Southern British English 1


1. Estuary English before Rosewarne

Some 25 years ago I was confronted with an enigmatic comment “You do this new thing awfully well”, followed by a necessary explanation, “the way you speak”. That new thing? What new thing? I’d been speaking like that all my life, occasionally censured for it. Eventually I saw David Rosewarne’s article (1984, Estuary English, Times Educational Supplement 19) and the penny dropped. It seemed the accent I shared with tens of millions of others in SE England had risen from being maligned and least desirable, and become the height of fashion. Those who write letters to the Times on such topics were also caught out. Rosewarne alluded to an earlier history of Estuary English in communities along the shores of the Thames Estuary, but without citing any sources, and then promptly claimed the expression for himself. Of course, he couldn’t know that our English language master had already told us at school in 1950 that our dialect was Estuary English. It seems I’d been speaking Estuary English for 50 years before Rosewarne coined the expression. Perhaps it was our English master who coined it, or perhaps he’d read it somewhere. If so, it would be exciting now to know where.

The story goes, that certain phonological features were spread from London to towns along both shores of the Thames estuary (Essex to the north, Kent to the south). This was mediated by Londoners migrating during the 19th century, following the relocation of docks, shipbuilding, naval dockyards and other industries from inner London. Similar migrations in all directions from London led to these accent features spreading throughout the home counties. By 1900, the term Estuary English was probably already an anachronism, which is perhaps why no-one now seems to know who might have proposed it or even written about it.

2. Southern British English

Figure 1.
Isoglosses for (i) FOOT-STRUT vowels (solid line, unsplit to the north, split to the south, and (ii) TRAP-BATH vowels (broken line), unsplit to the north, split to the south). The SBE region lies south of these isoglosses. From Wells, chapt. 4.3, attributed to Chambers and Trudgill (1980, Dialectology, CUP), before that Martyn Wakelin (1972, English Dialects, Athlone Press), and possibly the Survey of English Dialects.
Note that the FOOT-STRUT split also occurs in Wales.

Southern British English is a regional variety spoken across the south of England from East Anglia and Kent in the east to Devon and Cornwall in the southwest. For the record, and to remind ourselves of the obvious, regional SBE is also spoken in Scotland or the USA or elsewhere by migrants who took their accent with them, without losing its regional character, and without contravening isoglosses (providing no-one triggers a sound change, that is, in the new location). Accent boundaries are typically fuzzy, isoglosses shifting with trends in sound change, but fortunately there’s only one boundary to establish, against the Midlands and beyond. The rest is coast and sea. Katie Wales (2006, Northern English, CUP, chapt. 1) gives an overview of English dialect boundaries, and quotes two indicators in particular, that are relevant here: the pronunciation of two vowel phonemes (Fig. 1). One is the BATH vowel (brighter [a] to the north and darker [ɑ] to the south) the other the STRUT vowel (rounded [ʊ] to the north and unrounded [a]-[ɑ]-[ʌ] to the south). These two criteria reflect two sound changes that were established in the south by the 18th century: the TRAP-BATH split (two vowel phonemes to the south, the older single vowel phoneme to the north) and the FOOT-STRUT split (two vowel phonemes to the south, the older single vowel phoneme to the north). The dividing isogloss for each runs roughly from the Wash to the Severn. Note that the FOOT-STRUT split (solid isogloss) turns north along the Welsh border, indicating that this sound change is also established in Wales. John Wells (1982, Accents of English, CUP, chapt. 5.1) reports the Welsh English STRUT vowel as [ə]. The Welsh English rendering is distinct from the [a]-[ɑ]-[ʌ] of SBE.

Several regiolects (local subvarieties) occur within SBE. Wells (chapt. 4.3) recognizes and describes East Anglia, London, the home counties (surrounding London), and the southwest.


Figure 2. London boundaries: London County Council 1889-1965 (left) and Greater London since 1965 (right). The traditional Cockney boroughs are (left) roughly 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and (right) roughly 1, 10, 9, 8 (outlined in red). The new peripheral boroughs of the 1965 reform (right) tend to retain their home counties accent that previously surrounded the LCC London (left).

Within London, Wells (chapt 4.2) distinguishes the traditional Cockney accent (in roughly the inner part of the East End) and popular London elsewhere, but reports the difference as being very slight.

Note that the administrative boundary revisions of 1965 have brought formerly adjacent home county areas to within the limits of London (Fig.2). Many of these former neighbouring areas, now peripheral London boroughs, still tend to retain their original local (home counties) SBE regional accent.

