The Sound of Austen, by Jennifer Petkus

The Sound of Austen, by Jennifer Petkus

I wonder what Jane Austen sounds like, and by that I don’t mean just what her voice sounded like, but the entirety of her world. As I sit here and write I can hear the hum of the refrigerator and the high-pitched whine of the space heater when I crank it to eleven, competing with the high-pitched whine of the tinnitus in my right ear. A little earlier I could hear my neighbor playing the piano and sometimes I hear one of the mysterious electronic beeps that comes from some unidentifiable piece of technology. And occasionally I hear a car pass by and a plane fly overhead.

I’m also proofing my book and to do that I instruct my computer to speak the text aloud, using a digitized voice called Serena, which has a very decent Received Pronunciation accent, aka BBC narrator voice. (You should hear Serena speak Welsh, and if you have a Mac, you can.) Yesterday I was cleaning house and to multitask I was listening to a Librivox recording of Emma, narrated by the very popular Elizabeth Klett, who has recorded a lot of Jane Austen fan fiction. I like Klett’s voice, especially her flat American Midwest narrator voice, the closest we have to RP.

What is RP? Well I don’t want to tempt you down that rabbit hole, but broadly speaking it’s the voice we imagine we hear when we listen to the BBC World Service, even though I most associate the voices of Neil Nunes, Bola Mosuro and Alan Kasujja with the BBC because those are the Newsday presenters I hear when I listen to the BBC at 10 pm. Nevertheless, Received Pronunciation is the voice that’s supposed to represent generic, educated British, even though only 2% of the UK population speaks it.

It’s based on the accents found in the southeast of England among those who attended posh boarding schools and went to Oxford or Cambridge, and I think it’s more an aspirational voice than an actual one. In fact it was originally called Public School Pronunciation, although there’s some debate how far back the term Received Pronunciation was coined or popularized.

When I did a not very rigorous search of English accents on YouTube, I found a lot of examples of Cockney, Yorkshire, Welsh and Scottish; and Liverpool and Birmingham and Bristol, but relatively few examples of Hampshire speech, where of course Austen was born and spent the majority of her life. I guess it’s not considered very remarkable.

Back in 2013 many people answered an accent tag challenge that required them to read a list of words and answer questions about common words, like what is a generic term for a carbonated beverage? The Hampshire respondents sound to my ear like generic Brits and I have an image of Jane Austen speaking this way. Interestingly, if you listen to Derbyshire respondents to the accent tag, you will have a completely different impression of Darcy.

There’s a fallacy, however, in thinking that present-day accents are representative of what people sounded like two hundred years previous. Most people understandably believe that at the time of the American Revolution, we Americans sounded like the British and over time we rebelled against the Received Pronunciation of our oppressors and started pronouncing the “R” in “hard.” But again a not very rigorous Google search finds lots of people maintaining that it was the British who diverged, that we Americans stayed true, with the implication that the British accent of 1800 was much closer to the American accent of today. I can never really find any source that I consider authoritative, however, most of the articles being attributed to “a linguist.”

I find this speculation to be suspect for several reasons. British immigrants to the US would have come from all over the British Isles and the experience of the New World, the contribution of indigenous languages and the rapid expansion and consequent isolation of people in the vastness of America of course altered our speech. I think the American accent at the time of the revolution must have been all over the map.

Nevertheless this does make me wonder how rhotic Austen would have sounded. Would she have pronounced the “R” in “hard” and would she have said the “A” in “bath” with a broad “A”?

Beyond accent, I also wonder if Austen herself would have really spoken the complex, well thought out sentences she gave to her characters. Would her speech patterns have resembled Darcy’s when responding to needling from Caroline Bingley: “Have you anything else to propose for my domestic felicity?” Or later when Elizabeth refuses to join the group of Darcy, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst: “You are charmingly grouped, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth.”

