with the representation of dialect in literature. Dickens is here shown to have deployed accent (and dialect) differences in a masterly way to indicate differences of class and education in various of his characters, significantly distinguishing between the non-standard-speaking ordinary folk and his mature heroes endowed with standard speech; and similar strategies and assumptions are scrupulously documented and analysed in the works of Smollett, Fielding, Gissing (an especially rich source), Mrs Gaskell, Hardy, Thackeray, Meredith, Charles Reade and others. Dr Mugglestone's chapter on the way the model of women's speech, as a key aspect of women's identity, was constructed in 19th century writings is a classic which deserves to be reproduced in anthologies for students of Women's Studies and, even more importantly perhaps, for male readers. A further chapter explores ways in which the newly standardised accent established its hold through the education system and finally (in a more perfunctory section), by the BBC after 1922.

The central theme of the book relates to the development of differential evaluations of spoken English, and there are big problems here. We know that where a society is vertically stratified - i.e. into 'classes' or castes or other levels involving unequal status or wealth, then some form of social stratification of language seems inevitable. A quarter of a century ago the American linguist Gillian Sankoff compared this with the situation of preliterate communities in (e.g.) Papua New Guinea in pre-colonial times, where there appeared to be almost no vertical social stratification, but a great deal of horizontal stratification, with thousands of small communities living alongside each other, keenly aware of particular differences which distinguished their lexis or grammar from those of adjacent communities, and with each community asserting strenuously that its own language was 'best', but aware that all their neighbouring communities asserted the same superiority for their own language or dialect. One of the very few manifestations of 'vertical' linguistic stratification here is in the realm of the language of magic, with its rituals and formulas expressed in esoteric language whose possession made it a 'language of power' for its speakers. Another aspect - not discussed then by Sankoff, nor here by Mugglestone - is the apparently universal tendency in even the technologically simplest societies to regard some forms of language as 'correct', with older members commenting unfavourably on, and attempting to control, the usage of the younger ones. This is reported for aboriginal tribes in Australia and is very apparent even among extremely small language groups in countries like Botswana.

By contrast, modern industrialised societies exhibit (in Sankoff’s analysis) an unmistakeable degree of vertical linguistic stratification. Such stratification may simply mirror political and economic stratification, and linguistic elements may - like dress or etiquette - become the arbitrary symbols of rankings in the social or economic hierarchy. But we need to note, pace Sankoff, that this is not the only form of stratification which is involved, despite the frequent attempts of sociolinguists to claim these ingredients as all-important. In ancient Rome and its dominions, linguistic stratification reflected the primacy of Greek language and culture, despite the political inferiority of the Greeks: what was crucial was respect for Greek culture, and not least its literature. For much of Japan's history, Japanese language and culture were in thrall to Chinese culture, despite the absence of political domination by China.

Among crucial factors in modern industrialised societies, the demand for specialist knowledge and a high regard for literacy have both led to a respect for the forms of language in which modern specialist knowledge is most commonly expressed, which is overwhelmingly the standard variety (cf. Gellner 1983).

There is now widespread recognition that language encodes a value-system, and we can readily see that the set of values and attitudes thus embodied can relate to such factors as nationalism, social class, status, locality or group solidarity. It thus becomes important to try to identify which, in any given manifestation of a 'social' correlate of language use, is the most compelling of all these potential factors.

In this respect, the problems raised by this book are not in its documentation, which is often magnificent, but in its interpretation. Like many sociolinguists (indeed, until recently, perhaps most : see Honey 2000) Dr Mugglestone accepts uncritically (M48) the linguistic equality hypothesis - admittedly more plausible in respect of accent than other aspects of linguistic variation. She then follows the Milroys (1985) in depicting the ideology of standardisation and prescription as essentially social elitism. The model of speech which was at first admired and then enforced was, she claims, that of the social elite. Against this, other varieties were persistently (and, in due course, insistently) denigrated as vulgar, vicious, savage, coarse, gross, barbarous, embarrassing, rude, bad, wrong, negligent, inattentive, depraved, unintelligent, inferior, a matter of disgrace or shame - all these words recur regularly throughout the late 18th and the 19th centuries, and of course into our own.

