There are currently 37 dialects in the UK
While we are waiting for the venerable Mr Tim Goodman to un-self-isolate so that the audio version of ‘Oranges & Lemons’ can make its way to its listeners, let’s consider the voice for a few minutes.
‘Accent!’ Max Adrian, the producer in Ken Russell’s ‘The Boy Friend’ yells from the wings at Twiggy, who instantly switches from a Gor Blimey working class voice to an ‘Aye say, aye wonder orfly if you’d maind’ tone on stage. Is it a solely British habit, the conscious upscaling and downscaling of the voice depending on whom we’re talking to? At the last count there were 37 separate dialects in the UK. Why do we assume some of them give away our class?
We did not have a television until I was about seven, and in those becalmed times listened to a lot of radio. Those transmitted voices of childhood are more memorable to me than their modern equivalents, partly due to RADA, partly Received Pronunciation. Actors spoke the words of writers; now everyone is a comedian, but that’s not the same as acting out the words.
The word Reithian has come to mean enlightening, improving and aspirational. It certainly defines early television and radio. John Charles Walsham Reith, 1st Baron Reith, felt that the media should be used to educate. I’m glad he’s not around to see ‘The Kardashians’. It’s because of him that everyone was upper class on early television, and Sunday nights were devoted not to religion but to intellectual discussion.
My speaking voice is close to Received Pronunciation, which is regionally neutral and middle class, probably because I worked around actors for so many years. True RP can be heard in Laurence Olivier, Patrick Stewart, Celia Johnson and Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It occurs in the delightful oddity ‘Stop Press Girl‘, 1947. A more exaggerated theatrical version turns up in the films of Nöel Coward. This is the RP of rolling ‘R’s and crisp ‘T’s, and the odd flattening of certain double vowels. RP is about clarity, which is useful for being understood.
Actors have better comic voices than comedians because they understand which words should be clipped or elongated for amusing effect. Working with Kenneth Williams taught me a lot about the power of the voice, as he kindly coached me through scripts to make them funnier. Fruity voices like those of Hattie Jacques, Betty Marsden and Joan Sims were perfect for making even the flattest dialogue funny.
As social mobility increased along with the nation’s physical mobility in the age of cheap cars, the desire to reform working class accents and secure a better job resulted in many taking singing and elocution lessons.
‘We are all middle class now’
It was all about class, of course. A Birmingham accent is still considered guttural and working class and many try to lose it via speech coaching. (It’s common to the French, too. Try a blunt Niçoise or Alsace accent.) By rounding off the harder edges we create a more commonly accepted mode of speech. I once knew a brilliant writer with a strong cockney accent. He could clear a room by opening his ‘Norf and Sarf’. His favourite party trick was to lure in snobbish graduates who would underestimate him, then intellectually smash them.
If the RP accent softened over time, so did the working class dialect, shifting from far more musical rounded vowels to flattened monotone ones. I do wonder if this removal of tonal colour from language has something to do with a fear of being too flamboyantly emotional. Much of the change is connected to speakers of one language coming into contact with those who speak a different one. The most common accent I hear in Central London is also my favourite; a muted glottal-free tone used by black kids which feels like the true successor to cockney.
At an exhibition of oral history at the Museum of London, the curators realised it would be challenging simply having visitors standing around listening to the equivalent of old radio plays. Instead they recorded the local memories of 100 year-old East End residents and relayed them through telephones of the correct period, so it felt as if you were receiving a call from a relative, and created intimacy.
In the TV show ‘Toast’, failed Shakespearian actor Matt Berry is reduced to doing voiceovers for TV ads but can never allow himself to be populist. The traditional voice coaching of his RADA years refuses to leave him. The more actors emote the more they project and the slower their readings get, which means we have to cut their scripts.
For many years it was felt that the female voice when broadcast had ‘less authority’ than the male voice. The number of female voiceover artists could be counted on one hand. Some supplemented their pay by recording explicit audio tapes for sex shops in plummy ‘posh’ voices. When I asked one female voiceover artist what that had been like she said, ‘It taught me to enunciate clearly with two fingers in my mouth.’
Children’s voices of either sex are routinely played by women. Certain actors like the velvet-throated Bill Mitchell became famous for a particular tone of deep voice. Mitchell was one of the few artists in London who could handle a decent US accent, but he was in fact Canadian. Bill owed his voice to chugging whisky and smokes. He is no longer with us.
After years of being unable to sound American, UK actors perfected US regional accents after teaching methods changed. US actors who struggle with UK accents complain most about the following words;
Aunt – Castle – Ask – Answer – Afternoon – Perhaps – Nasty
English still contains words that will trip up the smoothest talkers. ‘Idiosyncracies’ is apparently one. Today’s children suffer from Word Poverty. Studies have shown that the average English native speaker knows about 20,000 words, with university-educated people knowing around 40,000 words. When actually speaking this goes down to about 5,000 very common words used repeatedly. Some children start school knowing 6,000 words, others just 500.
Nobody knows how many words there are in English. It’s possible there are two million. I would quite like to learn all of them.