Did people really talk like that back then? Today we’d say: “No, you go on. You don’t need me to be a third [or fifth] wheel.” But how much wittier what Austen writes—unless everyone talked like that. Were they so verbally skilled they could come up with clever bon mots like that on the spur of the moment, or did people actually pause to stop and consider what to say before they said it? I like to think of Elizabeth exchanging quips with Darcy like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, but maybe their conversation would have been interspersed with pauses for thought.

(Of course I’ve read enough examples of speech from Austen’s day to know that people really did talk that way. As clever as Austen is, it’s dangerous to credit her with too much, like those list of words and phrases she invented, when I’m sure in many cases hers are just the first recorded uses of those phrases.)

Another thing that divides us from the aural experiences of the Regency is that no one would have known how their voice sounds to others. Austen would have never heard her recorded voice or the voice of anyone else. She could have never played the guess the narrator game, when you’re listening to a documentary and your husband asks, “Who’s that?” and you condescendingly reply, “Peter Coyote.”

She would have never heard the 60 hertz (or 50 hertz in the UK) whine of mains electricity. She could have heard recorded music, however, in the form of a music box, but not in the sense we know it. In general, I think she would also be largely unfamiliar with the repetitive sound of machinery, unless she should visit something like a mill.

And this aural landscape would have extended to her word choices. Nothing would have ever beeped or buzzed (except for bees) and she would never have complained of static or feedback. I sometimes wonder if it was a quiet world, like what a city dweller imagines the countryside must be like. But then I remember when being in the country of awakening to the sound of chickens and ducks and I think of those Regency servants who woke early to get the fires started or the sound of passing carriages and the realization Chawton Cottage wouldn’t have had double-glazing. And there would have been more songbirds. So maybe it wasn’t a silent world.

And finally there’s just the actual quality of Austen’s voice. Would it have been nasally, deep or musical? And here we come to the one thing I almost sure of—her voice would have sounded sarcastic, arch and dry. I would not have it any other way.

Or maybe I’m not sure. The issue of what Austen sounds like has proven to be difficult to pin down. I asked my friend Chris Sandrawich, who is with the Midlands chapter of the Jane Austen Society in the UK, if he had any thoughts on the matter. As usual he replied with his usual very learned and entertaining opinions, but then he would reply again and again with qualifications and elucidations. Finally I received this:

“What little I have read so far in research throws a shadow of doubt over everything I had suggested in my first e-mails to you. Do not rely on them. It is also likely that my views about Dear Jane will have to undergo quite a sea change. I’m not sure I will like it. Meddling with things and digging up the past, they say no good comes of it and I’m being humbled into agreement.”

So apparently I’ve blundered into deep water and all I have resolved is that it’s impossible to know what Austen sounded like. If I want to continue imagining Austen with her perfect Received Pronunciation, I should feel free to do so.

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17 Responses to The Sound of Austen, by Jennifer Petkus

  1. I don’t think indigenous peoples really affected the American accent. Considering that most of them were killed off by either warfare or disease, often within as short as a generation of the arrival of settlers, as well as the segregated nature of these settler colonies from the local peoples, I don’t think they really had an impact on American English speech.
    I don’t think its suspect that the Americans are more conservative on some things regarding accents than the English. Given the heavily rural nature of the English American colonies and paucity of cities compared to England, the accent changes were slower in North America than in England. So key features of pre-industrial revolution English accents such as rhoticism and short a’s would have survived in North American English while fading in England, due in no small part to greater concentration of English speaking Americans in smaller town and rural settings as opposed to big cities where prestigue forms of English spread from the educated elite. Likewise, key features of British Isles accents survived in the isles while fading in North America, due in no small part to the mingling of different British settlers from different parts of the British isles, combining their own accent patterns.

