The rise of the r-ful

Posted by on November 22, 2011

The discussion of class and language continues with a guest post by John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London, and author of Accents of English, English Intonation, and the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. He writes a daily blog on phonetics at phonetic-blog.blogspot.com.

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It was interesting to read Ben Trawick-Smith’s discussion of the decline of non-rhoticity in American English (‘The fall of the r-less class’). How different things are in England! Most of this country is non-rhotic, but we have two traditionally rhotic areas, i.e. areas where /r/ is retained before a consonant and finally, as in farmer. One is a small patch in Lancashire, where some older people in places like Blackburn and Accrington speak like this. The other is the vaguely defined West Country, with its ooh-aar burr, the popular stereotype of a Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Devon or Cornish accent.

Like any local accent in England, these are also associated with being working-class or lower-middle-class. The upper crust have no regional accent. And the way the upper crust speak is non-rhotic.

But both these rhotic areas are shrinking. They are under attack from two kinds of pressure: regional and social.

In the States these pressures led to the spread of Midwestern-style rhoticity to communities that had previously been non-rhotic. Bostonians and New Yorkers no longer drop r as resolutely as they once did (though you have only to watch episodes of Judge Judy from Massachusetts to see that there are still quite a few non-rhotic Americans around). More importantly, it is no longer smart to be non-rhotic. In England, it is the other way round. Rhotic pronunciation is, for us, a quaint local feature, almost as quaint as boasting of your brand-new combine harrrvesterrr. (In Scotland and Ireland, needless to say, things are different.)

As we all know, regional accents are becoming less regional, as we lose the most strikingly local features of pronunciation to the levelling effect of the rest of the country. What London did yesterday, Reading does today and Southampton will do tomorrow, followed closely by Bristol and Exeter. People in Plymouth no longer sound particularly Devonian to outsiders, and many people in Swindon no longer sound particularly Wiltshire. We mustn’t exaggerate: Bristolian remains pretty distinctive, and it is even rumoured that girls called Normal or Evil are still to be found there (the famous Bristolian intrusive l).

The social pressure comes about as we lose the sharp distinctions of social class that our grandparents and great-grandparents endured. The era of Downton Abbey, where everyone knew their place and spoke accordingly, has given way to a demotic (relative) equality, where not only do many people of working-class origin move their accent a bit up-market, but also the upper-middle classes and even the upper crust feel pressure to move down-market (as Dan Clayton discussed in his post yesterday). Compare the Queen’s pronunciation with that of her son Prince Charles and even more strikingly with that of her grandsons, Princes William and Harry.

By the way – I was the one who coined the term rhotic, forty-odd years ago, as the OED bears witness (see image above). Until I did so, people had been characterizing my own speech, and that of most English people, as “r-ful”. That really sounded awful.

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