David Crystal Lecture: English Accents

David Crystal
David Crystal (Photo credit: University of Salford)

English Accents:  Past, Present and Future

Last night I enjoyed listening to David Crystal talk about English accents.  He’s such a great speaker, full of funny anecdotes and imitating different accents–impossible to capture in a written context so I’m afraid this blog will never do it justice.  Well, attempting the impossible, here’s a summary of what he said:

Everybody feels strongly about accents.  They feel it from the gut.  They have associations, like his example that a Birmingham accent sounds thick.


It goes back to the stone age and our need to recognize that someone is a part of our tribe and not an enemy tribe.  It’s about survival.

It’s about identity.

It’s not about being intelligible, but expressing who we are, which group we belong to, in an effective way that travels through space and darkness.

Accents have existed from the beginning of English, but it wasn’t until more recently that we began to associate personality traits and prejudices with certain English accents.  We know accents existed in middle-English because of different spellings.  Chaucer and Shakespeare write with different accents for different characters.  Shakespeare takes the piss out of foreign (French) accents, but never different English ones.

So how did our attitudes to accents develop?

Stereotypes began in the 18th Century along with the emergence of a middle class.  Before industrialization there was only an upper and a lower class, but suddenly there was a growing middle class with money to buy themselves the same luxuries of the rich.  And they could buy everything, but not the way they spoke.  Until elocution classes came along.  This was also the age of politeness when people wanted to be associated with refined behaviour and education.  Accents as we know them today started in the late 18th Century, with RP developing around 1800.  This was the first time that accent represented a class, not a region.  It was the accent of education, of public schools and also of the British Empire, making it one of the fastest spreading accents of all time.  It also become one of the most widely recognized accents (that and the US accent).

However, this is changing rapidly.  The number of RP speakers is in decline with only 2% of people in England speaking it (and fewer people elsewhere in the UK).  It is being replaced by modified RP accents.

RP itself has changed over the last half century, both in it’s formal character (how it sounds) and people’s attitudes toward it.  Vowels are shifting, as people who study the Queen’s speech patterns are noticing. Will and Harry  use glottal stops.  Not like in ‘bottle‘ so much as at the end of words like ‘hot.’

RP  is also  losing its positive associations, with more and more people regarding it as elitist.  People prefer regional accents because they are deemed warmer, more customer-friendly and trustworthy.  You’re more likely to buy a car from someone from Edinburgh or Yorkshire than from someone who speaks RP.

Or from a Brummie.

Why is Birmingham still perceived so negatively?  Well, there isn’t anyone famous who has made it familiar or acceptable.  All famous people from Birmingham continue to use RP and the media continues to poke fun of the accent.

You can see this transition between which accents are considered acceptable by following the BBC.  In 1980, they had one person with a Scottish regional accent.  She got hate mail.  They took her off.  By 2005, they had a whole programme celebrating accents and regional accents are the norm.  Now in 2013, this same Scottish woman is presenting the 6 pm news.

Actually, if you think you’ve got an accent, you’re wrong.  There’s no such thing as an accent.  You have lots of accents.  We have variations of accents.  When we speak, we accommodate, or adapt our speaking to be more like the person we are speaking to if we want to connect with them.  Everybody does this.  In the past we could identify where people came from by their accent, but now there’s so much exposure to accents and with accommodation, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where someone is from.

What’s interesting is that this accommodation is happening globally.  Other languages are influencing English.  For example, English is becoming in certain contexts (like India, Caribbean, Africa) less stress-timed and more syllable-timed.

It will be interesting to see what happens to English accents in the future.  How they change and how the associations with them change.  Especially as power drives language.


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