But a closer inspection of what all these writers whom she quotes actually said, beginning as far back as men like Hart in the 1560s and Puttenham in the 1580s, shows that their specifications of the most admired speech forms were not related to a social elite as such. They, and scores of writers about the more prestigious forms of language in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were united in identifying two sets of criteria, the first being educatedness and the second locality. Locality meant metropolitan rather than provincial, reflecting the unique pre-eminence of London, which around 1700 was (though she tells us little of this) the second city of Europe, the nation's thriving political, administrative, economic, legal, commercial and cultural giant, with a population easily ten times that of the two next-biggest cities put together, and more than three hundred times the size of most provincial towns in England. The speech of educated people in London was thus compared favourably with that of provincials on grounds of sophistication and knowledge of the world: as a popular writer wrote in 1774, the most admired speaker is "supposed to have seen too much of the world to retain the peculiarities of the district in which he was born" (M66). A century later, by which date the accent originating in the metropolis had come to be widely perceived as the norm, another such popular writer, this time in Scotland, would confirm that purity of accent consisted in its belonging "to no city or district" [loc. cit]. By contrast, regional speech everywhere in the British Isles was in danger of being stigmatised as ‘provincial dross”.

London was also a centre of professional education - legal and medical - though it had until the 1820s no university, and Oxford and Cambridge (especially the former) were also named in some definitions of the best speech. London's overwhelming and disproportionate influence as a literary centre is also highly relevant, since the conception of educatedness which gave prestige to the standard was dominated by literary models. It was also the capital for the stage, and the most important centre for those of the 'learned' professions which relied on impressive oral communication. We remember A. J. Ellis's important criterial reference in 1869 to "the educated pronunciation of the metropolis, of the court, the pulpit, and the bar" - by the last of which we should perhaps confirm, lest there be any repetition of the comic misunderstanding in a recent article [Shibles 1995] by an American linguist, that Ellis was referring not to the colloquial speech of "the pub" [sic] but to the characteristic professional speech of English barristers. Of course, to be a gentleman was one of the frequent accompaniments of educatedness, as had to be the case when so small a proportion of the total population had access to education beyond a very basic level. But it was never a defining characteristic: superior social rank was not in itself the guarantee of the right accent, and provincial gentry and aristocrats were often remarked unfavourably upon for not achieving it. Middlemarch specifically compares - unfavourably - the "accent and manner" of the local gentry with that of "a university man". (M254), and for a writer in 1836, residence for "any period in the country" could often lead to an almost ineradicable "coarseness & vulgarity of tone" (M67). Nor, emphatically, was wealth a defining characteristic of the right way of speaking : nouveaux riches were ridiculed throughout the whole period. What was wrong with all these parvenus was the discrepancy between, on the one hand their wealth, status, and power and, on the other, their inability to conceal, in their speech, their lack of educatedness.

So educatedness was more naturally to be expected among ladies and gentleman than among barrow-boys or washerwomen, and certain linguistic forms to be expected "among the established usages of polite life" (1839, M166), but the false correlation of accents with the social elite as such, rather than with people who were perceived as educated, also conceals the way in which individuals who did get access to education could then surmount class barriers. Hence also the enormous popular demand for texts and lectures which offered short-cuts to such access. And, as Dr Mugglestone admits, it was often very ordinary folk - humble teachers and parsons - rather than the obviously privileged, who set out to meet the voracious demand for help with what they, too perceived to be the 'correct' pronunciation.

If you do not understand the respect for educatedness, and the attitude to literacy and specifically to literature which underlay it, then you will find it hard to interpret the attitudes to specific pronunciation shibboleths which, as Dr Mugglestone shows, persisted from the mid-18th century onwards, indeed growing in strength from the mid-19th onwards. In a host of words, spelling-pronunciations overtook centuries-old forms, h was restored in a whole set of words, -ing replaced -in for many, and Dr Johnson and numerous others advised that the most correct pronunciation was that which deviated least from spelling - all in flagrant disregard for the 20th century linguists' strenuous insistence on the primacy of the phoneme over the grapheme. Sparrowgrass (for asparagus) and cowcumber (cucumber) were disparaged not merely for reasons of social snobbery (as this book implies), but because they were perceived as ignorant forms based on false analogy, and characteristic only of the unlettered. In criticising 18th century prescriptivism, Dr Mugglestone belittles (M96) the resistance of our generation to the modern uses of aggravate (cf. annoy) and gay while she appears to find it difficult to understand that the first not only involves semantic confusion but also advertises ignorance, while the second did raise real problems during the period when the 'primary' sense of the word was still in transition : when a Times obituary tells us that a deceased Lord Chancellor was cultured and gay, what are we to think, unless we happen to know the date when that obituary was lodged in the paper's files? There are opportunities for real impairment of communication here.

