December 9, 2018

English Accents

I should not be writing about this topic at all. As an Australian, I don't have the fine-tuned perception of accents that Brits do. They can tell all sorts of things about a person from their accent -- and just about none of it is good.

There is only one accent that is prestigious in Britain: RP -- the accent of the upper and upper middle class in the home counties -- also the accent of the "public" (private) schools.

Broadly, there are only two Australian accents -- educated and broad. And neither of them opens or closes doors. You can do well with either -- though an educated accent is by far most common among the movers and shakers of Australian society.

We even had a very popular Prime Minister -- Bob Hawke -- who changed his accent from educated to broad during his entire time in office. To some amusement he changed back to his native accent as soon as he lost office. Can you imagine present British PM Theresa May adopting a Cockney accent? It is literally unimaginable.

In Australia, all British accents are perceived as British but none of them are perceived as of higher or lower status. We just don't get or value the class distinctions that they index. You can speak Cockney or RP and you will be treated just the same in Australia.

I presume that my accent was originally broad but many years in the educational system have left me with an educated accent. And an educated Australian accent is remarkably close to RP. So when I spent a Sabbatical year in Britain in 1977, I found myself in unexpected "Good" company. I had a degree of social acceptance that most Brits would envy. I was routinely told that my accent was "soft" -- meaning that although I was not one of the top people, I was close enough

All that came back to me recently when I was talking to a distinguished member of Australia's armed forces. He was British born but some years ago had transferred from a British unit to an Australian one. And his career has taken off after the switch. He was a native of one of Britain's regions so was not a native speaker of RP. He had of course -- like all people of ambition in Britain -- modified his accent in the direction of RP but his original accent was still detectable. And if I could detect that 100% of Brits would be able to. So I hypothesize that his move to Australia was a wise one. His accent would have held his career back if he had remained in Britain

So despite my very limited awareness of British accents, I was brought up short by something he said in a recent conversation with me. He pronounced the word "master" as "masster", where I speak it as "marster". I literally did not understand him for a while. We had the situation where I was using and expecting a near RP pronunciation where he was using a regional accent. A strange thing to happen in Australia. And except for my observer's interest in accents I would not have realized what was going on. Like just about all Australians I deplore Britain's class distinctions but they are an influential reality. We do well not to have them here.

So a Brit migrating to Australia can cast off the burden of an unprestigious accent. As long as he can be understood (not always guaranteed) he will be treated like any other person.

But not all Brits want to be liberated from their background. I know a very well-presented lady from England's North who has been in Australia for a long time. She apparently speaks prestigious versions of two European languages -- but is still detectably "Northern" in English speech. And she recently expressed to me contempt for the "posh" people of the South. The British class system runs deep.

But a truly sorry tale is what happens when a Scot moves to London -- as many do for the greater opportunities there.

A Scots accent in London is completely hilarious so to get by at all in London a Scot has to change his accent. And many do produce a passable version of RP. But the Scots are very proud of all things Scottish so when a Scot living in London goes home he risks great contempt and contumely if any hint of his London accent creeps into his speech. It cannot be easy

For blog postings from me, see
AUSTRALIAN POLITICS. I update those frequently.

Email me here (Hotmail address). My Home Pages are here (Academic) or here (Personal).