The English Pedant – Why is it wrong to talk properly?


The Campaign Against Posh Accents (CAPA), which has been running unofficially and without that handy acronym, has led to the fact that it is increasingly rare to hear the crystal clear, honeyed tones of a Charlotte Green, to name  one of the most recent of a breed  of BBC Radio Four announcers. She might sound a bit like a Victorian governess, but is there really anything wrong with that?

It’s only British people who find it offensive in some inverted-snobbery way. People from other countries may find it slightly amusing, but they tend to like it.

You still hear voices of that type all over the BBC outside the UK (Katty Kay, for instance, talks to millions on BBC World News America in her nice-English-girl accent).  But you will never hear a classic English broadcaster’s voice on the youth-orientated Radio One, where a regional accent – and preferably a sloppy one – is regarded as having more credibility. Thus you will find accents from the north of England, the Midlands, Scotland, Belfast and particularly the Londonish south, but not the sound of the previously respected, educated English person.

There is a curious double standard in operation here. As the world celebrated the 90th birthday of Sir David Attenborough, was there a word of criticism of his accent? I certainly didn’t see or hear any. So if Attenborough is allowed to do it, why isn’t everyone else?

I’m not advocating a return to the stilted tones of a British newsreel of the 1950s, or the refined voices of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, because those accents died out in the 60s anyway, but is there really any need to pronounce past  like pasta rather than parst, if that’s how you were brought up to say it?

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it is my duty to allow students some leeway in their pronunciation. There is British English (or rather English English, because the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish sound very different), there’s American English, Canadian English, Australian English and variants from New Zealand and India to the Caribbean. They are all perfectly valid. As long as a student communicates clearly and unambiguously, that’s fine.

What I can’t (or won’t) do is change the way I sound. I don’t have a regional accent. There is such a thing as a Guernsey accent, but I don’t think I’ve got one. People refer to me as English and I don’t usually correct them unless we have the time and they have the language skills for my description of where and what Guernsey is.

I’ve been told that the way I pronounce water (waw-ter rather than wadda) sounds like an orgasm, but I have never thought that was a complaint.

Several students have told me they like my neutral accent, which they no doubt compare with what they hear on films and TV, largely from America. That, of course, is a big influence, and the popular British films such as the James Bond series give people an idea of how a Brit “should” sound. There has never been a “frightfully English” Bond, although Roger Moore had a bigger touch of posh about him than most. The supporting cast, such as Douglas Llewellyn’s Q and Judi Dench’s M, led the way in Englishness, but even then, they weren’t cartoon upper class twits, just ordinary British people. And Sean Connery, let’s not forget, is Scottish, so when he talks to “Blawfelt”, he doesn’t sound like David Cameron.

Given the global obsession with youth and the dumbing-down which proclaims, “my ignorance is just as good as your education”, how long before James Bond is played by a monosyllabic cockney goth who can’t make a th sound and is therefore a goff?


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