Additionally, social variants, ‘sociolects’, occur within SBE, as with any regional accent, such that certain pronunciation features signal social factors. For example, A. C. Gimson (1962, Introduction to the Pronunciation of English, Henry Arnold) suggested educated (following Daniel Jones and many others before) and popular variants of an accent. Just simply saying educated has long been criticised as an unfortunate choice for an accent descriptor, since it is rarely defined, and at best taken for granted. Moreover, ‘educated’ in this context is simultaneously a transferred epithet referring to an accent rather than a person, and a metaphor for social or economic class. Wells (chapt 4.2) refers directly to social class, and suggests popular and standard variants of London and southeastern accents, for working class and middle class (while emphasizing that popular and standard constitute a continuum and are hardly reified entities). At the same time there must be some discriminible features if this sort of discussion is to be possible. Potential candidates for some of the ascending rungs of the SBE social ladder are rejected intervocalic glottal stops, minimized h-dropping, and less syllable reduction. The MOUTH and GOAT diphthongs are potential discriminators between RP and home counties SBE (examined below).

Yet another social variety is what Gimson called a modified accent, an active adaptation of one accent towards, or to, some different accent. Such adaptations can be acquired with varying success, partial modification being indicated by any retained original accent features, and by any target accent features not yet adopted. The motives for accent modification are usually social, for example promoting careers, avoiding stigma, fitting in, disguise. A special case is the theatre, where actors might be called upon to perform any accent.

3. Listen to some examples of London and home counties regional SBE

Example 1: A sequence of six different London or home counties SBE speakers:

  • The first two represent popular sociolects: an actor who grew up in the East End and north London, and a comedian who grew up in a Thamesside London suburb. Nevertheless, their accents sound very similar, a measure of the shared London features of the popular sociolects of London and the home counties. At the same time, accent is the hallmark of these two, both having nurtured their popular accents for their performances.
  • The next three exemplify an educated (Gimson) or standard (Wells) home counties sociolect of SBE, which is also my own accent. Professionally, they are a professor, a photographer, and a professor, in that order. All three have childhood links with the southeast.
  • The sixth example comes from a promotion video for translation software, complete with its background guitar accompaniment that can’t be filtered out.

Next, listen to examples of two typical features of London or home counties regional SBE (the first five speakers of Example 1): the MOUTH and GOAT vowels:

These distinguish regional SBE from RP, the MOUTH vowel being pronounced [æɔ]-[æ:], (while RP has [aʊ]-[ao]), and the GOAT vowel [aʊ]-[ao] (while RP has [əʊ]), respectively. These are not the only differences between SBE and RP, they are merely examples for now.

Example 2: The London or home counties SBE MOUTH vowel: [æɔ]-[æ:]

Three examples each by five speakers, in the same order as Example 1:
work out, all about, I found; find out, thing about, towers ‘n; power, turnout, it out; how, out of, just now; counter, thousand, tried out.

Example 3: The London or home counties SBE GOAT vowel: [aʊ]-[ao]

Three examples each by five speakers, in the same order as Example 1:
get over it, so, process; emotion, go, know; most, prone, notice; focus, moments, chosen; so, approach, Estonia.

4. The RP accent

The socially distinctive accent RP has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries (Lynda Mugglestone, 2003, Talking Proper, OUP). It was codified by Daniel Jones (1909 and later editions, The Pronunciation of English, CUP; 1917 and later editions, An English Pronouncing Dictionary, Dent; and 1918 and later editions, An Outline of English Phonetics, Teubner, later Heffer). He first characterized RP as “the general usage of educated people in London and the neighbourhood” (1909). Then, in (1918), he defined education more precisely, that of “those who have been educated at ‘preparatory’ boarding schools and the ‘Public Schools'”. In practice, this means schools affiliated to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC). Jones also added an additional group of RP speakers, namely those who adopted RP in preference to their own original accents, i.e. the special case of Gimson’s modified accent when the target is RP and acquisition successful. For the less complete adoptions towards RP, Wells (chapt. 4.1) suggests near-RP. One motivation for adapting other accents to RP was conformity to the once strong association between RP and the professions, which applied equally to regional SBE and to other regional accents. Pressure to conform gradually eased throughout the 20th century, accelerating since 1945. My own guess is that it started with engineering and science at least by 1900, while broadcasting and the law have possibly been among the more conservative professions. In consequence, regional accents, including SBE, are now heard at all levels in all professions, replacing the former adopted RP.

