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Primary Education News
News Is it wrong for a person to change their accent?
So David and Victoria Beckham have been caught polishing their vowels for American audiences. Insufferable pretension or acceptable aspiration?
Quentin Letts, columnist and sketch writer at the Daily Mail
Good on David Beckham for poshing up his accent. Since moving to America the footballer has reportedly gone upmarket in the way he speaks. Some will accuse a good Essex boy of selling out, of ditching his glottal stops for something more dollified and grand, but what is wrong with that? One of my heroines is Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced Bouquet) from TV's Keeping Up Appearances. She is socially ambitious and, all right, laughably snobbish, but one woman's snobbery is another's aspiration. Aspiration is essential to good manners and social mobility.
Margaret Thatcher poshed up her accent. The sometime Lincolnshire yellowbelly Margaret Roberts ended up sounding like a female Norman St John-Stevas (with perhaps a hint of Windsor Davies). Wonderful! It showed that she was striving to make the best of herself. Tony Blair was a linguistic chameleon. When in Scotland he gave his voice a brush of young Lochinvar. When in London he came over all Mockney. It was a perfect illustration of how fake he was, but you can't fault his cleverness.
My friend Kevin here has a gentle Geordie twang. When we do telly punditry turns together I sometimes suspect that he alters his accent a little – that is to say, he makes himself sound more Toon Army than he would when dining out of an evening in his genteel south London neighbourhood. And why should he not? We all know nowadays that a northern English accent is the way to get ahead in the broadcasting world.
Yet my instinct is to be suspicious when people are trying to hide their elitism. Elitism can be a thoroughly good thing – far better than militant egalitarianism, which in my view lowers standards and ill serves those at the bottom. From what I heard of David Beckham in an interview he gave after a Paris Saint-Germain match the other day, he is still some way off sounding like Brian Sewell, but I don't see why he shouldn't do an Eliza Doolittle if he so wishes.
Kevin Maguire, associate editor at the Mirror
So it's how now brown cow, Posher and Burke's? There was nuffing wrong, y'know, wiv the way a hugely successful couple talked and there's something sad about them altering the way they speak. Perhaps the change was osmotic, the pair adapting unconsciously to American ears, so he learned to drop fewer Hs and pronounce Ls at the end of words as well as keeping on his pants instead of trousers. I do hope it wasn't deliberate, the result of e … el … – I find this painful to say – elocution lessons. Because the way we speak is part of who we are and it's deeply depressing when people feel pushed into becoming verbal chameleons to fit in or get on.
I love watching Patricia Routledge too, yet I laugh at, not with, Hyacinth Bucket, a victim of Britain's obsession with social class (as opposed to economic class, which should be the subject of another debate). I've never tried to keep or lose my accent and most of the time I'm not even conscious of it. Why should I be when to me it is people from outside north-east England who speak differently?
The Toon Army slur is uncalled for when I'm a Sunderland fan and a Sanddancer, as citizens of South Shields are known. I've been meaning to ask this for some time, Quentin. You grew up in Cirencester. Did you ever sound like one of the Wurzels?
QL: Yes, I am Cirencester-born but the town was originally Roman (named Corinium), so by your logic I should sound like Julius Caesar – or perhaps Julian Caesar, who sounds as though he might have gone to Harrow.
Your defence of pride in one's origins is noble yet I fear it is also the stuff of aspic. What you argue for is nothing less than linguistic cryogenics, with our accents being frozen for ever. This is not going to happen. Language changes all the time – even the Queen's accent has changed. Compared to the voice she had as a teenager, she now sounds like Dot Cotton.
Allow me to be more controversial. I see value in cultures having a citadel, in having ideals of beauty and truth and music and poetry – and accent. That is why, despite my support for evolution in accents (and I have never before thought of myself as an adherent of Darwin and Dawkins), I still back the idea of received pronunciation on our major stages and on the BBC's national networks. We need a form of Queen's English, and not just to stop Her Majesty's slide down the register. We need a standard that is comprehensible, clear and recognised as, for want of a simpler word, the ideal.
