The Queen's English of today: My 'usband and I ...

Special report: the future of the monarchy

Tim Radford, science editor

The Guardian, Thursday December 21, 2000

Once she sounded like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Now, according to Australian researchers, the Queen sounds just a little more like Jonathan Ross in Film Night.

After tuning in to three decades of Christmas messages they found that, over the years, the royal vowels had shifted daintily down the social scale.

"Our analysis reveals that the Queen's pronunciation of some vowels has been influenced by the standard southern British [SSB] accent of the 1980s, which is more typically associated with speakers younger and lower in the social hierarchy," said Jonathan Harrington and three colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney. "We conclude that the Queen no longer speaks the Queen's English of the 1950s, although the vowels of the 1980s Christmas message are still clearly set apart from those of an SSB accent."

The researchers report in Nature today that they see the gentle shift from cut-glass to cockney as part of the blurring of class distinctions in Britain. Modern received pronunciation, for instance, resists the dropped "h" of those born within the sound of Bow bells, but there is a cockney-influenced tendency to pronounce the "l" in milk as if it were a vowel. Some of these changes have been led by younger people who reject establishment pronunciation, the researchers say. Could the older generation have resisted the influence of the young?

So Dr Harrington and his colleagues went straight to the older generation at the pinnacle of the British establishment. "The Queen's Christmas broadcasts were ideal for addressing this issue. Firstly they have been annual for a long period of time; secondly the Queen's accent is obviously not going to be influenced by geographical changes; thirdly any changes we observe are not going to be influenced by changes to style and content of the messages, because these have been quite consistent throughout."

With the blessing of Buckingham Palace and help from the BBC archives, the team compared the royal vowels of the 1950s and 1980s with the vowels of other female broadcasters. They found that in each case the Queen's accent had drifted towards the vowels of the younger generation.

"We are all familiar with the change that has taken place in the vowels of words like 'that man' where, in the 1930s, we still had something like 'thet men,' " said Jonathan Wells, professor of linguistics at University College London. "She is only following along trends that exist in any case. She still remains well behind them, shall we say, and of course she still sounds upper-class, the way she always did."

Unfortunately the Guardian did not maintain this restrained mode in its leader comment:

The Windsor estuary

The Queen's English is modulating

"My husband and I have had, y'know, a bituva tricky year, one way and annuvva. I mean, what with Chiles getting in all that hot wa'er about GM food and that, and then the flippin' Guardian sticking it to us with its, su'ov, anti-discrimination, Act uv Se'ulment thing. Anyway, bottom line: have a wikkid Christmas - plenty of turkey on the old plates, a few jars with your mates, you know the drill. You should all be well sorted." The Queen's Christmas broadcast may not sound like that to us, but to the trained ears of the linguists at Sydney's Macquarie University, Her Majesty is getting closer to it with every year. Professor Jonathan Harrington and his team have listened closely to all the Queen's Christmas addresses (and they say academic work is tedious!), analysing the subtle changes in her accent over the decades.

What they found, in headlinese, is that the Queen no longer speaks the Queen's English. Instead she has, along with millions of her subjects, picked up the glottal stops and flattened vowels of "estuary English". According to Professor Harrington, the monarch has moved away from the plummy, received pronunciation of the 50s, and headed instead for the mockney tones of the lower reaches of our national hierarchy. Forget the way she still says "orf" for "off". Note instead her tendency to pronounce the "l" in milk as a vowel.

In any other country, such musings would interest philologists only. But since this is Britain, they amount to a significant discovery. For it means the boundaries between the classes are now so blurred that even the very summit of the class pyramid is becoming fuzzily indistinguishable from the rest of us.

Still, we suspect calculation here as well as mere social change. All today's most popular figures, from Jonathan Ross to Jamie Oliver, speak mockney. The Queen is simply trying to get in on the act. They are nothing if not adaptable, these royals. Ain't that the truth, yer madge?

Placed on the web by JCW (= John Wells, not Jonathan; and I'm professor of phonetics, not linguistics.) 2000 12 21

Estuary English page