"Being in London, I hope, will correct their language," wrote the head of a gentry family in the North East of England when sending his daughters off to school in the capital in 1808 (Collingwood 1957, p. 240). Yet it is of course true that the currency of these 'correct' forms and, more generally, of the educated accent associated with them, was limited so long as their use was confined to educated people in London. Greatly increased access to education was opened up in two ways : by the development of a system of schools attended by increasing numbers of the middle and upper classes, and by the coming of universal, and ultimately compulsory, schooling for the masses. Both of these systems came into being in the second half of the 19th century and both were penetrated by consciousness of the standard accent. The chapter on education in this book was singled out for special praise by one of its reviewers, Prof. David Crystal, but in fact it must be admitted that this section is the least satisfactory part of Dr Mugglestone's book.

She has much to say about the public schools as agencies of the diffusion of this socially prestigious accent, but she has missed a number of features which were crucial to their new role. The first was the widespread acceptance of the experience of boarding, itself greatly facilitated by the new railways: the boarding experience was especially conducive to accent adaptation. Furthermore, it was now an extended experience, since the second feature was the great extension and consolidation of the age range, most notably by the development of a subsystem of preparatory schools, each in many respects a microcosm of the public schools, so that it became the common expectation of parents that their sons should be sent away from home at age seven or eight, for a total of around ten highly impressionable years of their lives. The third was that these schools did not exist as separate entities but that their influence on their pupils' lives, attitudes and even speech forms was increased by the fact that they were part of an interacting system of schools - what has been called the 'pubic school system' in a new sense, after c. 1870, with complex links based on academic competition and, more importantly, on interaction at games, cadet corps and other activities. A fourth was the 'ideology' or propaganda of school life constituted by the vast new literature of boyhood (and later girlhood) - the school story - which centred on this type of institution, and indeed helped to propagate its speech forms.

The book shows how what it rightly identifies as the lack, around 1800, of any 'system' (M265) of mass education was remedied in the 19th century, though the point at which this new system became the vehicle for dissemination of a standard accent is problem we must return to. There is little awareness, however, of the relevant characteristics of the new public school 'system', and it does not help that (for instance) she treats Ackworth School in the 1850s as an example of a 'newer public school' (M287) when it would never have been so regarded as having that status at any time in the 19th century. She emphasises the relevance of age to accent adaptation, yet there is no recognition of the crucial part which the newly elaborated ‘prep’ school sector of this new system came to play. Other weaknesses in her understanding of this central topic are illustrated by her misinterpretation of one brief case history.

In two places in this book (M128, 177-8) she gives an account of the supposed "desire" of Matthew Boulton, James Watt's famous engineering partner, that his grandson should be sent to Eton in order - as she represents him as stressing - to counteract and avoid the "vicious pronunciation and vulgar dialect" prevalent at his day school in Birmingham. Unfortunately both her references to this are untrue to the facts. The words put into Boulton's mouth by Dr Mugglestone were not his, they were written to him by his son's (clerical) schoolmaster in Winson Green in December 1779, more than fifty years before the first of Boulton's grandsons went off to Eton (Robinson 1969). But it seems that even Matthew junior's transfer to boarding schools - he went to two, in Twickenham and then Colchester - made little impression on what his later teacher described as his "defect in pronunciation". And it was certainly not Boulton himself who had any part in the decision to send his grandsons to Eton, since he had died more than a decade before they were born, and more than a quarter of a century before the first of them entered Eton.

Nor is it at all likely that, even if he had lived that long, he would have encouraged their being sent there. He had a "supreme contempt" for the aristocratic Englishman of the kind his son encountered during his educational spell in France, and whose example (except possibly in certain aspects of dress which could be replicated by his Birmingham factory) he disdained for his own son, though he was indeed anxious that the lad should acquire those "essential embellishments to the Character of a Gentleman", namely Rhetorick and Belles Lettres, which could be studied at Edinburgh.

