Have Britons lost the art of talking proper?

Estuary English is now the lingua franca of Britain's media and its triumph over Received Pronunciation, what the British used to term speaking correctly, seems to be assured — but talking proper does have something to be said for it.

Caricature of an English couple.
Caricature of an English couple. Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo.

One of the charms of BBC news programmes at the moment is their regular despatches from the foreign stringers operating out of Africa and the Indian sub-continent. These are correspondents like Nomsa Maseko and Pumza Fihlani — women, mostly, terrifically well-briefed and consistently engaging. From patches of high ground amidst the Pakistani floods or from protest marches on the Harare boulevards, they can be found speaking in some of the most precisely articulated English it has ever been my pleasure to hear. Ms Fihlani, in particular, sounds as if she ought to be rehearsing a class of post-war RADA graduates immediately before their transfer to a Gainsborough film set.

The pleasure I take in the spectacle of Ms Maseko, Ms Fihlani and the Afghanistan correspondent Secundar Kermani doing their stuff gains an extra emphasis for its marked superiority to the efforts of most of the domestic presenters and announcers. The bane of my life at the moment is the man (identity unknown) who at 9.59 p.m. can be heard assuring us viewers in Norfolk that this is ‘BBC Wan in tha East’ — rather, that is, than ‘BBC One in The East.’ The recent Women’s Euro coverage, too, was a squawk-fest of reports from a tri-syllabic ‘Wemberley’ Stadium where there was twenny minutes left to play. And don’t get me started about the constant injunctions to watch box sets on the ‘iPlayah.’

And here, of course, we are straying into very dangerous territory, for to rebuke, or even mildly to criticise, anyone who in the course of their job as a TV pundit mispronounces a word or speaks in an unintelligible accent is instantly to be marked down as a snob. Among many casualties of this supposedly democratising movement, the Labour peer Lord Jones was recently given a terrible roasting in the public prints for daring to suggest that Alex Scott, one of the BBC’s sports department’s latest crop of talking heads, ought to know that such words as ‘running’, ‘shooting’ and ‘heading’ had ‘g’s on the end.

The fascination of these attempts at linguistic prescription lies in the fact that anyone trying to lay down the law will usually find that his, or her own, position is horribly compromised. The first time I became aware of the importance of ‘talking proper’ and the consequences it might have for the life you led and the way in which people regarded you was on the day I returned home from my first term at Oxford. I hadn’t been in the house ten minutes before my father shot me a suspicious look and demanded: ‘Where did you get that half-crown voice?’

Where had I got that half-crown voice? I couldn’t have told you. It was just how at the age of 19, set down in an environment that consisted of suavely-toned public schoolboys and tough lads from northern comprehensives who made a point of dropping their aitches, some sub-conscious part of me had decided to speak. Unquestionably the RP (‘Received Pronunciation’, or what the British used to term speaking correctly,) tones in which I now address the world (my youngest son once told me that his friends thought I had ‘the poshest accent of anyone they’d ever heard’) are bogus. Had I been left to my own devices here in Norfolk, never been admitted to Oxford or allowed into a BBC radio studio, I should still probably discourse in a broad local argot, maintain that the things I liked were ‘reely nice’ and call a trip into town ‘goin’ up the city.’

But, as a year or two’s exposure to media-land soon demonstrated in spades, this kind of deceit is practically endemic. If there were people such as myself tuning up their vowels and aspiring to a high-end linguistic crag wholly out of keeping with their origins, then there were other people hard at work concealing where they came from in a fog of Estuary demotic. About a quarter of a century ago, I interviewed Blur’s Damon Albarn for a Sunday newspaper. These were the great days of Britpop and Damon, who turned out to be the son of some Essex teachers, was at the height of his Mockney phase. Listening to the tape of our conversation (‘All right mate, we gossom top gigs coming up’. ‘Really? That’s most frightfully interesting’ etc) I realised, to my shame, that it sounded a bit like Little Lord Fauntleroy interviewing his game-keeper. Both of us were what Malcolm Muggeridge would have called ‘bovarists’ (after Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) carefully covering up the tracks of the creatures we really were.

Even my father, who spent the first half of his life on a Norwich council estate and, in moments of excitement would revert to arcane dialect words (‘So I tobied up the road’), wasn’t consistent about his attitude to ‘taking proper.’ A genteel accent, overheard in public, was usually treated with withering scorn, hard evidence of the affectedness and pretension of people with too much money: he did a particularly good impression of two well-heeled middle-aged ladies he’d once eavesdropped on at a classical concert: ‘Does wan hev wan’s years pee-arsed?’ On the other hand, of all the Labour politicians of the post-Thatcher era that he disliked (a fairly extensive category), the one he disliked most of all was the people’s tribune John, or as he now is, Lord Prescott.

My father’s scorn for Lord Prescott was based entirely on his public persona and the syntax-mangling that provoked a long-running Private Eye column called ‘Let’s Parler Prescott.’ According to his scale of values, a working-class man who made it to the top of the tree and who appeared on television in front millions of people ought to do them the elementary courtesy of talking in intelligible language. Not to do so was to fall into the trap the upper classes had set for railwaymen’s sons from Hull: you had to beat the toffs at their own game, show you could compete in an amphitheatre where your opponents had established the rules.

Meanwhile, most of the broadcasters engaged in the thoroughly commendable task of opening up the airwaves to voices not previously heard in our national conversation will be darkly aware that a whole host of unspoken rules still apply. It is a fact, for example — well-known to utilities and finance companies — that certain regional accents are greatly disliked by a substantial percentage of the UK population, just as others are held in high esteem: call centre operators are much keener on employing Geordies than anyone from Merseyside or the West Midlands.

Here in 2022, this debate is pretty much academic. The smart money is on inclusiveness and diversity, which means — from the angle of the RP diehard — a whole lot more TV presenters who can’t pronounce quite ordinary words. Given some of the strangulated articulations I recall from childhood — Angela Rippon, for example, making an extraordinary elongated flourish out of the word geh-rill-ah, as in ‘guerilla attacks in Beirut’ — this may not be a bad thing. The cultural critic Jonathan Meades has suggested that we need a newly-wrought version of received pronunciation simply to bring some kind of communicative norm back to public discourse. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but as for our local BBC continuity man and his ‘BBC Wan in tha East’ a small, censorious part of me still wants to yell out: ‘Come on son, this is television.


D. J. Taylor