Misc

RP: RIP?

The Telegraph poses the question of whether ‘accent snobbery’ is alive and well in Britain today.

Do you still need a cut glass accent to get ahead in certain careers? Or is speaking “proper” now a disadvantage – in British broadcasting, for example?

I’m beginning to think that ‘cut glass’ pronounciation is on it’s way out, or at least subject to sustained attack on its previous position, and I’ll give two examples from my own experience

I currently work with two lawyers who have what might be called ‘Estuary’ accents: all glottal stops and elided vowels – not too far off what you’d hear on East Enders really. I’d always presumed they’d grown up in Essex and gone to Comprehensive schools, but was surprised to find out recently that one went to Uppingham and the other to another less well known public school. Would my confusion over my colleagues’ origins have been the case twenty years ago?

In another incident I visited an old university friend in Hospital. She always spoke with standard Southern middle class accent – you’d know it if you heard it, it’s the one it’s practitioners don’t think constitutes an accent, probably because it was always so dominant on radio and television until pretty recently – think 1970’s Radio One disc jockeys if you don’t know what I mean. I presumed other members of her family would sound the same.

Her two sisters were at the bedside at the same time as me. One was older and the other a bit younger than my friend. The older one had married a diplomat while the youngest worked in a large hospital in the East End as a nurse. They’d all been to the same (grammar) school but the eldest sister ennunciated her words like a member of the Royal Family, while the other one sounded like a taxi driver calling Talk Sport.

People do try to fit in with their colleagues but I wonder if the younger one would have made such an effort with her great vowel shift in the days before regional accents were common on the BBC.

The Yanks have got to take part of the blame for this of course. When I first became a City lawyer in the early to mid-Nineties I got the impression that everyone else at the firm I worked at had come from similar backgrounds – all quads, ancient wood panelling and rowing.

But then sometime in the mid-Nineties the big American law firms started opening more London offices and they seemed to have different requirements from their employees than the way they spoke. Suddenly there was more than one way of pronouncing words: while strong regional accents were still rare when I left the City there was no shortage of Irish, Scots, Australian, and South African accents among the trainees. Now when I talk to lawyers at the larger law firms I’m often surprised to hear a Birmingham or Manchester vowels on the other end of the line.

I’m aware all of the above is anecdotal and won’t reflect everyone’s experience but I do wonder whether Received Pronunciation carries as much social cachet today as it used to, even in the recent past.

I’d be interested in other thoughts on this subject in the comments box: regional words and spellings optional.

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