LINGUIST List 14.2117

Sun Aug 10 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Mugglestone (2003)

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  1. DETERDING David (ELL), 'Talking Proper': The Rise of Accent as a Social Symbol

Message 1: 'Talking Proper': The Rise of Accent as a Social Symbol

Date: Fri, 08 Aug 2003 12:35:05 +0000
From: DETERDING David (ELL) <dhdeternie.edu.sg>
Subject: 'Talking Proper': The Rise of Accent as a Social Symbol

Mugglestone, Lynda (2003) 'Talking Proper': The Rise of Accent as a
Social Symbol (Second Edition), Oxford University Press.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-980.html


David Deterding, NIE/NTU, Singapore

SYNOPSIS

This book chronicles in some detail the rise of RP over the centuries
to assume its predominant role as a marker of high social status in
Britain.

Chapter 1 describes how a standard accent emerged in the late
eighteenth century, even though there had previously been much greater
tolerance for variation in pronunciation. Chapter 2 discusses the
social aspects of this rise of a prestigious accent particularly
during the nineteenth century, and Chapter 3 focuses on the
prescriptive tradition towards pronunciation, documenting how plenty
of best-selling books and pamphlets were produced to help readers
avoid the ''vulgarisms and other errors'' of Cockney or provincial
speech.

Key markers of the prestige accent that are discussed in this book
include avoiding omission of [h] at the start of words such as 'hat'
and using a velar instead of alveolar nasal (-ing instead of -in) at
the end of words such as 'walking'. Among other pronunciation
features that are analysed, it is interesting to note that many
originally stigmatised forms later became standard in England,
particularly the absence of [r] in words such as 'car' and 'chart',
the use of a long vowel in words such as 'path' and 'fast', and the
loss of a voiceless initial consonant to distinguish 'which' from
'witch'. Chapter 4 focuses on the feature that historically has
received most attention from those involved in promoting a standard
accent, the use of initial [h].

Chapter 5 looks at how women have been under particular pressure to
adopt an elegant, refined pronunciation. Chapter 6 considers the part
played by literature in reflecting and often reinforcing social
attitudes towards a prestigious accent. Chapter 7 discusses the role
of schools, especially the top English Public Schools, in the
emergence of a non-localised accent as the standard. And finally, in
Chapter 8, recent developments are analysed, particularly the rise of
a new variety of speech that some people have termed Estuary English
and which, it is often claimed, may be ousting RP from its pre-eminent
status in much of Britain.

This is the second edition of the book. There are not many changes
from the first edition over the first seven chapters, presumably
because little needed to be updated. However, there is rather more
new material in the eighth chapter, in the discussion of how RP has
recently lost some of its social kudos and may be in the process of
being supplanted by the new, less elitist style of speech that has
been adopted by people such as Tony Blair.

CRITICAL EVALUATION

This book includes an impressive array of quotes from a wide range of
sources, especially historical tracts that promoted the emergent
prescriptive emphasis on pronunciation, and also works of literature
that portrayed the notion of ''correct'' speech in the representation
of high-status characters. These meticulously collated quotes
certainly lend considerable weight to the documentation of the rise of
a single prestigious accent in Britain, but one sometimes questions if
they are all really necessary. Two or three absurd (and sometimes
rather objectionable) quotes equating the use of standard
pronunciation with intelligence would serve to make the point quite
adequately, and one wonders if it is really essential to have ten
more.

Despite this effort to document the trends so thoroughly, we are not
provided with much historical background for some of the changes that
unfolded. For example, we learn that in the mid eighteenth century,
at the time when Dr Johnson first published his dictionary, there was
widespread tolerance of regional variation in pronunciation, but that
this relaxed attitude had apparently disappeared by the end of the
century, when zealous advocates such as Sheridan and Walker were
hugely successful in promoting the importance of strict adherence to
an emergent standard form of speech. However, we are given little
inkling of why this change came about, of the social conditions in
England that led to this apparently quite sudden shift in attitudes.
And for more recent matters, while there is valuable and interesting
documentation of the suggested accent levelling whereby young people
in England are now more likely to be influenced by local London
pronunciation than its historically dominant posher counterpart, it is
a pity that we are not given more background to the social conditions
that have led to such changes.

One other area where further details are lacking is any comparison
with the situation in other countries. While we are provided with
much fascinating, carefully researched information about the
development of a socially pre-eminent accent in Britain, it would be
interesting to compare this with the contemporary attitudes prevailing
in the USA. Was there a similar emphasis on ''correct'' pronunciation
there, or was there generally a much greater tolerance of regional and
social variation? In addition, it would be valuable to consider what
was happening in countries such as France or Spain. Was the rise of a
standard accent a particularly British aberration, or did it reflect a
trend occurring in all European countries? We learn nothing at all
about this, which is a pity, as it would provide some perspective for
the developments that occurred in Britain.

