Don't be fooled: the Queen is not speaking our language

'Tara Palmer-Tomkinson sounds like Eliza Doolittle before Professor Higgins got his hands on her'
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A deeply fascinating piece of academic research from Australia has managed to ruffle a few feathers. It's really a dispassionate observation of a particular fact, but it can hardly seem anything other than disrespectful to the point of lÿse-majesté. An expert in linguistics has examined the Queen's Christmas broadcasts, from the earliest to the most recent, and has observed that, in the course of her lifetime, her vowels have shifted from the front of her mouth toward the back.

A deeply fascinating piece of academic research from Australia has managed to ruffle a few feathers. It's really a dispassionate observation of a particular fact, but it can hardly seem anything other than disrespectful to the point of lÿse-majesté. An expert in linguistics has examined the Queen's Christmas broadcasts, from the earliest to the most recent, and has observed that, in the course of her lifetime, her vowels have shifted from the front of her mouth toward the back.

A very interesting and valuable observation. The Queen is a particularly good subject for such observation, since there are so many recordings of her speech, and they cover such a long period of time. From the famous wartime recording to the children of the Empire - "Come on, Margaret!" - to the present day, there is a record of her speech for practically every year of her life, and there is probably no other speaker of English for whom that is the case. If you wanted to track the changes in linguistic usage in a single individual over the course of a long lifetime, you could not possibly find a better subject for your research than the Queen.

All the same, it is difficult to describe such things in a neutral way, and perhaps the researchers might have made a sensible decision to refer to her, in scientific manner, as Elizabeth R. The point about her pronunciation is that the shape of vowels has definite social connotations, and the unarguable shift in her vowels certainly seems like a shift down the social scale.

The Queen's vowels, from her first broadcasts, don't strike us as unusually forward in the mouth; they strike us as almost unimaginably posh. "But", "bet" and "bat" all sound very much the same. "House" really does sound like "hice".

So, the distinctions that the Queen has learnt to make over the years, to the point where she now has more than one vowel to her name, don't seem merely like a neutral linguistic change; they sound as if she has become distinctly more common. Certainly, that was the interpretation widely placed on this fascinating and undoubtedly accurate research, and the Palace greeted the news that the Queen has embraced estuary English - a useful though rather broad linguistic category - with the sort of sniffy response it generally reserves for paparazzo shots of the Duchess of York.

We generally like to assume that the speech of individual classes is a fairly stable thing, but I doubt that is the case. The upper-class dropping of the final "g" is much rarer than it used to be, for instance - something that would aggrieve Henry Green's mother, of whom it was said that she was so grand, she dropped the final "g" from words that didn't have it. In general, the speech of the members of a particular social class tends to sound rather more vulgar than that of its parents.

Middle-class English of half a century ago, as typified by an announcer on the BBC, tends to sound to us like aristocratic speech. Virginia Woolf's accent, which was probably fairly typical of the London upper-middle class, now sounds almost incomprehensibly grand.

And now, the young of the upper classes rarely talk in what we normally think of as an upper-class accent; Tara Palmer-Tomkinson sounds like Eliza Doolittle before Professor Higgins got his hands on her. A real cut-glass accent, in anyone under 40, is invariably rather an aspirational middle-class thing, acquired by someone who taught himself to stop saying "toilet" and "settee". Middle-class London children, now, always sound appallingly common to their grandparents, but their way of talking is quite distinct from that of real working-class London children.

The accents of the working classes change as much as anything. It's quite rare, now, to hear the old London accent that pronounces "catch" as "ketch"; it has been altered by all sorts of new influences, and particularly by black English, which have turned it into what would probably seem quite a new accent. The Cockney accent of 50 years back, though still familiar from old films, is in reality as dead as that of Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers, which routinely interchanged Vs and Ws.

In short, pronunciation is in a constant state of change, and individuals' pronunciation is as prone to alteration as anything else. Only people isolated from their linguistic community are unlikely to alter their accent at all; old Indian expats do still talk in the accent of their youth. The rest of us are not going to carry on talking as we did as children, and that includes the Queen.

What is entirely idle is to draw the conclusion that the Queen is now talking in the accents of the lower classes. She is talking exactly as a woman of her class and generation might be expected to in the year 2000, and it is no surprise whatsoever that that does not much resemble the ways of talking of her youth.

What is surprising, however, is that it demonstrates that she has, after all, been listening to other people all these years.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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