The BATH-TRAP and FOOT-STRUT splits of RP identify it firmly as a variety of SBE, where it belongs by linguistic typology, notwithstanding any claims that it is nonregional according to other criteria such as the nationwide spread of the public schools. Trudgill (2008, The historical sociolinguistics of elite accent change: on why RP is not disappearing, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 44, 3-12), citing various sources, places the origins of RP more precisely in the SE, particularly London itself. The reference to education, together with motives for adoption, define RP socially, confirming that it should be seen as a sociolect of SBE.

There have been a number of RP pronunciation shifts during recent decades, reported by Wells, and by others, and summarized by Mugglestone (chapt. 8), Trudgill, and Joanna Przedlacka (2008, Models and myth: updating the (non)standard accents, in English Pronunciation Models: a Changing Scene, edited by Katarzyna Dziubalska-Kolaczyk and Joanna Przedlacka, Bern, Peter Lang, pp. 17-34). A consequence is that the difference between RP and home counties SBE has diminished, but none of these authors expect RP to disappear completely. A comparison of MOUTH and GOAT vowel pronunciations, reported below,  suggests they are stable criteria for distinguishing RP and home counties SBE. None of the reports on shifting RP pronunciation mention any recent changes to the RP MOUTH (or GOAT) vowels.

5. How many speak RP?

Wells (chapt. 4.1) states that RP is spoken by “a small minority”. Mugglestone (p. 262 and p. 293) reports that “RP in its ‘purest’ and most non-localized forms is still spoken only by three to five percent of the population”, adding it would be unwise to expect more for the 19th century. She offered no source. Peter Trudgill (2001, Received Pronunciation – sociolinguistic aspects, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 36: 3-13) has suggested 3% of the national population, based on a sample of speakers from Norwich. He was criticized by Windsor Lewis (2013, A notorious estimate, Phonetiblog 443) for his sample composition and selection, and for his definition of RP speaker.

I once did my own estimate, based on statistics published in Britain 1974 (HMSO, annually), reasoning that the proportion of schoolpupils in public schools might be representative of Jones’ definition of RP speakers. Looking at statistics for pupils in unassisted schools (which is more than just public schools), there were less than 5% in 1974. A more direct, but tedious, approach would be to check every website of every member school of the HMC and sum their pupil statistics. However, extrapolating from a small sample of them suggests around 2%.

Whichever way you go, you never seem to end up far from Mugglestone’s 3%-5%. These estimates do not include the unknown number of adopted RP. However, bearing in mind the relaxed pressure to modify regional accents to RP for joining the professions, the number of adopted RP must be much smaller today. You only have to listen to the radio or television, to appreciate the number of regional speakers, including SBE, from all walks of life, who have declined to adopt RP.

6. Listen to some examples of RP: 

Example 4: A selection of RP speakers from the past 125 years:

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), Harold MacMillan (1894-1986), Ian Fleming (1908-1964), Kingsley Amis (1922-1995), William Hague (1961-). This selection does not distinguish between original RP and adopted RP. There is at least one adopted RP speaker here, W. Somerset Maugham, whose first language was French according to his Wikipedia biography, and who was teased at King’s School (Canterbury) for the English he spoke there.

Next, listen to examples of two RP diphthongs (the same speakers as Example 4) for comparison with Examples 2 and 3: the MOUTH and GOAT vowels:

Example 5: The RP MOUTH vowel [aʊ]-[ao]

Three examples each by the five speakers, in the same order as Example 4:
round, now, out; mountains, town, founded; now, sit down, work out; now, Strauss, house; ground, about, power.

Example 6: The RP GOAT vowel [əʊ]-[əo]

Three examples each by the five speakers, in the same order as Example 4:
own, so, chosen; so, ago, ago; so, go, no; socialist, s’pose, poet; showed, hosted, over.

7. Comparing London or home counties SBE with RP: the MOUTH and GOAT diphthongs

Figure 3.
Comparison of the MOUTH diphthong in home counties and London SBE (red) and RP (blue), showing the start and end points of the diphthongs. The vowels were taken from stressed syllables in focally accented words in continuous speech (the words in sound Examples 2 and 5 above).
Figure 4.
Comparison of the GOAT diphthong in home counties and London SBE (red) and RP (blue), showing the start and end points of the diphthongs. The vowels were taken from stressed syllables in focally accented words in continuous speech (the words in sound Examples 3 and 6 above).

