Language and accents are a veritable passion for anglophones. Upon landing in the UK for the first time, my new comrades at university asked me to explain President Trump, but their curiosity was focused on his accent, not his policies. The power of linguistic tonality and musicality has long been a sore topic with those of a social justice inclination, who have long waged war on British Received Pronunciation (RP), also known as King’s/Queen’s English or Oxford English, and General American (GA), the US equivalent of RP.
In the social justice, or engineering, view, the existence of RP and GA are artifices, designed to create and to enforce discrimination. In this version of life, standardized language, by which one means a method of pronunciation and vocabulary use that is easily comprehensible to native and non-native speakers alike, must be destroyed because it is a barrier to the social mobility of non-standard language speakers. However, there is increased recognition in the journalistic circles that the reverse might be the case.
In Britain, the shift from RP as the preferred tonality occurred as a result of the Second World War. According to the BBC’s archives, the company hired the first presenter with a regional accent, though not dialect, in an effort to pre-empt Axis representatives from issuing broadcasts under the guise of being the BBC. Prior to the War, it was accepted practice for newscasters to speak in a neutral manner:
When the BBC was founded, Lord Reith believed that the traditional RP accent - along with the Standard English dialect - would be the kind of speech that the largest number of people would easily understand.
To some extent, Reith was correct. Since trad RP is an accent that doesn't come from one particular region, in one sense, no area of the country was more disadvantaged than any other. However, since RP was the preserve of the aristocracy and expensive public schools, a very small social minority was favoured over the rest of the population.
No one disputes the assertion that prior to the War only a small minority in the UK – unlike the US – spoke a form of standardized English, and because of this fact, the conviction that social mobility is tied to demolishing standardized English is deeply ingrained in common popular wisdom on both sides of the Atlantic. However, more recently a wide range of observers, scholars, particularly social historians, journalists, and commentators have suggested that the opposite is true. The thought is that since the 1990s, when there was a concerted, centralized effort by education departments to embrace non-standard speech forms, primarily regional accents in the UK and ethnic dialects in the US, social mobility has plummeted.
Although sociologists have not proven an empirical correlation between the decline in mobility and the change in attitude toward language, common sense indicates that those who argue there is a distinct connection between the two are correct. Aeon published an article titled “The English question” on the subject of the fracturing of Britain into regional and sub-regional identities within the context of Brexit. The author argued that the rise of these identities began when the a-regional, “British” RP accent disappeared from mainstream television and radio in favour of regional tonalities: “Suddenly television screens were filled with regional accents, replacing the clipped tones of generations of more ‘British’ presenters.” Following this line of thought, which the author ultimately did not, the revolt against RP caused the loss of a role model and contributed to a subtle constricting of barriers. British RP, as cast by this particular author, was a symbol of a multinational experiment where everyone was equal within it, regardless of geographic origin, or even education; as the BBC acknowledged, no region is disadvantaged or advantaged when everyone speaks a standardized language. As the author of the Aeon article explained, all of this changed when RP was tacitly rejected by mainstream culture.
In a review of the new book The Class Ceiling, Times columnist Clare Foges observed that the vilification of the “system” is counterproductive because this strategy offloads from parents and teachers the responsibility for creating a functional, socially acceptable adult, as symbolized by the ability to speak coherently and distinctly. Foges’ recommendations for improvement are decidedly un-politically correct:
There should be a far greater emphasis in state schools on cultivating soft skills. Some schools already do superb work with debating societies, mentoring, a requirement for impeccable manners, handshakes and eye contact — we need a national push on all this. And if we are to crack the class ceiling, that rather tweedy word “elocution” must be revived. Like it or not, we are judged the moment we open our mouths.
This is not a suggestion we all go RP, but there are many teenagers today whose grammar and “street” accent are ensuring they will never be viewed as a serious professional prospect. It would be a shot in the arm to social mobility if schools could teach young people to speak properly, clearly, crisply. Call this snobby; I call it realistic.
Foges’ solutions are particularly pertinent in a globalized world and society. In methodologies for teaching secondary languages, e.g. English as a Second Language (ESL), Français langue étrangère (FLE), or Deutsch als Fremdsprache (DaF), it is expected that students learn the standard intonation and tonality of the target language in order to ensure their intelligibility and to improve their own aural comprehension. It is the latter aspect which contributes to feelings of disenfranchisement on the part of native, but non-standard, speakers.
Implicit to the Aeon article was the idea that in provincial England, inhabitants feel left out, alienated from the broader country. Certainly, in the US there are similar feelings. While it is not statistically provable – in fact it is probably statistically false – there is a sense that people from specific regions or demographic areas, such as the south or inner-cities, are less likely to achieve nationally visible careers as a result of their linguistic incomprehensibility to the rest of the country. It is remarkable that the last US president to speak General American was Ronald Reagan. As the Aeon author also argued, the feelings of isolation and alienation correlate to RP falling out of favour, and it has only become worse, as Foges argued. What was supposed to be a grand gesture of inclusion and acceptance has turned out to be a dialectical prison. Foges has the correct solution for both sides of the Atlantic.