“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Pygmalion
I am a bit late to the audiobook game, but I have recently been talking to a lovely and talented actress/narrator in England about my first novel, Teaching Eliza. Teaching Eliza is a mash-up of Pride and Prejudice and Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and as you might imagine, the plot hinges on matters of manners and accents.
I must admit to a fascination with accent and dialect. Having moved to Canada as a child, I was always very aware that I spoke differently than my new friends and classmates. Sometimes I was teased for this, sometimes I was admired. (“You have such a pretty accent!” goes a long way to ingratiating yourself with me. Offerings of coffee and chocolate also work.) But it is something I have always been conscious of.
In my novel, Elizabeth Bennet is not the cockney flower girl of Shaw’s play, but her speech still betrays her country origin. RP (Received Pronunciation) was not the “thing” it became later in the century, and from what I have been able to discover, it would not have been unusual for the daughters of a minor country gentleman to speak more like their village friends than like the nobs in London.
My narrator is from Hertfordshire and she has studied local dialects and accents, and I know that Eliza – and her gradual transformation to a lady of the ton – is in excellent hands. Or mouth. Or something. I’m so excited about this project, and I will crow about it later when we are closer to completion.
Juxtaposed to Eliza Bennet is Professor Darcy, now taking Henry Higgins’ role. He is the arrogant and crusty professor of linguistics who agrees to tutor Eliza in the ways of high society. He has experience in this matter, for it was he who transformed Yorkshire lad Charles Bingley (son of a provincial industrialist) into the gentleman-about-Town that he has become.
But what are the differences in accent? Some are easy to hear and describe, others are more subtle. There are far too many local accents to talk about in one short blog post, but here are a very few examples of what you might find in different parts of the country. Of course this is far from complete, and within each region, there will be further differences that might not include some of the characteristics I mention. Still, for a linguist wanna-be like me, it’s fascinating stuff.
Some identifying characteristics include the following:
- short ‘u’ sound in ‘cup’ is pronounced more like the vowel in ‘book’ or ‘put’;
- short and rather pretty ‘a’ differs very little between words like ‘cat’ and ‘glass’;
- long ‘a’ that is a monophthong (not blending with an ‘i’ or ‘y’ sound at the end, so ‘take’ sounds somewhat like ‘tek’;
- ‘ng’ often becomes ‘n’, so giving sounds like ‘givin’;
- in some areas, the vowel in ‘heard’ or ‘nurse’ is the same as the vowel in ‘dare’, but the ‘r’ is rarely pronounced;
- a unique and rich local vocabulary, some words dating back to Saxon and Viking days. How fun is that!
The West Country accent is influenced by the proximity of the region to Wales, and it carries some echos of Welsh. It is distinguished by the even rhythm of speech and the retention of the ‘r’ sound after vowels. In the 2009 miniseries Emma, Mrs. Elton speaks with a West Country accent.
Some identifying characteristics include:
- rhotic vowels. This is fancy talk for “pronouncing the ‘r’ sound after vowels in words like ‘carpet’;” most other English accents lost this historic sound, but it continues in North American and Irish accents;
- the ‘a’ in words like bath, grass and path is flatter and more forward than in the London accents;
- frequent metathesis where there is an ‘r’ before a vowel. So ‘great’ becomes ‘gurt,’ and ‘children’ becomes ‘chillurn’;
- the continued use in some areas of the second person singular pronoun ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ as well as the use of the verb ‘bist’ in place of ‘are.’
The London area, including the Estuary
This is the accent heard in the south-east of England, especially along the Thames estuary and the area around London. It shares many features with both the Cockney and RP accents (more on RP in a moment). Lizzy Bennet would have spoken a version of this in her village of Meryton, for Hertfordshire is not so very far from London. I have imagined Meryton in the western part of Hertfordshire, where there would be some influences of the Buckinghamshire accent. This accent would not have been very different from what was heard in London, but this is where class differences come into play, for the higher classes would have spoken with Received Pronunciation, and would have been horrified to be confused with a mere provincial tradesman or farmer!
