May 30, 2004


Americans' accents may be " flat", but at least they're not "plummy".

According to a 1999 BBC News article, Radio 4 is said to have dumped an announcer for excessive plumminess:

Outspoken journalist Boris Johnson claims he has been the victim of discrimination because his accent is too "plummy". ...

The Daily Telegraph columnist and newly-appointed editor of The Spectator magazine believes he has been the victim of what he calls "vocal correctness".

The article goes on to relay the suggestions of Gregory de Polnay, head of voice at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, about how Johnson could "reinvent" his accent:

He said the journalist's voice was that of someone "used to commanding, used to being heard".

Standardising Johnson's vowel sounds would be the first hurdle.

"All those rather clipped vowel sounds that go with that accent we could iron out," said Polnay.

It's interesting that the BBC can write without irony about "standardising" someone's Received Pronunciation vowels. And to talk about "ironing out" vowels makes it sound like they are not "flat" enough -- is there a translatlantic flatness continuum here, with Americans having too much of it, and upper-class Brits not enough? De Polnay adds that

Johnson's "nasality" would also have to be addressed, ensuring he does not push the sound of his voice down through the nose.

"Somewhere along the line somebody has said that [nasal] sound can appear to be more authoritative," he said.

Perhaps it's pushing sounds "down through the nose" (from where?) that makes them "plummy"? But he OED is quite specific about what plummy means, and the nose is not mentioned:

1. Consisting of, abounding in, or like plums.
2. fig. a. Of the nature of a ‘plum’; rich, good, desirable.
2.b. Of the voice, then of sound gen.: thick-sounding, rich, ‘fruity’; indistinct; with bass predominating.

However, the citations for sense 2.b., which go back to 1881, seem to refer to personal or stylistic characteristics, or even the sound of certain kinds of amplifying circuits, rather than to social class. Class aside, it's clear that sometimes plumminess is a Good Thing and sometimes (despite sense 2.a.) not:

1881 Punch 23 July 25/2 The same aged lover was bidding, with rather a ‘plummy’ voice, the More-than-Middle-Aged Heroine ‘good bye for ever’.
1947 Jrnl. Inst. Electrical Engin. XCIV. IIIA 446/1 Such distortions can be tolerated..without serious loss of articulation, though the speech will usually sound rather ‘plummy’ and unnatural.
1951 K. HARRIS Innocents from Abroad 199 The rich, plummy voice of [actor] Edward Arnold.
1955 Times 3 May 14/4 A disc which sounds plummy and muffled in tone.
1965 G. MCINNES Road to Gundagai xi. 197 His voice..was wonderfully plummy and Edwardian.
1970 Daily Tel. 1 Sept. 9/5 All India Radiomodelled..on the BBC, even down to the plummy accents of its announcers.
1975 City Press 1 May 16/5 Her duchess on the make is a finely pointed performance, the plummy vowels contrasting splendidly with consonants periodically marred by the lack of false teeth.
1977 Early Mus. Oct. 549/3 The plummy..tone [of Flemish virginals] is evidently more popular than the musically versatile but astringent Italian virginal.
1978 Gramophone Feb. 1439/1 His tone is mellow, but again, as in the Waltzes..the sound sometimes seems a bit plummy and close.

In contrast, the Boris Johnson story emphasizes class associations, and so do most of the comments in a forum devoted to Brian Sewell's candidacy for being "more annoying than Mick Hucknall". The nomination features the plumminess of his accent as a key source of annoyance:

First, his unfounded acid criticism of just about everything: "Oh, of course one cannot take Mozart seriously, since he didn't have an overblown plummy accent like one's own."

Second, his overblown plummy accent. Like Jeremy Spake, I suspect that this is a deliberately exaggerated affectation which makes up for his lack of other noteworthy features.

The other forum commenters echo the class associations:

...vain, self obsessed snobby little bastard...

posh talking bastard. thinks he is better than anyone else.

Sewell acts as if he's little lord Fontleroy.

Just because he went to Public school and practiced Received Pronunciation behind the bike sheds ... doesn't make his opinion any more valid than any other yobbo.

I've got Brian Sewell down as a massive wind-up merchant.
The plummy voice CAN'T be real [...] & his comment on the subject of common people, other cultures, non-arty types etc. are just inflammatory for their own sake... As for posh? Nah, not with a name like Brian...

For those who (like me) have never heard of Brian Sewell, here's an (allegedly typical alleged) transcript, showing the content as opposed to the accent:

'Brian Sewell': "So, how does one get to Gateshead?"
Gatesheed Coonsil: "Well, you can take the train out of King's Cross..."
'BS': "The train?! and travel with.... *the masses*....?!?!"
GC: "I think you'll find that's what everyone else does..."

'Brian Sewell'": "I've heard that Gateshead is merely a small village, an insignificant backwater inhabited by uneducated, illiterate neanderthals who still live in caves? Is that true?"
Coonsil: "Naah, I think you'll find that's Sunderland."

You can check out the accent as well as the content in more detail on this Brian Sewell satire (?) site, where you'll find that his voice is not at all "plummy" in the OED's sense of "thick-sounding ... with bass predominating". Yet people today seem to accept "plummy" as a description of his way of talking, suggesting that it's the social class rather than the sound quality that has become primary.

[Note for Americans who (like me) don't follow British politics very closely: Boris Johnson has not suffered too much after losing his Radio 4 gig: Simon Hoggart wrote a few days ago in the Guardian that "in the fullness of time [Boris Johnson] will probably become prime minister". So apparently plumminess is not terminally out of fashion in the U.K. -- assuming, as I do, that Johnson did not take Gregory de Polnay's 1999 advice. I'm not sure whether Hoggart is serious, however, since most of his article deals with aspects of British culture that are opaque to me, such as what it means that Johnson "produced a used envelope and tossed it onto the table of the house", or why Mickey Fabb "will be polishing [Boris'] bat with linseed oil".]

[Update: Margaret Marks emailed a comment on Brian Sewell:

I absolutely agree that his voice is not what's usually called plummy.

Sewell was the boyfriend of Ant(h)ony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen's Pictures who turned out to be Philby's third (or fourth?) man, i.e. a spy for the Soviet Union. I think he was about 80 when the news came out. His house was surrounded by journalists, who were dealt with by Sewell, unknown at that time, who obviously loved the limelight and had a variety of longwinded ways of saying 'No comment'. He does or did camp it up a lot, though. Deliberately exaggerated, as you say. A very upper-class accent.

A couple of relevant links are here and here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 30, 2004 01:03 PM