From The Guardian, London, 18 June 1999

Lost voices

The Scouse accent should be 'wiped out', Scottish is 'a turn-off' and Estuary is a 'terrible mistake'. Why do people get so angry about flattened vowels and glottal stops?

John Mullan

The British have always been peculiarly obsessed with accents, what they signify and how much they matter. It is a perennial question, and something is always happening to bring it back. Beryl Bainbridge declares that "uneducated regional accents", particularly Scouse, should be "wiped out." Then Barry Norman says that Scottish films are a turn-off because of Scottish accents. Then the demotic intonations of the Nato spokesman become as much a cause of comment as what he is saying.

Opinions about Jamie Shea's accent were divided in a way that reflected current uncertainties. "It has been a terrible mistake to allow Nato's case to be presented by Jamie Shea, who sounds like the manager of a lower-division football club," wrote John Keegan in the Daily Telegraph. (It is difficult not to hear his accent of public-school condescension.) Shea may have an Oxford PhD and be fluent in French, German, Dutch and Italian, but a general's wife made a formal complaint about the way he speaks. For many aged over 30 the issue is sharper because of the contrast between Shea's "Estuary English" and the unflinching plumminess of Ian McDonald, Ministry of Defence Spokesman during the Falklands War. Are we learning something - hearing something - about a changed society?

At the moment the topic of accent is tender because officially accent does not matter while privately it does. A recent comic victim of the doublethink has been Jacob Rees-Mogg, Etonian son of William Rees-Mogg, whose prospects of becoming a Tory politician are rumoured to be sinking because of his anachronistically posh accent. He has become a hero of the Daily Telegraph letters column, one correspondent complaining that "an overt form of intimidation exists, directed against anyone who dares to eschew the current, Americanised, mode of behaviour, speech and dress." "It is rather pathetic to fuss about accents too much," says Rees-Mogg in a self-vindicating article, though undermining the liberal sentiment by opining that: "John Prescott's accent certainly stereotypes him as an oaf."

This Rees-Moggian contradiction tells us of a modern uncertainty about how we speak. When George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion (1912) it was uncontentious to believe that some ways of speaking were better than others. The majority of children received no secondary education. In the 1890s, George Gissing, a writer with strong working-class sympathies, took it for granted that a working-class accent undermined all attempts at self-improvement. In his novel New Grub Street, Mrs Yule is married to a literary man but comes from humble origins. Her move upwards in society is doomed, for, though her speech "was seldom ungrammatical", "the accent of the London poor, which brands as with hereditary baseness, still clung to her words, rendering futile such propriety of phrase as she owed to years of association with educated people."

Now, as linguist John Honey, author of Does Accent Matter?, has said, "the subject is virtually taboo in our schools." Officially we should not think that one particular accent, Received Pronunciation (RP), how BBC newsreaders were trained to speak, is any "better" than others. No longer do job adverts in newspapers specify well-spoken candidates, as they still did in the 1980s. Yet some of the time we do. Scarcely any Guardian or Independent article involving David Evans, former Tory MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, failed to mention his car-salesman's accent, a sound to chill the blood of any liberal - it seemed the incarnation of Thatcherite brutalism.

In Spitting Image and probably the middle-class imagination, Norman Tebbit was given an Essex drag on his vowels which he hardly possessed. He should speak in that way because of what he represented.

Estuary English confirms our uncertainties. It can seem egalitarian or bogus. The term was coined in 1984 by linguist David Rosewarne, but only began appearing in newspapers in the 1990s. Now we all hear it. The latest edition of Chambers Dictionary defines it as "a form of English influenced by Cockney, spoken in the Thames estuary and surrounding areas". Of course, this misses the point - as if the Thames estuary were a distinct region of the country. "Estuary" is precisely not local. The Oxford Dictionary of New Words, officially non-judgmental, is stiffly condescending: "It may now be regarded as fashionable among certain popular comedians, pop and rock musicians, and presenters of television programmes for the young."

The adoption of this accent, generally taken to signify collapsing class distinctions, is an unprecedented phenomenon. The middle class and the privately educated take on some of the elements of what has always been one of the lowest status accents: Cockney. Academic studies confirm that, socio-linguistically, Cockney has shared the bottom rung with Scouse, Glaswegian, West Midlands and Belfast.