    At the same time, no credible linguist has ever argued that the American accent has remained unchanged. Accents always change and that of the British settlers in North America was no exception. But such change does not exclude the fact that key features survived onwards from the colonial period, albeit modified. By the time of the War of Independence, the accents in Britain and North America were only very subtly different. And probably varied from region. And this did not account for the accents of educated people in both lands which were generally pretty similar due to the standards in English schools. My own research indicates that the founders of the US probably did not sound very different from your average educated Londoner. Many North American elites actually went to British schools for their education and this included many of the founding fathers, so there was a lot of accent overlap there. And this trend continued after the War of Independence. As late as the early 19th century, many well to do American families sent their childrent to the motherland to be educated, or to schools in America that were modeled after those in England, using their speech and standards. This helped establish American variants of RP in places like New England, NYC and the South, with their own distinctive twists of course, such as the impact of African-American speech on the English accent of many Southern aristocrats. According to Julia Flavell’s work When London Was the Capital of America, according to observers of the time, as late as the 1820s, American and British accents were only subtly different. Flavell surmises that telling them apart then would have been akin to telling apart American and Canadian accents today. And of course it depends on region and class, as there were obvioiusly differences by these measures. Even as late as the early-mid 20th century, many educated Americans and Hollywood stars used a posh variation of RP known as Mid-Atlantic English in films and media, usually associated with the elites. The spread of education among the interior of North America and the breakdown of such class distinctions in media after WW II removed Mid-Atlantic from our soundwaves.

    It was the impact of separation, isolation and of course impact of other groups, particularly African Americans and various immigrants from Europe, that helped shape the distinctiveness of accents in North America and the British Isles. But the core features of American accents all came from the British isles, having changed upon domestication in North America.

  2. I loved the audio clips…what a hoot. We lived in Kansas for a while and I could never detect an accent, yet they made fun of my being from and sounding Kentucky. In early training as a telephone representative, they tried to white-bread our voices so as to not have an accent. At the beginning of my training, I had to work really hard on my voice after I was accused of sounding like a hillbilly operator. Yeah…well…I could pick out a Yankee at ten paces. It is all what you are used to.

    Our homes are full of noise and you don’t notice it until you lose electricity. Then the house is dead quiet…and with no light, unless there is an outside source…moon or approaching daylight. I didn’t realize the sound absorbing effects of snow on cushioning outside street noise. Thanks for the post.

  3. Intriguing. I’ve given a great deal of thought to some of your topics having taken a few linguistics courses myself. In the introduction it was indeed posited that there was a “great vowel shift” in England and other shifts that didn’t happen in the U.S. Unfortunately I sold back my textbook many years ago and couldn’t tell you their sources.

    The thoughts have come up because I’ve noticed that several times Austen uses the abbreviation “a’nt.” It sounds like they did drop the R in some cases. I wonder if this means not all of her characters spoke that way…

    On an even less scholarly note I’ve heard that the closest we can get to Shakespeare’s English is spoken in the Appalachians, in very isolated communities.

    And I’m with you on wanting Jane Austen’s tone to be dry and sarcastic. xD

    Now here’s some food for thought on ambient noise… the industrial revolution is upon them. What a wild change of soundscape that must be!

    • Summer, my husband who is the real history buff of the family, told me the same thing about the Appalachian accent, although he said “hillbillies sound like the Tudors,” but he also couldn’t remember any source. The problem with highly educated people is that they know too much. Anyway, I think the Tudors sounding the Clampetts would be a hoot, like Susan Kaye’s southern-fried Austen. Personally I’ve always thought of the Tudors sounding like Mafia (not Oxford) dons. “You want I should whack Thomas More, boss?”

      • *know too much and don’t remember where it all came from. Especially in the day of the internet, where you can get bad information and the brain is an imperfect filing system.

        I about lost my tea at the idea of the Tudors sounding like Mafia dons! I love it.

      • This was such a great post! Fascinating and humorous! And I read it while hearing a sound maker over a baby monitor, my fingers click on the keyboard, dings from facebook, an airplane go by and my stomach growl. Oops. I forgot lunch! I am also having some tinnitus. It sucks.

  4. Hi Jennifer. Like Joana, I hail from This Sceptred Isle and find accents are a fascinating subject, so thanks so much for this post. The way that they can change within such short distances never ceases to amaze me. I’ve lived in Yorkshire most of my life now but was born and brought up in Leicester in the East Midlands, the next county south from Derbyshire. I’ve been told that my accent has migrated north over the years but no-one will ever mistake me for a natural born Yorkshirewoman. Our son is totally Yorkshire in speech, having been born here and lived just about all of his life here too.

