Accents speak louder than words

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Dec 4 17:11:21 UTC 2006

Monday, 4th December 2006

Accents speak louder than words

A Plum In Your Mouth
Andrew Taylor
HarperCollins 9.99

WHAT a difference a few vowels can make. That was the lesson Andrew Taylor
learnt one day at school, when the French teaching assistant turned to the
class and announced: "I am going to give each of you a piss of pepper."
The incident made a lasting impression on Taylor and has led to his book A
Plum In Your Mouth, an accessible, insightful and amusing read on
pronunciation. Taylor, whose Yorkshire accent has been buffeted by years
working in the media down south, has hit on a British obsession. As he
points out, how we say something has often been as significant as what we
say. Pronounce 'glaahhs' for glass, and 'baahhth' for bath, and people
will immediately make assumptions about your background, your education,
and whether or not you are going to inherit from mummy and daddy. In
Britain, accents and pronunciation are the means we use to locate people
socially and geographically, in the same way as surnames sometimes do in
other countries.

What Taylor reveals, however, is that although certain accents in Britain
are associated with wealth and the middle to upper classes - RP or
Received Pronunciation - people don't always aspire to those accents. Lord
Reith and the men of the BBC may have hoped to smooth out the "appalling
travesties of vowel production" with a promotion of BBC English, but such
an aspiration didn't take hold.

Far from wiping out regional accents, the various ways in which we can
pronounce numerous words continues to flourish in an age of television and
radio. The point, says Taylor, is that people hang on to their regional
and national accents as a source of pride and identity. There is an 'us
and them' quality to the way people speak. The joy of Taylor's book is its
rich celebration of accents. A veritable cacophony of different voices
sound from its pages, as the author covers accents from the West Country,
Yorkshire, Liverpool, Wales and Scotland as well as Indian English, Black
English, Australian and American.

He points to the ever changing nature of pronunciation, and covers some of
the historical shifts that have led us to speak the way we do today. Much
of the pleasure in reading this book is Taylor's fluid and relaxed style.
His linguistic research is solid, but this is no dusty, dry tome with an
academic discussion of phonemes and diphthongs. Instead his book quotes
the well-known voices of celebrities and politicians, and is peppered with
quips and anecdotes, from the wry and funny to the deadly. During the
troubles in Northern Ireland, Taylor notes grimly, gunmen would ask people
to pronounce the name of the jeweller's 'H Samuel'. While Protestants
would drop the 'h', Catholics would keep it, and how you answered was a
serious business.

A Plum In Your Mouth is a lively, fascinating read for anyone who has ever
felt the irresistible urge to correct someone else's way of speaking - not
that there is any 'correct' way of pronouncing half the words in English.
It is also an illuminating, informative study on pronunciation and the
prejudices and snobberies that go with it.
Last updated: 03-Dec-06 01:44 GMT

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