To "inform, educate and entertain":
the rise and fall of BBC English and plummy accents
I’ve been teaching (or more recently, having mainly conversation lessons) in Poland for the best part of eighteen years, but the one thing that the majority of students desire most is not being proficient in the language (but they do say that this is important), but the fact that they would like to speak in a perfect, British English accent. The Queen’s English. Received Pronunciation. BBC English.
But the question is – what exactly is the perfect British English accent?
Now at this point I should direct you to my feature on the history of the English language on this very website, but the truth is that there is an answer, and for that we have to thank – or blame – the early days of the British Broadcasting Corporation, or the BBC, in helping to fuel this belief.
First, we have to go back in time a bit further – the fifteenth century – and William Caxton setting up his own printing press in 1476.
English at that time was written and spoken in all kinds of styles and dialects. What we would regard as Standard English did not exist. So Caxton decided, for a kind of default language, to use East Midlands English. All his books would then reflect the spelling and pronunciation of the dialect from this region.
Other factors would also influence the way we’d say things. The Renaissance. The Reformation. Even Greek and Latin, considered classical languages and filled with grammar rules in the belief that if these were good enough for these languages, then these same rules were good enough for English, even though the language had developed to the point that many of these rules simply weren’t practical.
However, in the history of the English language, the 15th century was an important period as the way English speakers pronounced their vowels changed. For example, the 'oo' as in food sounded more like 'ow' as in now; The 'e' /i:/ vowel sound sounded more like how we pronounce the letter 'i' as in 'eye', so in those days 'dream' sounded more like 'drime'.
Studies have shown (that is, recorded by A.C. Gimson, author of An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English, 1989) the pronunciation of some vowels shifted from Middle English to Early Modern English and onto present-day English; for example, the present-day 'name' used to be pronounced 'narm' and 'nirm'. The impact of the Great Vowel Shift, as this period is known, began around London and the south-east. It moved steadily across the country, but did have an impact on the way English was pronounced around the nation, with differing accents developing in different area of the country - particularly the north - and even some areas being unaffected.
It was quite late before we would even take our language even more seriously than dead languages or from a Mediterranean country, and when we finally got around to teaching English across the country, the way we pronounced words still varied from across the region. And in many areas, we were even proud of our regional accents: these showed you for what you really are, not one of those stuck-up posh people with private schooling and their silly East-Midland Home Counties accents.
Now we move forward in time and the invention of wireless telegraphy, or in its shorter form, the wireless, or more sensibly, the radio.
The BBC is the oldest national broadcasting organisation in the world, and it celebrates its 100th birthday in 2022. It was formed in response to what was essentially a load of amateurs wanting to set up their own radio stations from 1920 onwards, much to the annoyance of officials who were scared that these people would interfere with important military and civil communications. By the end of 1920, they were effectively banned. However, the General Post Office – yep, our postal service was responsible for broadcasting as well as the telephone – had to take away the ban after a petition by several wireless societies.
Worried that the country would be filled by hundreds of silly radio stations on air at the same time like America, the GPO suggested issuing just the one broadcasting licence. This would be to a company jointly owned by a load of companies that made radios, and would be known as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd (and later became the Corporation), and made its first official broadcast in 1922.
However, its first general manager was a rather strict, religious and prudish individual, John – later Lord - Reith. His directive was to "inform, educate and entertain".
But he also insisted that the announcers – who despite only being behind a microphone - only wore formal dress, i.e. a shirt, tie and jacket. They were also to set a good example as to the way they should speak, and that they should all have the same ways of pronouncing words. He said that ‘One hears the most appalling travesties of vowel pronunciation. This is a matter in which broadcasting may be of immense assistance’. In doing so, he wanted to ensure that BBC radio would be telling me and everyone else in the UK – even the Welsh and the Scots - how to ‘properly’ pronounce words. Effectively, he was trying to get listeners to speak with Received Pronunciation. The language of the well-educated. The only thing was that less than five per cent of the population did so.
The result of all this are the utterly absurd accents you got on early British radio and television, and in newsreel films in cinemas. People who really did sound as though they had stuffed a few plums into their mouths. But if you were in that stuffed plum group, you were seen as either a diplomat, a stock broker, a judge, a broadcaster, or someone who was, essentially rich and exposed to the best private tuition. To have RP English was seen as a definite positive if you wanted to get on in life at the time, particularly after the Second World War.
Despite the BBC relaxing these rules due to the popularity of British films from the North and the arrival of commercial television, RP still remained an unwritten rule – witness the difference in David Attenborough’s tone from his late 1950s/early 60s broadcasts to the present day. Even Jeremy Clarkson famously had a plummy accent at the start of his career before quickly getting rid of it. BBC English was, and to a degree, still is hugely influential.
But today it is believed that only two per cent of the population use Received Pronunciation, with many people now proud of their regional accents, some even wanting to deliberately get rid of their ‘posh’ accents.
Thankfully these days the BBC has fully accepted linguistic variation and change and getting rid of all its silly rules on the right way to say things such as ‘bar-th’ even if someone in Yorkshire says ‘ba-th’.
So while Lord Reith – a Scotsman, by the way - was keen to get us all saying what he thought was the right way to say things, one ex-director of the BBC, Richard Sambrook, made it clear that he did not want to take on such a responsibility.
So, my dear Polish chums, what you are trying to achieve is basically a dialect that the vast majority of the country doesn’t use. But then again, perhaps you really are looking at getting a job that uses RP.
And, I’m afraid to say, Received Pronunciation still counts as positive currency in some professions.