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Review of  Talking Proper

Reviewer: David Deterding
Book Title: Talking Proper
Book Author: Lynda Mugglestone
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 14.2117

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Date: Wed, 6 Aug 2003 15:48:11 +0800
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.

Reviewed by 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

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

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

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.

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