Moreover, the idea that Eton in the 1830s would have guaranteed the right accent for the grandsons is also questionable, given their own father's "most inveterate provinciality in conversation" (at least at age 15), and specifically his omission of "the aspirate". As we know (cf. Honey 1989/91), many Etonians of the early part of the 19C survived schooling there (and indeed Oxbridge afterwards) with distinct traces of local speech. This was the case even with Gladstone (his accent was described by Disraeli as 'provincial' and for other observers it disqualified him from being regarded as a true gentleman); and if Boulton senior had ever met Sir Robert Walpole he would have encountered a thick Norfolk accent which had survived both Eton and Cambridge. Sir Robert Peel, at Harrow at the very beginning of the 19th century and then at Oxford, retained lifelong Staffordshire vowels, and "guarded his aspirates with extreme care" - and sometimes tripped over them, a situation hard to square with Dr Mugglestone's account.

What is problematical here is the extent to which, and the date at which, even the most famous public schools could be depended on as vehicles of the standard accent. A complicating factor is the existence of a hyperlectal or 'advanced' variety of prestige accent. In other contexts Dr Mugglestone uses the term 'hyperlect' in several places but does not make it clear whether this refers to the form thus labelled and described in Honey (1989/91), which implies that Etonians in the second half of the 19C may have had to cope, in effect, with three different systems of word-initial [h-] - (1) the demotic form heard from college servants and tradespeople and also in the traces of regional speech in individual masters; (2) the established form of the standard accent; and (3) the hyperlectal usages which survived into the 20C (at ‘ome, an ‘otel, sense of ‘umour, and also in the royal (and Churchillian) God bless ‘er , which exaggerates the normal reduction of aspiration in an unstressed syllable). These are complications to the oversimplified picture given in this book. She quotes (M286) a writer in 1867 as specifying that every public school or grammar school headmaster should have the accent of "a well-educated Englishman, without any trace of local intonation, London or provincial, Scotch or Irish", but even as those words were being written, there were several prominent headmasters, including the famous Temple of Rugby (the future Archbishop), who had marked provincialisms of speech; and his successor at Rugby, appointed in 1869, was considered by some as exhibiting 'vulgarity and coarseness', despite his Oxford education, since indeed attendance at neither of the ancient universities offered much certainty of a standard accent until around the 1880s onwards (Honey 1977, p.324).

It is true that by the end of the century such nonstandardisms would have become an obvious barrier to high office in the educational system, though it might have depended on which ones were involved. What was happening here was essentially a transition from birth (i.e. family) and/or breeding (i.e. education) to accent as the defining characteristic of a 'gentleman'. Sir Richard Steele wrote in 1713 that 'a finished gentleman is perhaps the most uncommon of all the great characters in life', because in addition ot the 'natural endowments' with which one should be born, 'he must run through a long series of education' (Barrell 1983 p37). The lifelong process of acquiring accomplishments, literary and other, by extensive foreign travel, as specified by Steele, was made necessary by the lack of a school system even for the privileged classes which could be counted on to provide this substance and its attendant polish: in 1798 the Edgeworths could only recommend a tiny number of larger public schools as relevant to this purpose. (M276) . But soon after 1870 a well-articulated, new-style public school system was in place which enabled the fact of its own membership to be substituted for birth or ancestry as the crucial criterion of gentleman status. An example will illustrate this change in progress. In 1895 a Rugby School master asked a colleague about the newly-appointed headmaster : "Tell me, is James a gentleman? Understand me, I don't mean, Does he speak the Queen's English? but - had he a grandfather?" (Honey 1977, p. 326). There were thus being substituted for ancestry the two new criteria of gentlemanly status : first, membership of the new caste of 'public school men', and secondly, the ability to speak standard English with the specific accent which that same system was busy making available to an ever wider section of the better-off families in Britain. And because of considerable imprecisions (especially before 1914) about which schools actually counted as public schools, the second criterion came to be more effective, in practice, than the first: a man who acted as though he were a public school man, especially in the way he spoke, was readily admitted to membership of the informal caste of public school men, with attendant privileges of access in the jobs and marriage market, in admission to clubs and appointment to commissions in the army, the latter especially during World War I.

It is also true that the schools were overtly socially exclusive, but there are qualifications to be made even here, for the system was porous in several respects. Cheek-by-jowl with the great, exclusively boarding, schools like Eton - and indeed interacting regularly with them - there were still c. 1900 schools admitting day-boys from much humbler backgrounds at around £4 a year, and the figures cited by Dr Mugglestone for the limited admission of sons of lower-class parents conceal at least a further proportion of fathers who disguised their real origins behind pretended gentlemanly status or occupations.