Some identifying characteristics:
- a definite distinction between the ‘a’ sounds in ‘trap’ and ‘bath’. This is known as the trap-bath split and it characterizes many southern English accents;
- the use of a glottal stop to replace a ‘t’ at the end of syllables, such as ‘foot’ or ‘what’;
- the replacement of a final dark ‘l’ sound (like at the end of ‘ball’) with something that’s almost a ‘w’;
- intrusive ‘r’, which joins words ending with a vowel, so ‘India and China’ sounds like ‘India-r-and China’, and ‘Law and Order’ sounds ‘Law-r-and Order’.
Received Pronunciation (RP)
This is the ‘Queen’s English’, the accent spoken by the highest social classes, including Professor Darcy and his noble relations. It is taught in the best schools, and is the sign of education as well as class. Today, only 3% of the population speaks with this accent, and it is not identified with a region of England. This is what Lizzy hoped to emulate, so she might be accepted by the ton as one of their own. The term was first used in 1818 by P. S. Du Ponceau, but it did not become commonly used until a century later, in Daniel Jones’ second edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary (1926).
Some characteristics include:
- non-rhotic vowels. You never pronounce the ‘r’ in ‘parcel’ or ‘bird’;
- the use of the aspirated ‘h’. “In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.” Each ‘h’ is sounded distinctly.
- words such as ‘dune’ and ‘stupid’ have a y-sound before the vowel, so ‘dune’ and ‘June’ sound very similar;
- weak vowels are still distinct and have not all blended to a schwa;
- Mary, marry and merry all sound quite distinct
To play around with some different sounds, check out this cool site:
For a linguistic journey through Britain, check out this marvelous video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8mzWkuOxz8
Here is a clip from North and South, where you can swoon at the wonderful ending… I mean, where you can hear the different accents spoken by John Thornton and Margaret Hale. Listen to his closed vowels, compared to her open ones, and the different ways they pronounce similar letter combinations. Then you can swoon.
In this passage from Teaching Eliza, Mr. Bingley teases Professor Darcy about accents. Check out the rest of the book to see how Lizzy gets on with her own lessons. Enjoy!
The professor looked down his patrician nose at her and replied in haughty tones, “We are at the dawn of a new age, Miss Elizabeth. Times are changing, and men who might begin in Kentish Town with twenty pounds a year can end in Park Lane with twenty thousand.” His eyes darted quickly towards Mr. Bingley, whose own fortune of a hundred thousand pounds, Lizzy knew, was achieved in just this fashion. “These newly wealthy men want to drop Kentish Town, but they give themselves away with every word. Now, I can teach them, through my art and skill, to speak not as they were, but as they wish themselves to be. I can teach them to move in society.”
“Is that true?” These were the first words Mr. Hurst had uttered all night, so enraptured did he seem with the ragout set before him.
“Indeed it is,” replied Colonel Fitzwilliam with the enthusiasm of one fully apprised of the professor’s abilities. His own beautiful voice was surely approved of by his haughty cousin. “He has a remarkable history of success with people from all walks of life. I recall one young man, hardly a man, dragging himself up from the gutter and with an accent and vocabulary to match, and you would scarcely know him now! In fact, you have almost certainly heard his name, but would never know his origins.”
“Do say more, Professor Darcy, for I am most intrigued,” said Elizabeth.
“I see no reason to hide my talents,” he preened. “I can take ever so lowly a creature, a flower girl for example, with her kerbstone English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days, and within three months pass her off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.”
Arrogant, insufferable man! thought Lizzy, but she held her tongue and said only, “How fascinating!”
Mr. Bingley now took over the conversation and spoke volubly on his own great success as a student of the professor, recounting how he had learned to replace the broad and limiting sounds of his native Yorkshire accent with his current cultivated tones.
“Oh Lord, how dreadful it was at that,” the professor laughed. Lizzy realised she had never before heard anything resembling joy or playfulness from him and was stunned by the sound. “The challenge we had, eh, Bingley, forcing those troublesome vowels backwards and eliminating the glottal stop from the middle of words.”
“Oh, how true, Darcy! Even wairse,” he intentionally reverted to his previous pronunciation, making the professor groan, “was leernin’ to put oop with yair insistence tha’ I add in them pesky consonan’s at the ends o’ wairds.”
“‘Words,’ Charles, ‘wuhhhhds.’”
“Aye, Dercy, ‘wairds.’”
Bingley smiled impudently and the colonel roared with laughter, provoking disapproving glares from Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst.