LINGUIST List 14.2117

Sun Aug 10 2003

Review: Sociolinguistics: Mugglestone (2003)

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  • 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) <>
    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

    David Deterding, NIE/NTU, Singapore


    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.


    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.


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

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


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