What happened in schools outside the public school system proper is less clear. The broad range of endowed grammar schools were under informal pressure to imitate the prestige forms, though this book does not document this explicitly, and the new 'state' secondary schools beginning to be established around the turn of the century showed from their very inception similar pressures. It is in the mass of elementary schools which grew up from the 1840s and were integrated with the new established Board schools into a coherent system of 'state' and voluntary schools from 1870 onwards that the conflict between standard and non-standard speech forms was most stark, though the dating of this process is still problematical. My own analysis (Honey 1988, in a piece with the same title as Dr Mugglestone uses for this book) challenged as premature a 1970 account which represented the newly appointed school inspectors as "waging war" as early as the 1840s on "coarse provincial accents" and "faults and vulgarities of expression", and did so essentially on two grounds. First, the unlikelihood that inspectors would themselves, in that early period, have been brought up on any expectation of a standard accent, given the unevenness of its spread by that date among public schools and the ancient universities; and secondly, a lack of documentation of such waging of war, by way of widespread comments in inspectors' published reports for that period. By my account, it was not until the 1880s onwards that we could expect to find these pressures in full force.

I must state at once that Dr Mugglestone's book convinces me that the first of these arguments may have to be modified. She has established, more clearly I think than any previous authority, that the essentials of what would later be labelled as RP accent existed by around 1800 and that the kinds of education, at grammar or public school and at Oxbridge, likely to have been experienced by an inspector even in the 1840s would have conditioned him to regard this as the norm to be aimed at, though with varying degrees of tolerance of various different non-standardisms. How far they were imposing the full range of these norms, however, in the early period - as we know they were doing after c.1880 - remains much more questionable.

On the second criterion, the documentation of inspectors' comments, she does not acknowledge my distinction between the two periods, and it might appear that she discounts it entirely by her references to critical comments on pupils' accents by various educational authors in the earlier period. It is almost impossible, however, to distinguish at this distance of time between a number of different variables. Were the critics commenting on the pupils' generalised accent, which they were implicitly attempting to standardise, or were they criticising one or two specific features, such as the system of transposed word-initial h-, which they felt bound to challenge as leading to communication difficulties? Given the central curricular emphasis on the teaching of reading, examined by reading aloud, how could teachers, even in the earlier period, have avoided being prescriptive on specific points of pronunciation ? (The issue must be: which points, and we do not have enough evidence on this.) One of the bugbears of critics was the children's reading without understanding, leading to false stress and to garbled forms like the version of the Lord's Prayer beginning 'Our father charter heaven', and calls for "clarity of articulation" in the earlier period might mean no more than this, with no implications about accent at all - though by the end of the century that implication would almost certainly have been there.

But what needs also to be stressed is the relative lack of any resentment among pupils or parents at the access to a standard accent which the developing provision of formal education provided. In 1969 A. J. Ellis wrote (Honey 1988, p. 221) of how "anxious and willing" the "social inferior [was] to adopt the pronunciation of the superiorly educated", yet at that date it was still possible for him to deny - to despair, even - that here was any general means whereby those 'inferiors' could learn it. But within a year of his writing this, a state-organised system of universal (and soon compulsory) elementary education would come into being which within a further decade would help to 'steamroller' (as a future historian of Cockney put it) local accents and dialects into decline (ibid., 224), a process further assisted by the public school colonisation of senior posts in training colleges. Furthermore, attempts fostered by well-meaning inspectors to incorporate local dialect into elementary school teaching were vulnerable to opposition from parents ambitious that their children should "talk smart when they're grown up" (ibid.).

Dr Mugglestone does not appear to understand motivations such as these, and her book is written in a tone of constant - pained - amazement that a standard accent should have been used as a criterion of either social or educational standing. Yet an ounce of the comparative approach might have suggested that what was happening in England had parallels in many other countries. As we know, 'educatedness' criteria were crucial in the evolution of a concept of 'standard' French; which extended also to accent, and the social history of both French and Italian are full of exactly comparable references to provincial forms as 'barbaric' . Neglect of comparisons with (say) France robs her of the opportunity to discuss possible reasons for the relative absence of those low-prestige forms of lower-class urban and suburban French accent which might correspond with the most disparaged forms of British accent (Cockney, Brum, Liverpool etc.) Indeed, she has no account of the development of the hierarchy of accents - central to the notion of accent as social symbol - which Howard Giles and colleagues have confirmed as prevailing in late 20th century Britain, with (unmarked) RP at its head, and these despised urban accents at the bottom (cf. Honey 1989/91). Her story is entirely one of a binary divide between proto-RP and the rest.

