George Bernard Shaw famously wrote in the preface to Pygmalion: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Is that so? Speech has indeed changed. I don’t mean usage, vocabulary and so on – that is, always has been, always will be, in perpetual mutation.
I mean the very purpose of speech. It is no longer exclusively a means of communication. There exists a wrong idea that mass media has caused regional accents to disappear. Television is supposed to have killed them off. It is an idea without foundation. Television is forever telling us that regional accents are “under threat” – not least by television. That is because television regards itself as more influential than it actually is.
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Its effect on accent is rather the opposite: people all over Britain have reacted against the medium’s supposedly homogenising tendency, which is, as I say, much exaggerated. Supposedly homogenising. Speech is increasingly employed as a self-conscious badge of identity. That is, of separateness, of difference. Mancunian usage is not that of the Lancashire towns. Tyne and Tees do not elide. Nor Cardiff and Swansea. It’s a badge of pride in your particularity, in where you come from, a tribal sign.
Dialects and jargon are shamelessly used as signs of identity, of communitarian exceptionalism, of fealty and allegiance to a place, rather than as a means of communication. Language is our primary means of communication, even among persons who have bugger all to communicate.
A linguistic monoculture of sorts has been replaced by a regressive linguistic multiculture. Received pronunciation, RP, is the linguistic monoculture that disappeared. It was practical. It was a sort of glue, a force for uniting a country rather than an incitement to division. It enabled a pyromaniac from Elgin to understand an assurance assessor from Port Talbot. A palliative care nurse from Norwich, a chemist from Wrexham and an undertaker from Gateshead were mutually comprehensible.
The widely held misconception about received pronunciation, a misconception propagated by champions of regional dialects, is that it was a means by which people traitorously sloughed their “natural identity ”, whatever that is, in favour of essaying that apparently most baleful condition – poshness. One might wonder what is so pernicious about poshness? What is so toxic about self-improvement? What used to be called bettering oneself is better than worsening oneself. But that’s not the point. What is germane here is that RP was a successful lingua franca, an auxiliary language that did its job.
RP was simply functional. It merely meant suppressing accentual tics and quirks of usage – thus a pan-British form of comprehension was achieved. JB Priestley’s celebrated wartime talks were obviously those of a Yorkshireman – but one who could be understood in Yeovil.
I had a lifelong friend, 30 years my senior, born into poverty in west London. He became director of Porton Down; he used LSD before Huxley did; he was head of the scientific Civil Service; his accent was neutral, unplaceable. Not that of his indigent childhood, or of Westminster, let alone Wiltshire. He might have come from anywhere south of the Midlands where the long “a” prevails. RP was not a disguise. It was an instrument of a social mobility that no longer exists.
Jonathan Meades on Jargon is on Sunday 27th May at 10.30pm on BBC4