Our changing pronunciation

Prof. J.C. Wells, University College London

Summary of a talk given at the British Association annual Festival of Science, Cardiff, 9 September 1998

English pronunciation is gradually changing, although it continues to reflect both geographical and social differences among speakers. No longer is it true, if it ever was, that all educated people speak with Received Pronunciation. Even RP itself is gradually changing, largely due to influence from the speech of London and the southeast -- the accent sometimes known as Estuary English, which nevertheless may encounter resistance in other parts of Britain, as well as from those who dislike change of any kind in language.

What are the main changes we observe this century in RP? I divide them into three periods: the early years up to the second world war, the mid-century years from the forties to the sixties, and the years reaching from the social revolution of the seventies until now. In each period I identify five important pronunciation changes.

In the early twentieth century

Nowadays we listen with amazement to British films of the thirties and forties, made before these changes took place.

In the mid twentieth century

These changes have still not been completed. Middle-aged RP speakers are often inconsistent about them..

In the late twentieth century

The newer pronunciations may be heard in the speech of young people whose parents would blanch to hear them.

It is too soon to say whether demographic changes - notably the influx of West Indians and South Asians - will have any lasting effect on our pronunciation. (But the pronunciation of ask as "ax", a variant of considerable antiquity in English, is now no longer restricted to quaint rural dialects. On the contrary, it has become an urban black characteristic.)

Pronunciation preferences

A survey of people's pronunciation preferences conducted by the speaker some years ago showed a number of age-related differences:

The changes in these words could be accounted for by simply saying that we are becoming more American. This hypothesis is disconfirmed, however, by other words in which the newly favoured pronunciation is taking us away from the American form -- most strikingly

The speaker is now conducting a new pronunciation survey. Everyone interested is encouraged to participate, by indicating their preferences in a hundred or so words of uncertain or disputed pronunciation. How do you like to pronounce a shopping mall? the plural of youth, youths? the name of the month February? garage? scone? voluntarily?

Note: the collection of data for this survey is now complete. The following invitation therefore no longer applies. JCW, 1999.
To take part, go to this website - http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/wells/poll98.htm
or send an e-mail to j.wells@ucl.ac.uk
or write to

	Prof. J. C. Wells
	Dept.of Phonetics and Linguistics
	University College London
	Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

J.C. Wells homepage

Page posted 1998 09 23, edited 1999 02 08