Figures 3 and 4 compare the formant frequencies of the start and end points of the MOUTH and GOAT diphthongs by the London or home counties regional SEB and RP speakers in the sound examples 2, 3, 5, 6 (above). Each vowel analysed is taken from stressed syllables in focally accented words selected as they occurred in about 5 minutes of continuous speech by each speaker, three words per speaker. For measuring formant frequencies, the diphthong start point was defined as the moment where the initial CV transition ended (indicated by various formants changing direction). Similarly, the endpoint was defined as the moment where the final VC transition commenced (indicated by various formants changing direction). Formant frequencies were measured directly from spectrograms on the computer screen using the cursor and frequency readout. Regarding the quality of the sound recordings, downloaded from the BBC or Youtube, it must be remembered that their previous history is not known, and there was at least one MP3 degradation before they were uploaded to their respective web hosts. The sound clips included on this page had to be degraded again by compression to MP3 once more.

Taking the MOUTH diphthongs first, Fig. 3, the two accents were completely different, with different starting points and different endpoints, consistently for all speakers sampled for either accent. The starting F1 frequencies were all higher than 600Hz, indicating a low pharyngeal constriction location, and some sort of [a]-like timbre. They were differentiated by their F2 frequency. The home counties SEB examples started at an [æ] timbre with high F2, the RP examples started at an [a] timbre, with intermediate F2 (leaving low F2 for darker [ɑ] and [ɒ] of other phonemes not reported now). The difference between home counties SBE [æɔ] and RP [aʊ] for the MOUTH diphthong might seem small, but it has a strong social signal value. For example, Prime Minister Edward Heath (1916-2005, PM 1970-74) was mocked for his [æɔ]-like MOUTH vowel (he modified his regional SEB accent slightly towards RP, but didn’t alter the MOUTH vowel). I’m not aware of any sociolinguistic research on the respective social signal values of various RP vowels, but I would guess that their [aʊ]-like MOUTH vowel is a good candidate for one of the stronger instances.

Turning to the GOAT diphthongs (Fig. 4), the London or home counties SEB examples were straightforward, starting with an [a] timbre and closing towards an [ʊ] or [o] timbre. However, the RP samples revealed some surprising variations. The expected outcome was [əʊ] (Gimson (1962) also identified [ɛʊ] in what he called advanced RP (Wells’ U-RP), a variant not represented in these samples and so not expected in Fig. 4). Firstly, there were some RP instances starting at [a] (like home counties SBE) but darkening towards [ɑ] or [ɒ]; this was the sample from Ian Fleming. It’s impossible to say here if this is an atypical sample, or poor sound quality, or if he had his own idiolect in this respect, or if this indicates an unreported RP variant. All the other RP speakers started at [ə] and finished at [ʊ] or [o], except for yet another deviant result that simply darkened the diphthong towards [ɔ]. This was Harold MacMillan, who was addressing the South African parliament in a large auditorium, so that style and situation were significant factors. Again, it’s impossible to know from this sample if that was an atypical result. Despite the variation among these RP examples, it is still clear that there was a consistent difference between the sampled SEB and RP versions of the GOAT diphthong.

8. Conclusions

8.1. I heard the expression Estuary English used long before Rosewarne relaunched it in 1984. It described even earlier changes to regional SBE in the SE, in the 19th century, as accent features were spread from London, another local SBE variety. RP had no part in it, although prescriptivists were no doubt dismayed by the consequent widespread adoption of cockneyisms in the home counties.
8.2. This means that the current state of the home counties regional variety of SBE has existed at least since 1900. Once mocked and maligned and under pressure to adopt RP, it is now itself a desirable target for modifying other regional English accents, as an alternative to adopting RP.
8.3. RP should be seen as a sociolect of SBE on linguistic typological grounds. For example, it shares major sound changes with the whole of SBE during recent centuries, such as the FOOT-STRUT and TRAP-BATH splits.
8.4. The comparison of MOUTH and GOAT diphthong renderings by speakers of the RP sociolect, and of home counties SBE, showed consistent differences between the two accents and demonstrated that these two vowel phonemes constitute criteria for distinguishing between the two accents.
8.5. Recently reported changes in RP pronunciation demonstrate that this SBE sociolect has been assimilating features from other regional SBE varieties, and that gradually the difference has diminished somewhat, RP moving closer to regional SBE. The MOUTH and GOAT diphthongs are not yet affected. If the trend continues, so that the RP sociolect eventually becomes indistinguishable from regional SBE, will we conclude that RP has disappeared? Or, by the logic of national standard accents, will some good fairy wave her magic wand and declare that home counties SBE has suddenly modified to RP and ceased to be regional? However, that hypothetical situation should hardly arise. The difference between home counties SBE and RP is not forecast to disappear during the foreseeable future (at least by Wells, Trudgill, Przedlacka, and Mugglestone, notwithstanding Rosewarne’s prediction).

©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2014


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