Focus: The accent that dare not speak its name

As posh talk becomes passe and RP dies out, the demotic language of the call centre is now the only one we share
The distinctive accent of upper-crust Britain is in danger of extinction, neglected by its owners and threatened by rougher accents off the streets. No wonder some want to put it in a zoo, where it can be studied and admired before it expires.

Last week the actress Prunella Scales said she had been to the National Sound Archive to make a library of "posh" speech, to help young actors play characters in Wilde, Coward and Shaw, whose voices are increasingly remote from their own.

She may be too late. Once, people aspired to speak posh: it was the voice of the people in power - in the law, in the City, in the Establishment. Now there are plenty of people who would be ashamed to speak like that. A posh voice is seen as naff and unfashionable. The most chic tones reflect the timbre of the newly powerful. The voice of the moment is that of Zoe Ball and her ilk.

There never was just one "posh" accent. Crispin Jewitt, director of the archive at the British Library, has tapes of numerous subclasses going back as far as Gladstone. "But," says Jewitt, "people's expectations may not be quite met by what we find to be authentic." In other words, Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins would not have sounded as we imagine them in Pygmalion -- and certainly not as they did in the Hollywood film My Fair Lady.

Andrew Wade, head of voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, supports research to find appropriate accents for a particular piece, but warns that, among young actors, accents are a delicate matter. As, indeed, they are for everyone.

Actors of Prunella Scales's generation tend to sound like Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, even when they were brought up in one room in Bermondsey. The training process stripped them of all audible signs of class and regional origin. Now the pendulum has swung again, and nobody is proud to speak posh. Instead they want to declaim their origins as much as does the blank verse of the Bard. Actors, says Ward, want to "come from their root sound": to take their own natural accent, be it Geordie or Brum, as their starting point. And the RSC accommodates them: Shakespeare no longer has to speak Received Pronunciation (RP) - and hardly anyone else wants to do so either.

RP is the educated English accent, of which "posh" is only one variant. It may well be on the wane after 400 years of cultural dominance. First identified by name in 1869, RP was standardised in the public schools in the 19th century. But it had begun in the 16th century, as a court- based variant on the London speech of the day.

Modern linguists have noted different strains. The upper class voice, still used by older members of the royal family, is called "U-RP", the U presumably coming from the U and Non-U craze of the 1950s. It has a curious kinship with Cockney: both prefer "buggah orf!" to `bugger off!'.

The posh accent won't die out completely as long as Television's Two Fat Ladies command an audience. It continues to echo round the doggy halls and flagstoned kitchens of the nation's country "hices". It shrieks in the editorial offices of some of our leading magazines. Sometimes it is turned on the unfortunate shop assistants of Cheltenham.

But its institutional presence is reduced. The speaking clock is no longer a schoolmarm. The disembodied voice on the London Underground now says "Mind the gap" rather than "Mend the gep".

Auntie BBC spoke RP as late as the 1960s, especially on its children's programmes. But most RP speakers have adopted a compromise form called "mainstream" or "modified" RP, and it is that which the BBC reserves for news and funerals. Elsewhere, of course, it sounds like everything from a stroppy teenager to a football hooligan to a kind health visitor wondering whether you'd like your food cut up.

Traditional RP is spoken by only some 3 per cent of the population: it is much more popular with the 1.5 billion speakers of English abroad - which is why the "best" English is sometimes said to be spoken in Calcutta. Some commentators, notably Beryl Bainbridge, fear that if RP dies, our common culture will go with it. Is this clutch of phonemes all that keeps us from the Dark Ages?

All accents change, says Dr Clive Upton, lecturer in English Language at the University of Leeds, who supervises pronunciation for the Oxford dictionaries. A modern Henry Higgins, except that his vowels retain a touch of his native Warwickshire, his work records how people speak different accents to their parents. They change accents during their own lives. They also speak differently for different audiences, even without going so far as Tony Blair.

In the 1960s, Upton notes, Princess Anne was known to her mother as "Enn". But she has always pronounced her name "Ann". When Prince Andrew married, he gave his name as "Andrew". The Archbishop of Canterbury, from an older generation, persisted in calling him "Endrew".

Upton applauds the "democratisation" of RP, which is no longer the language of a "tight little Establishment group". He is wary of overtly political arguments, but notes that some have suggested that "posh" RP - with its non-phonetic behaviour, difficult "pure" vowels, distinctive "U" vocabulary and traps for the unwary - was ideally suited for the task of separating Us from Them.

U-RP was the tribal dialect of an inward-looking social group who needed to command but rarely to mix. But life has changed. To speak to people outside your circle, and get them to employ you, you sometimes have to speak their language.

In any case, all accents are changing. Working people are speaking a "near-RP" because they now have to deal with people all over the country. The old regional dialects were fine for working the same fields as your grandparents, but less effective in a computerised call centre.

Village-by-village linguistic variation, recorded as late as the 1950s, has given way to vague regional accents. Some suspect that RP itself will be replaced by Estuary English, the near-Cockney employed across the whole of the Southeast and generously spread across the nation by the broadcasters. But television and radio, says Upton, can't permanently change people's accents. To learn an accent, you have to speak it.

Dorothy Daniels is an elocution teacher in Cheltenham. Her clients sometimes want to lose their native accents: one wanted to make herself less obviously South African.

"She wanted to blend in," she recalls, and that is a common motivation. People enter new lives, and they want to fit. "A lot of them don't make it," she says. "It's not an easy thing to lose an accent. It's like the nose on your face. You can change it ever so slightly, but there's not a great deal you can do with it."

But accents characterise a person, often unfairly. And their associations change. It is not long since Scouse meant native wit and charm: now it is associated with fecklessness. Brum sounds miserable. Cockney sounds devious and aggressive. West Country speakers, among whom I proudly include myself, sound like simpletons. How did the late Lord Denning get where he did while sounding like someone who'd come round to cut the hedges?

Some RP speakers complain that their accents make them the subject of prejudice. But those with pronounced regional accents have always experienced that. At Bristol Grammar School in the early 1970s, one boy was kept out of "Top of The Form" team because his Bristolian voice was declared by the school to be "unsuitable for broadcasting". I know this to be true, because I'm only just getting over it.

Those who cling to the notion of RP as "correct", "clear", "beautiful" speech are not telling the whole truth. In its upper-class form it is none of these, being full of irrational elisions and slack articulation. It thrived because it was the language of the dominant class: Estuary, the language of footballers, Spice Girls and DJs, may succeed for the same reasons.

What really matters is clarity of communication, which is why elocution continues to earn its crust now that the Rain in Spain has dried up and the Brown Cow has gone off for rendering. "Good speech should not be noticeable," insists Daniels, whose own speech is admirably clear - and a long way from Prunella Scales as HM the Queen. "You should notice what's being said, not the way it's being spoken."