By the way, do you think David Beckham's language teacher could stop him saying "y'know"?
KM: I like a good laugh so can't wait, y'know, for the moment David Beckham speaks with, y'know, a French accent after Steve McClaren entertained us so much by acquiring a Dutch lilt managing FC Twente. Joey Barton now resembles an extra in 'Allo 'Allo! at Marseille.
The comedy value is huge but the imposition of RP at the BBC would be unacceptable social selection, requiring broadcasters to speak with a mouthful of marbles – a guaranteed switch-off certain to undermine the licence fee. Too many do this as it is and we should be hearing more, not fewer, variations. And I'd love to watch you try to send the likes of Huw Edwards, Andrew Neil, Paul Mason, Sarah Millican, Lenny Henry, David Tennant, Paul O'Grady and the Hairy Bikers to elocution (I've learned to use that word) lessons alongside Posher and Burke's.
Let's value diversity and regional identities rather than championing bland conformity. You're right that generations evolve, and my own tones are softer than my dad's, a miner who once failed to make a university friend from Suffolk understand that he wanted to know his name.
I daresay Shakespeare spoke in a voice that today might fail to land him a part in Henry V at the Globe. To deliberately change how you speak, however, is risible.
QL: I can't say I know who Sarah Millican is but Huw Edwards, Andrew Neil and Lenny Henry are great examples of my theory because all three often use accents that are a good deal more refined ("re-fayned") than those of the regions from which they spring. Lenny certainly wasn't doing deep Doodley Dudley when I saw him starring in that fine Comedy of Errors recently at the National. Huw has an adorable lilt but his voice has travelled a fair way west of Llangennech. Andrew is these days no more Paisley than a 10-quid job from Tie Rack. Here are mainstream communicators who have taken out the sandpaper and rubbed the edges off their accents. They have done so to broaden their appeal, to maximise their market, and maybe because they realised that too strong a regional accent can lead to typecasting.
Announcer Peter Donaldson may have left Radio 4 and the Beeb may claim to be "accessible" on its accents policy but don't be fooled. When did you last hear an Ali G accent reading the Radio 3 headlines? (Not that I'm recommending it!) Why do we have so many Mancunian accents on 5 Live but so few West Country ones?
I will end by noting that accent is not just in the rise and fall – the poshness – of a voice. It comes with emphasis and pitch, too. I regret greatly the way that sobriety of expression is being driven from public pronouncements. My eternal bugbears are radio and TV weather forecasters, who seem to be under instruction to be permanently whizzy, all gaiety-Gordon-ain't-life-a-hoot. And the way they put on a little sad voice when they mention rain. Drives me nuts. Plainness, straightness, factuality. Puh-lease.
KM: Sarah Millican is a comedian never off the telly – another Sanddancer with an accent as broad as the mouth of the Tyne. I'd hazard that Dudley's Lenny Henry, when he's acting, speaks in the accent and tone required by whichever luvvie's sitting in the fold-up chair barking instructions. That's how it works when you pretend to be somebody else.
To be one of the larger portion of Britons with an accent may be a handicap, but the focus should be on confronting the snobbery of a small yet influential group who look down their noses at anyone who couldn't pass on the phone for an Old Etonian. Institutions from Sandhurst to merchant banks might be operating a form of verbal apartheid. There could be a gap in the market to record and sell discs of Kate Upper Middle Class to women seeking selection to the royal Wag club. It's wrapped up in class. We should challenge prejudice rather than ordering the majority to change.
I prize the diversity of Britain, including our rich accents. We lefties are falsely accused of promoting bland, one-size-fits-all conformity. In my experience, Quentin, it's denizens of the right such as yourself who demand we all speak the same – that we become you. There's ne chance of that, marra.