She implies that the comments in her sources that drew attention to the elisions of lower-class speech were silly because all levels of speech involve elision, but she fails to notice that there are elisions and elisions : that a whole range of instances of elision or contraction are accepted as 'standard' because they are common amongst those perceived as educated speakers; and moreover that the authority of the speaker, especially if she is regarded as being educated, will cause certain forms of elision, if spoken clearly and confidently, to be acceptable, whereas there is a different evaluation for those regarded as slurred or negligent in the mouths of the least educated users of the language. Steven Pinker, in his well-known account of the 'language instinct', falls into this same trap of maintaining, by a false analogy with bird-song, that no speaker can ever be judged to speak his own dialect slurringly or negligently.

Dr Mugglestone ridicules the literary conventions by which novelists represented the pronunciation of working-class speakers, using forms like 'wot' for a word that when pronounced identically by higher-status speakers was written as 'what' - a convention incidentally repeated by many later writers like Richmal Crompton and Penelope Lively - and supplying apostrophes for phonemes that would also have been present in standard English. But she fails to tell us that many 19th century dialect writers themselves followed the same convention in order to help their readers to interpret forms for which there was no established spelling system. And though she readily cites disparaging judgments by standard speakers on those who used non-standard forms, she fails to mention that (for example) northern dialect writers voiced similar derogatory assumptions about the speakers of other dialects, e.g. Cockneys.

She follows Lesley Milroy (1987) in identifying speech differences with status rather than (economic) class, but I cannot be the only reader who would want to query whether models which follow the ascribed (and arbitrary) status of membership of geographical communities, and mark off the boundaries of their exclusiveness, are necessarily more admirable than the achieved status indicated by 'educatedness'. But having rejected class as the crucial variable, like a recidivist she keeps falling back on it: literate norms were 'located primarily in the middle and upper classes' (M238) and comparisons between literate and illiterate use served to 'encode prevalent stereotypes about the nature of class..." (M239); shibboleths established in the 18th/19th centuries served as markers of different social groups (M70 : my emphasis)- without any reference to educatedness. Her frequent references to 'cultural hegemony' and to e.g. the "social hegemony of one social group above others" (M143/49) appear to embody a crude notion of the values deployed by accent. She says (M88) that cultured or cultivated speech was a synonym for the privileged and elite. But it was not an exact synonym, because it only covered those members of the elite who had had an appropriate education, and it also embraced those people not from an elite background who had managed to acquire this accent. As the schools inspector Robinson wrote in 1863, “In every neighbourhood there is a difference of pronunciation which distinguishes the educated from the uneducated.”

Indeed, the process whereby a standard accent evolved in England may have been a more subtle one than Dr Mugglestone suggests. Far from being a long and disreputable story of the imposition of a social snobbery based on exclusion, the development of what we can now call RP was driven by a process of democratisation involving codification (mainly by texts) and finally by incorporation in a national system of mass education. Meanwhile the most privileged classes mounted a rearguard action, with a limited degree of success, which involved the elaboration, together with a limited number of items of grammar and lexis, of an alternative form of accent (the hyperlect, 'marked RP') which was available only in upper-class households or in a few of the newly developed prep schools and a small number of the socially most exclusive public schools. Significantly, it was not codified and not consciously taught, and the fact that this upper-class sociolect incorporated several despised lower-class forms (its own system of word-initial h-, -in for -ing, Cockney-like awf and cawst, grammatical forms it ain't, it don't) constituted cunning traps serving to identify and exclude the unwary outsider (Honey 1989/91). At the same time, the 'mainstream' RP which became widely available through the universities, through secondary education in the wider public school system and the grammar schools and through a proportion, at least, of elementary schools, itself became an important mechanism for social mobility.

