December 05, 2006

Happy-tensing and coal in sex

The papers have been buzzing with news about the Queen's English. These reports vary in tone and content, but many of them bang the drum for the decline of civilization. Thus Neil Tweedie in the Telegraph ( "How Queen's English has grown more like ours", 12/5/2006) begins like this:

As the common tongue continues its inexorable slide towards a new dark age of glottal stops and "innits", news comes that even the Queen is drifting slowly down river towards Estuary English.

A scientific study of Christmas broadcasts to the Commonwealth since 1952 suggests the royal vowel sounds have undergone a subtle evolution since the days when coal was routinely delivered to Buckingham Palace in sex.

The source of the fuss is a series of scientific papers by Jonathan Harrington and others. Most of the reporting deals with stuff that they published back in 2000, though there's some additional material in a paper that came out in October of this year. I'm always happy to see good phonetics research in the media spotlight, but my first question is, what happened on December 3 or so to make this news? Jonathan Harrington has just moved from a post at the University of Kiel to a position as Professor of Phonetics and Digital Speech Processing at the University of Munich, but I don't think that the PR department at a German university is likely to have promoted a faculty member's work so effectively. Handicapped as I am by ignorance of British culture, I can only guess that the timing of these stories has something to do with the schedule of the Queen's Christmas broadcasts.

There's more to say about the ideology of the news reports -- for a taste, since these things don't really change much over the years, you could see John Wells' presentation of the Guardian's coverage back in 2000.

As for the scientific content, the papers from 2000 were J. Harrington, S. Palethorpe and C. Watson, "Monophthongal vowel changes in received pronunciations: An acoustic analysis of the Queen's Chistmas broadcasts", Journal of the International Phonetic Association 30 63-78, 2000; and J. Harrington, S. Palethorpe and C. Watson, "Does the Queen speak the Queen's English?", Nature 408 927-928, 2000. Here's the abstract of the 2000 Nature article:

The pronunciation of all languages changes subtly over time, mainly owing to the younger members of the community. What is unknown is whether older members unwittingly adapt their accent towards community changes. Here we analyse vowel sounds from the annual Christmas messages broadcast by HRH Queen Elizabeth II during the period between the 1950s and 1980s. Our analysis reveals that the Queen's pronunciation of some vowels has been influenced by the standard southern-British accent of the 1980s which is more typically associated with speakers who are younger and lower in the social hierarchy.

Here's a display that presents the key findings:

The three symbols '5', '8' and 'S' represent the average positions of different vowel types in the Christmas broadcasts of the 1950s and 1980s, and in standard southern British of the 1980s, respectively.

(No dog jokes, please -- the stuff about "Barks" is a reference to the psychoacoustic scale of that name.)

The shift for the [æ] vowel is what's responsible for Neil Tweedie's little joke about "coal in sex". As John Wells, professor of phonetics at UCL, put it in a quote in the Guardian in 2000:

"We are all familiar with the change that has taken place in the vowels of words like 'that man' where, in the 1930s, we still had something like 'thet men,' " said Jonathan Wells, professor of linguistics at University College London. "She is only following along trends that exist in any case. She still remains well behind them, shall we say, and of course she still sounds upper-class, the way she always did."

In this case, the Guardian got the quote right, although they got John's name and position wrong.

The more recent work is Jonathan Harrington, "An acoustic analysis of 'happy-tensing' in the Queen's Christmas broadcasts", Journal of Phonetics, 34(4) 439-457, October 2006. Here's the abstract:

This paper presents a longitudinal analysis of some vowels from the annual Christmas broadcasts produced by Queen Elizabeth II over a 50-year period in order to investigate whether adults adapt to sound changes taking place in the community. The sound change that was analyzed in this paper, which is sometimes known as happY-tensing, concerns the tensing of the final vowel in words like ‘happy’ in British English Received Pronunciation over the course of the last 50 years. In the first part of the study, schwa vowels in Christmas broadcasts separated by 40–50 years were analyzed in order to exclude as far as possible any long-term acoustic effects due to vocal tract maturation. The results of this analysis show a large decrease in both the fundamental and F1, F2, and F4 from earlier to later broadcasts. It is then shown that the Queen's 1950s happY vowel is less tense than in a 1980s corpus of four female speakers of Standard Southern British. A subsequent comparison between the 1950s and 1990s Christmas broadcast happY vowels shows a small change towards the tenser position. It is argued that the vowels exemplified by KIT and happY have undergone phonetic raising in RP, with the latter also having fronted. The Queen has participated in the first of these changes and marginally in the second.

The result of happy-tensing (along with the previously-documented change in [æ]) is to turn IPA [ˈɦɛ.pɪ] to [ˈɦæ.pi], more or less -- or in the orthographic phonetics of the newspapers, "heppih" to "happee".

The Queen's vowel shifts are in the direction of the variants used by most Americans and Canadians. So I wonder, is the Queen's speech drifting slowly downriver towards Estuary English, or is it sublimating subtly into the more ethereal realm of World English?

[If you're interested in the ideology of accent -- which is the main news here -- some of the press discussion is listed below:

Roger Dobson, "Speaking the Queen's English: Me 'ubby and I, innit", The Independent, 12/3/2006;
Mark Prissell, "One's voice ain't that posh", The Sun, 12/4/2006;
Neil Tweedie, "How Queen's English has grown more like ours", Telegraph, 12/5/2006;
Catherine Jones, "One thinks one has lorst one's posh voice", Western Mail, 12/5/2006.
Sajeda Momin, "How the Queen's English has changed with the times", Daily News & Analysis (India), 12/5/2006;
Justin Lees, "Royal Vowels crossing Jordan", The Daily Telegraph (Canada), 12/5/2006.
"My word -- the queen's English is slipping", UPI (reprinted in the Daily Indian, 12/4/2006);
"Study: Queen Sounds More Like Subjects", AP (reprinted in the LA Times, 12/4/2006).


[Update -- David Eddyshaw writes:

Apropos of vowels and the Class War, I recently read a report of an old-style Labour Party activist here decrying the Tory supposed indifference to child care provision thus:

"they're the kind of people who think a creche is what happens when two four-by-fours* collide"

* "Chelsea Tractors". I think it's SUV in American.


[And Samuel Fox writes:

The true sign of changing times is not that the Queen's vowels have drifted, but rather that the authors of the paper could have referred to her as HRH, rather than the correct HM.

I have no clue about this sort of thing, but I should have thought that Nature's copy editors would be well informed. And a number of official-seeming sites, such as this page from the British Embassy in Buenos Aires, refer to {"HRH Queen Elizabeth II"}.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 5, 2006 07:57 AM