Scouse? Cockney? Received Pronunciation? Do you speak with an accent? Why does our accent change when we speak to someone with a different accent to us? Have British accents always been the same or does the English accent change over time? How do we know what people sounded like in London hundreds of years ago, and what will a London accent sound like in the future?
It was my great pleasure to be able to ask renowned linguist Professor David Crystal and his son, actor, author and producer Ben Crystal, some of these questions for episode 7 of The Language Revolution Podcast. Accents have always intrigued me as at different periods in my life my own accent has been a source of shame, pride, or bemusement. I don’t exactly sound like the people I grew up around, nor the people I went to university with, nor my first teaching colleagues and students. I have collected a bit of each place (Redditch, Oxford, Glasgow), and wound up with a sort of hybrid accent that misbehaves and sometimes sounds more Welsh, or more Scottish, or posher. It just won’t sit still.
Apparently this phenomenon is called accommodation, and as David explains, if you like someone you talk like them. Great news, fellow accent chameleons: we’re not being fake, just friendly! But politicians be warned. It is not always acceptable to slip into the same accent as your interlocutors.
What kind of accent did Shakespeare have?
Since I first heard David and Ben talking about the accent of Shakespeare’s London, original pronunciation or OP, at Cheltenham Literature Festival a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the way it opens up the plays and sonnets in new ways to me, and to audiences around the world. I also wanted to know how they know what Shakespeare sounded like. How did they make this linguistic time machine and travel back 400 years to declare, with 80-90% accuracy, what Elizabethan accents were like? Their answer is a fascinating insight into what historical linguistics is, and as an added bonus David does his ‘party trick’ of speaking in Old English, Middle English and Early Modern English, like a true linguistic time-traveller.
What is the point of accents though? Did cavemen have accents? Indeed they did, and accents served quite an important purpose in protecting our ancestors from enemies or intruders to the cave. We can still observe this in linguistically diverse cities (rather than caves) today, as we explore in the podcast.
Sometimes accents are a source of amusement for one group at the expense of another. Have we always told jokes that mock (not always that gently) a particular accent? Apparently we have, and even Shakespeare did it. Listen to find out which accent Shakespeare mocked the most often!
Accent of the future
Then on to the future. Will English accents eventually merge into one ‘standard’ accent? How did Received Pronunciation arise and how did it gain so much momentum around the world? Will teenagers be disadvantaged if they speak in a non-standard variation of English, and will adults ever keep up with teenagers’ accents?
Come and join us (and some seagulls flying past us on the coast of Wales) as I talk about talking with David and Ben Crystal.
This is the second episode in a three-part series with Ben and David Crystal. Listen to Ben talking in more depth about Shakespeare and oracy in Episode 6.