Despite the meticulous research that has clearly gone into the
preparation of this book, its tone seems to belong rather more to the
realm of Literature than an academic work on Linguistics, not just
because of its frequent quotes from a large number of writers,
particularly Charles Dickens and George Gissing, but also because of
the style of the references, all of which are relegated to endnotes
rather than the name-plus-date formulation more usual in Linguistics
academic writing. Although this is certainly effective in ensuring
that the references do not interfere with the flow of the text, it can
be quite irritating for anyone who believes that references are an
integral part of the presentation, for in order to find out more
details, one has to try to remember which chapter one is reading and
then search for the relevant endnote at the end of the book.
Furthermore, in a work that traces the evolution of attitudes towards
language over so many years, the date at which something was written
can be quite important, so the omission of such information from the
text itself is a pity. For example, we are told (p.231) that the
Oxford scholar Kington-Oliphant emphasised the importance of young
boys using [h], but in order to find out that this opinion was written
in 1873, we have first to find endnote 66 in Chapter 7, and then
additionally find the listing of the book in the References section.
Similarly, Lord Reith, the founder father of the BBC, is quoted as
denying any attempt to establish a uniform spoken standard (p.268),
but it would be useful to know that he wrote this in 1928 without
having to search for endnote 47 of Chapter 8. And on the following
page (p.269), Lord Reith is quoted as saying that the BBC offered the
chance for listeners to learn by example, and surely it is highly
relevant that this opinion, which seems to contrast somewhat with that
of 1928, originated in 1924. It is unfortunate that one needs to
delve into the endnotes to find this out.

Even though this book is about pronunciation, the phonetics is
occasionally a little suspect. There are some problems with the
phonetic font, as it seems that a caret rather than a true phonetic
character is used for the STRUT vowel (eg p.182, p.246), and the NURSE
vowel descends too far and thus approximates a voiced palato-alveolar
fricative rather than a vowel (eg p.190, p.212). It seems unfortunate
in the modern age that a proper phonetic font could not have been
adopted throughout. Furthermore, there are a few errors in the
phonetics, such as the transcription of 'interest' with the stress
shown on the final syllable (p.184), and the suggestion that 'had' in
''Only wait till I've 'ad my tea'' might occur without an initial [h]
in all varieties of speech (p.185), when in fact such a weak form for
'had' could only occur in RP when it is an auxiliary verb. Finally,
the suggestion that loss of [j] in 'illuminate' and 'super' is a
feature of Estuary English (p.279) is surely not quite right - there
cannot be many RP speakers left who retain a [j] in these words, and
Wells (2000:380,750) lists the variants with no [j] as the main
pronunciations. While it is certainly true that elision of [j] is
often listed as a feature of Estuary English, this is more relevant
for words like 'new' (Cruttenden, 2001:88), as the loss of [j] after
[l] and [s] is now almost complete in RP (Cruttenden, 2001:82). But
maybe such pedantic concerns about fonts or about one or two phonetic
errors is unfair, for in general the coverage of most aspects of
pronunciation is admirably clear with excellent examples to illustrate
all the points effectively, and indeed, there is a commendable effort
to ensure that the phonetics is easily accessible to non-experts and
so does not constitute a barrier for those with no specialist training
in the field.

The wealth of detail provided in this book sometimes invites us to
question a simplistic interpretation of the changes that have
occurred. For example, it is often assumed that the modern influence
of colloquial London pronunciation in the rise of Estuary English is
bucking the historical trend for an educated elite to provide the
model for accent shifts, but the fact that loss of [r] in 'cart', use
of a long vowel in 'path', and elimination of a distinction between
'which' and 'witch' were all at one time regarded as vulgar suggests
that the impetus for change may actually quite regularly have
originated from less prestigious modes of speech and not from the
elite. The material included in this book allows us to consider such
possibilities, and this is a tribute both to the clarity of the text
and the abundance of data that is presented.

In conclusion, this book provides an exceptionally well-documented
description of the rise of a socially dominant accent in Britain,
though more details about the historical conditions and the comparable
situations in other countries might have been welcome, and it is a
pity that the references are not incorporated into the text. Despite
such minor flaws, the book offers a fascinating and authoritative
insight into the rise (and fall?) of RP with a valuable, wide-ranging
collection of well-researched data that is always clearly and
carefully presented.

REFERENCES

Cruttenden, A (2001). Gimson's Pronunciation of English (6th Edition).
London: Arnold Publishers.

Wells, J C (2000). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. Harlow: Longman.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

David Deterding is an Associate Professor at NIE/NTU, Singapore, where
he teaches phonetics, syntax, and translation.
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