As is the fashion with many sociolinguists, Dr Mugglestone exaggerates the scale of uniformity required by the standardisation of English, and its supposed intolerance of optional variability. As with variation of grammar and lexis, there is a range of pronunciations which are compatible with educatedness, and others which are not. Cobbett's son, who in 1866 amended his father's famous 1818 Grammar to introduce a prescriptive section on pronunciation, is represented by Dr Mugglestone as concurring with "notions of inherent value and aesthetic demerit which are ... staples of the standard ideology", which makes him "merely a product of his age" (M89). But in any age, and not least our own - despite all the efforts of linguists to ridicule notions of correctness and acceptability - ideas of inherent value and aesthetic demerit abound, in close proximity to ideas of educatedness. This points up the unreality of the distinction between inherent and imposed norms. We may formulate the following proposition : that in any society (or subculture) in which educatedness is an admired attribute, prestige will attach to those linguistic forms which are perceived as characteristic of educatedness. Is this attribution of prestige an 'inherent' property of language in such societies or subcultures, or an imposed value? A similar proposition may be formulated to indicate the generality of norms reflecting the influence of a metropolis rather than the provinces.

This latter hypothesis is well illustrated by a source from which I have already quoted, and which would have repaid Dr Mugglestone’s attention, and might indeed have persuaded her to adjust her emphasis. Vice-Admiral Cuthbert (Lord) Collingwood, one of Nelson’s colleagues, was born on Tyneside around 1748 and despite schooling at Newcastle Royal Grammar School as a classmate of future Lord Chancellor Eldon, his speech and writing contained numerous non-standardisms : has been broke [sc. broken], have stole [stolen], always have wrote, and get wrong for ‘be scolded’ (still widely heard in the North East). Yet a constant preoccupation of his private correspondence was for the education of his two young daughters is ways which would enable them to “improve in sense and manner and be fit for the society of people with brains and having intelligence”, without at the same time risking their acquiring what he had “a horrible dread of” - “the education of a fine lady - filling their poor little heads with Tiffany and Gew Gaws”. Raising his daughters in the North, he could not be “insensible of the great disadvantage of an uncouth provincial dialect and corrupt pronunciation, and would be glad to take any means to correct it in my darlings”. “And the only means, no doubt, is to associate them with some person whose language is good”, i.e. a teacher who can “speak good language free from vulgar words, and with correct pronunciation ... If she does, they will insensibly improve and lose that dialect which is certainly not very harmonious”. Yet she must also be “a lady whose character stands so high, as being qualified to improve their minds and to teach them enough of what they call necessary accomplishments as to prevent their being awkward and unknowing in any society their lot may fall amongst.” These ‘accomplishments’ were not necessarily social frills, but included practical abilities like swimming; above all, they were part of his concern for ”that sort of education that will fit them to live in the world without being dependent on the head of another”. (Collingwood, letters between 1799-1808, pp 108, 194, 205, 213, 240.) So it was education as a symbol of a genuine and practical kind of educatedness and ‘knowledge of the world’ that he sought for them, and with it would inevitably go an adaptation to the emergent metropolitan standard accent.

In general, however, the wide range of Dr Mugglestone's scholarship is impressive, and her bibliography will be a boon to other scholars, despite omissions such as Ian Michael on English pre-1870 textbooks, Raymond Williams’s Long Revolution, and Philp's Enquire Within, with its section on dialect (and on h-) whose influence extended to every street in the kingdom in the 1860s. Besides Collingwood, other apparently untapped earlier sources are Verney, Wentworth and Swift. Joan Beal’s valuable new (1999) book on Thomas Spence and 18th century English pronunciation appeared too late for her consideration.

Oxford's Clarendon Press has published her in a handsomely produced volume at a fairly stiff price. Given the general value to students of this work, despite - and equally because of - the fundamental queries which I think this book raises, we must give qualified praise to her publishers for having recently brought out a paperback version, but it must be a matter of serious criticism that they failed to take the opportunity to attend to a mass of corrigenda. Authors Wardhaugh and Okely are consistently misspelled; historian D. C. Coleman is repeatedly given the wrong initials (so is the poet Hopkins in the index); Colin Shrosbree appears three times in the text as 'Shrewsbury'; a crucial symbol in a passage from Fielding seems to have been misprinted; nearly all of the many footnote references to Felix Holt cite the wrong volume or page, as does also a reference to Richard Hudson. Her skimpy index is patently inadequate. Coming from a long-respected academic publisher, these blemishes, compounded by being repeated in the reprint, are an unwelcome surprise.


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