Almost certainly this is because, historically, they have all been essentially working-class accents - unlike Yorkshire, say, which might be middle class. This is one reason why Scots voices, and to a lesser extent Irish and Welsh ones, are different. A middle-class Scottish accent can signify a good education (lawyers, doctors). It is difficult to believe that there might be, in Edinburgh's salubrious suburbs, streets of people sounding like Malcolm Rifkind. Yet, however mockable his extraordinary intonations, they still seem to tell us of a beady intelligence.

The peculiarity of Estuary is that (pace Chambers) it does not have a locality. Recently linguists have detected strains of it among Liverpool schoolchildren. Via television and radio it comes from London, yet has become placeless. This is unsettling because regionality of speech has often commanded respect. When Ted Hughes died it was his voice reading his poetry that laid hold of the TV viewer, the Yorkshire accent a guarantee of its harsh lyricism. It did not matter that Hughes spent most of his adult life in Devon; the accent was evidence of origins in a writer whose poetry is all about what is elemental.

One of Hughes's greatest influences was an earlier poet laureate, Wordsworth, who also never lost his northern accent, a mark of the fidelity to place that was the distinction of his poetry.

Regional accent has often been a sign of achievement without corruption. Obituaries of Lord Denning invariably made a connection between what the Times called "his attractive regional burr" and a kind of undeluded, if reactionary, "common-sense". We like to hear stories of the stuffiness that we have escaped - of the head of BBC Outside Broadcasting who told cricket commentator John Arlott in 1948: "You have an interesting mind, but a vulgar voice." Arlott's much-enjoyed accent was also a kind of phonetic fossil. He came from Basingstoke, now surely thoroughly Estuary-ised.

The RP that is now challenged only became a dogma in the late 19th century, fostered by the public school system. Yet a strong sense of correct pronunciation was well established by Shakespeare's day.

It was always based on what Elizabethan courtier George Puttenham called "our Southern English", the speech of "northern men, whether they be noblemen or gentlemen" being "not so courtly or so current." Regional accents have been noticed, especially where they might not be expected, for centuries. Sir Walter Raleigh's West Country vowels stood out at courts. Sir Robert Walpole's Norfolk accent signified, for allies, his sturdiness, for foes, his baseness. Gladstone retained a trace in his voice of his Liverpool origins.

For post-war grammar-school boys and girls, accent had other meanings. For Harold Wilson it was the appropriate possession of the meritocrat. Traditionally ambitious grammar-school pupils would try to escape their localities, and therefore their accents. Most famous is Mrs Thatcher, whose elocution lessons are usually mentioned condescendingly or mockingly. It does seem reasonable to satirise her later speech-training when already prime minister. At the behest of her PR adviser Gordon Reece, she worked away to remove perceived stridency from her voice. Her childhood elocution training, however, would have been standard for many grammar-school pupils with ambitious parents - the equivalent of music lessons.

Reacting to Beryl Bainbridge's now infamous remarks, Derek Jameson declared: "People who have elocution lessons should be held in contempt." Bainbridge, from Liverpool, herself had elocution lessons from the age of 11. In the 1990s, this self-fashioning seems somehow wrong. But it has a long history, going back to the late 18th century.

One of the pioneers of elocution was Thomas Sheridan, father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who gave lessons in proper enunciation to the young James Boswell. Sheridan's friend Dr Johnson had made the first attempts, in his Dictionary, to prescribe the "correct" pronunciation of words. Johnson himself arrived in London as a young man with a marked Staffordshire accent, only gradually modified as the years went by. It was a source of amusement to his literary and theatrical friends. By Johnson's day there was a strong idea of the proper English accent; above all it must not be provincial.

Aspirants from the provinces have always had to change themselves. Joe Orton had elocution lessons so that, as he thought, he might succeed as an actor. Once this pattern was not so unusual for budding thespians. In order to embark on a repertory career, Leonard Rossiter similarly had lessons to get rid of his once-strong working-class Liverpool accent. It is too easy to imagine a regional accent as a badge of integrity for the writer or artist: DH Lawrence hanging on to his Nottinghamshire origins; David Hockney keeping to a bit of Bradford in California. But some surprising people have been worried about their accents. Thomas Hardy may have made extraordinary imaginative use of his "Wessex" origins, but he was ashamed of the thick Dorset accents of his brother and sister.

This is what seems to be changing. For a long time people have been uneasy - like Hardy, proud yet defensive - about where they came from. The rise of Estuary English is unsettling because it seems to tell us that we do not come from anywhere in particular.

Proud of their accents

... and not so proud

John Mullan is senior lecturer in English at University College London.

Placed on the web 1999 06 18

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