July 28, 2004

Standard = Neutral?

In response to my post on within-U.S. linguistic prejudice, Ray Girvan emailed:

I can fill in some UK equivalents on the basis of my experience.

Mainstream Scots English speakers ridicule teuchter (outer islands) accents and the Anglicised "pan loaf" accents of middle-class sections of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

In England, many British regional accents are considered acceptable by RP speakers: for instance, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and Irish, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Geordie. But they tend to view speakers of southern rural (e.g. Devon or Norfolk) as yokels; and those of Estuary English, despite its growing user base, as uneducated. ("At the 1995 Conservative party conference the Minister of Education, Gillian Shephard, launched into a denunciation of EE, condemning it as slovenly, mumbling, bastardized Cockney").

There is also the plumminess factor.

In the U.S., the traditionally standard radio or television voice is perceived as being maximally bleached of all marked characteristics ("having no accent"). Linguistically this is nonsense, of course, but it does reflect a democratic set of values, in which the desired reference value is viewed as being at the middle or zero point of the descriptive space, rather than being at one extreme corner.

As I understand it, traditional BBC English, in contrast, is perceived by most people as being a marked value. In this 1999 article, Boris Johnson, after losing a BBC radio gig, claimed to be "the first casualty in a war against those 'what speak proper' - the victim of a fresh assault on the mode of speech once dubbed BBC English". The article says that

Radio veteran John Peel, whose show Home Truths will precede the Borisless Week in Westminster, swapped his public school accent for a Liverpudlian drawl during Beatlemania.

Peel is pictured as moving from one corner of the space (the "plummy" "BBC English" "public school" upper class corner) to a different one (the "Liverpudlian drawl" corner). This perspective is echoed by a quote from linguist J.C. Wells:

"People are no longer automatically inclined to assume what people from the upper classes do is worthy of imitating," he said.

With speakers of received pronounciation no longer monopolising higher education, the media and the government, the accent may have become as much a liability as any other.

"People have prejudices about the social group who use a certain accent, rather than the accent itself," said Professor Wells.

Wells' way of talking reflects the linguistic truth of the matter, which is that every way of talking is one "accent" or another, since the underlying descriptive system has no natural zero point.

However, the same article quotes "Gregory de Polnay, head of voice at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art" talking in a way that assumes the contrary:

Polnay thinks Boris could soon master a radio-friendly "neutral" accent.

The quotes from Polnay characterize upper-class speech in a way that is more stylistic than linguistic: "clipped vowels", "nasality", "pushing the sound of his voice down through the nose", "exaggerate his diction by pushing out phrases". These are rather different descriptive categories than a phonetician like Wells would use. I'm not sure whether they can be given any scientific validity by being reduced to properties of physiological or acoustic measurements, or even to properties of intersubjectively valid perceptual scales. I'm skeptical that Polnay's "nasality" has anything to do with the nose or the nasal passages and sinuses, for example. Perhaps these terms are just useful aids to performance, like the golf instructor's admonition to "be the ball".

But the main thing here is that Polnay seems to see the space of accents as having a zero point, a "neutral accent" which is in effect lack of accent, all other ways of talking being deviations from that. In any time and place, this is an evaluation placed on a space of linguistic variation, not any intrinsic property of the system itself. But it's also not the only way to view a linguistic standard.

From my outsider's perspective, it seems to me that the British have traditionally taken the view that the standard to be aspired to -- once known as "received pronunciation" or "RP" -- is definitely an "accent", a particular set of values in the space of linguistic variation. This is in contrast to American folk linguistics, in which the standard is usually seen as a pure and transparent form of speech that lacks all discernable properties.

The American folk view is scientific nonsense, but it reflects a democratic set of values, which I for one find laudable. So if the British are now coming around to the American view, they are improving their social attitudes at the same time that they are moving further away from understanding the linguistic facts of the matter.

Of course a better result, on both sides of the Atlantic, would be for people to learn to understand the space of linguistic variation, the space of social evaluation, and the relationship between them. Then they could make well-informed decisions about both.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 28, 2004 08:57 AM