The legendary linguist David Crystal in his book “A Little Book of Language”, estimates that only 5% of the population of the United Kingdom speak English with an RP accent. RP or ‘Received Pronunciation’ has traditionally been spoken by those in the upper echelons of society- doctors, bankers, lawyers and so on, as well as by aristocracy and royalty.
Crystal suggests it came about in the 18th century as a result of the British Empire, whereby those schooled privately and then put into positions of power were cast out into the world to represent their country. Once in authority, they then became the voice of Britain as they worked their way around the world, looting and dispossessing unwitting people in far off lands.
RP also became the voice of the BBC when it was established in the 1920s. The broadcaster was staffed with similar types of people from public school and university backgrounds and they maintained their use of RP during broadcasts, believing it to be more ‘correct’ than other forms of English, an idea that originated in the 18th century.
This belief is still held by many today. Take the recent comments by Lord Digby Jones, the British politician on the accent of TV presenter Alex Scott during recent Olympic games coverage on the BBC. Jones, demonstrating his linguistic snobbery, lamented Scott’s ‘g-dropping’, a linguistic phenomenon whereby the ‘g’ sound at the end of -ing verbs is ‘dropped’ or replaced with an ‘n’ sound.
Jones tweeted that Scott “spoils a good presentational job on the BBC Olympics Team with her very noticeable inability to pronounce her ‘g’s at the end of a word”. He went on to whinge that “competitors are NOT taking part, Alex, in the fencin, rowin, boxin, kayakin, weightliftin & swimmin” in mockery of Scott’s working class pronunciation.
Lord Digby Jones, as you might easily have guessed, is something of a relic. He comes from a world both alien yet depressingly familiar to a large majority of Brits. A world of privilege, public schooling and titles. Presumably a conservative with both small and large ‘cs’, his position at the top of British society is assured by dint of birth and his use of RP is an automatic given. A very different background then, to that of ex-footballer Scott, who was born and brought up in a working-class family in East London.
Here lies Jones’s real contention. Wikipedia states that “today, g-dropping is a feature of colloquial and non-standard speech of all regions, including stereotypically of Cockney, Southern American English and African American Vernacular English. Its use is highly correlated with the socioeconomic class of the speaker, with speakers of lower classes using /n/ with greater frequency”.
Clearly, Jones takes umbrage at the kinds of people he is forced to watch presenting his sports coverage in 2021. He yearns for a simpler time of men like him staring back from the screen, their soft, clipped RP tones wafting out of the speakers. To see a young, black, working-class woman on the BBC clearly did not sit well with Lord Jones, who chose to pick on Scott’s pronunciation as a veiled attack on what he views as the downfall of broadcasting i.e. allowing the lower classes and ethnic minorities on air.
But some have risen to the defence of Lord Jones. The main arguments in support of Ol’ Digby centre around supposed clarity and the use of ‘proper’ English. Some on Twitter have suggested they get “exasperated” and “frustrated” at hearing improper diction and pronunciation from their television personalities and that working-class speech should remain “on the factory floor” rather than “in the boardroom”. Should those who speak for a living and transmit information of great substance not speak with correct and fully developed pronunciation?
So there we have it. The great British class divide rears its ugly head again. It’s true that we’re slowly, and I mean slowly, starting to get used to hearing different accents on the TV, but there’s clearly still a long way to go before g-dropping and other linguistic peculiarities become acceptable to everyone.
What do you think? Should presenters speak in RP or are you happy to hear urban and regional accents on the TV and radio. Leave a comment below.