    From where we live, the Lancashire border is only about 30 miles away and I sometimes travel over there to work. The local accent is so different to around home. It’s still obviously Northern English but with with totally different inflections.

    I’ve always assumed that Darcy’s accent would be a lot more RP than Derbyshire because of his education at boarding school (Eton?) and Cambridge. Children always want to “fit in” with their peers and would change their accents fairly quickly I imagine, even if they didn’t have formal teaching or practice.

    If you’re wanting another example of a Hampshire accent, I’ll put a link in at the end of this comment. It’s of the late journalist and sports commentator John Arlott, who was born in Basingstoke in Hampshire. He was famous for his commentaries on cricket, a sport which I believe is somewhat alien to my friends in the US!

    When it comes to ambient sounds where I’m sitting, typing this on my iPad, I can hear the ticking on the clock on the mantlepiece, my husband and son talking and the occasional bark from our dogs. We live in a very quiet area, with no passing traffic, but we do have double glazing, so although I can see the trees in our garden blowing in the wind, I can hardly hear that wind right now. I would imagine that the sounds Jane Austen would have been familiar with would have been mainly natural in origin, apart from things like carriages and carts, certainly in Steventon and Chawton. Southampton and Bath may have been somewhat different, as would have been her trips to London.

    Here’s the link to the YouTube clip:

    • Thanks for that link to Arlott. And my friend Chris, who’s also a Yorkshireman, regaled me with lots of strange little words from up there, with this entertaining clip of American’s trying to figure out some expressions:

      For the most part, my impression is that Austen didn’t indulge in too many regional expressions and I wonder whether that’s an attempt to be RP.

    • “I’ve always assumed that Darcy’s accent would be a lot more RP than Derbyshire because of his education at boarding school (Eton?) and Cambridge. Children always want to “fit in” with their peers and would change their accents fairly quickly I imagine, even if they didn’t have formal teaching or practice.”

      Sociolinguistics at work. People not only emulate the people they want to fit in with, they change their language when they’re trying to distance themselves from some people as well. Darcy frequently wanted nothing to do with certain people (or wanted to pretend that he wanted nothing to do with certain people) and now I can just imagine him code-switching back and forth between RP and Derbyshire depending on his mood.

  5. Now that was fun! I loved the video and hearing all of the different accents. I would love to go to the UK and hear them in person, needless to say. Thanks for this post! Jen Red

    • I also imagine she would have heard the sounds of everyone else in her house. There would have been no forced air heating or air conditioning to mask the sound of others and I imagine there would have been no conscious soundproofing beyond what is provided by brick, wood, plaster and lath. I also wonder if Brits at that time were as loud as Americans are now, because when you travel to the UK, you realize we really are a noisy bunch.

  6. Thanks for this informative post. To me the sounds of Jane Austen’s era vwould’ve been the clop of horse hooves, rattling of carriages and wagons over gravel or cobblestone, pianoforte playing, playing children, birds singing, dogs barking, horses neighing….It would’ve been noisy in its own way. Love the vidoe/audio clips….I like how Jane’s speech might have been.

  7. Thanks, Jennifer, I really loved this post, what a fun topic you’ve chosen! Loved the audio clips too, so nice to hear all those accents put together, linked to characters and real people!

    I’ve never thought about how Jane Austen’s accent might have sounded like, just assumed she would have spoken pretty much in the same way as people do in the southern counties, or as a friend from Lancashire would say, “like a sothern Jesse 😀 “. I do have a soft spot for the Lancashire accent btw, I think it sounds very warm and welcoming, but that might just be because I have many friends there. Love the Derbyshire accent too (how couldn’t I?) and I think Darcy’s speak must have been a very pleasant mix of Derbyshire lilt and cultured Etonian. But the rest of the household would have sounded a bit closer to Mrs Patmore than to Mrs Hill 😉

    Thanks again, loved it!

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