Halfway to Estuary English: H G Wells

Biologist, author, journalist, H. G. Wells was born in Bromley (Kent, U.K.) in 1866, the youngest son of a professional cricketer and a domestic servant.
I’d half expected to hear an example of Estuary English partially modified towards RP, but it turned out he fitted perfectly into his contemporaries among the seven rural Kentish informants of the Survey of English Dialects. Like theirs, his speech was a mixture of newer Estuary features and earlier Kentish features.
Photo: http://www.biography.com/

Bromley was still a small market town during the first half of the 19th century, some descriptions say a large village. It was almost rural Kent, yet only about 15 kms as the crow flies from Trafalgar Square or the East End. Populous districts like Bermondsey, Southwark and Camberwell lay just to the west. Bromley rapidly grew into a busy suburb once the railway had arrived in 1858, and was finally absorbed into Greater London in 1965, becoming a London Borough that included neighbouring towns. Wells’ nearest SED Kentish informant was Farningham 1881 just 10 kms to the east, while his exact contemporary, Stoke 1868, lived about 45 kms to the east.


Figure 1. The six SED informants (blue, location and birth year),
Bromley and H G Wells (red), and a selection of towns.

Wells broadcast frequently, and the speech sample examined here is a radio talk about Soviet domestic politics, from 1931, available from the BBC online archive where it’s preserved as a gramophone recording, digitized to lossy MP3 for the web.

Mugglestone (2003, Talking Proper, 2nd edn., Oxford University Press, p. 263) states that “H. G. Wells shed the Cockney markings of his youth”, without giving a source, or hinting at what he gave up. In An Experiment in Autobiography, Wells certainly described his schoolboy accent as Cockney, and recorded that it “jarred on Somerset ears” during his term there as a pupil teacher. But his Cockney was hardly an East End accent, or even a wider London accent. Additionally, for a 19th century prescriptivist, Cockney was also a stereotype defining negative attitudes to undesirable forms of language (Mugglestone, p. 56). I’ve also seen unverified references to Wells being called a “Cockney upstart” by Julian Huxley (with whom he collaborated for The Science of Life, published in 1929-30). That would be a third definition of Cockney, a personality trait. Perhaps shedding Cockney markings just meant moving along the sociolect scale from popular to standard Estuary English. His enunciation is careful, avoiding syllable reductions. There’s no h-dropping, glottal stops are rare and never intervocalic, l-vocalization is avoided. On the other hand, he never avoided yod coalescence or linking-r. And he never adapted his PLACE, MOUTH, GOAT, BATH, STRUT or LOT, or anything else, towards RP.

Listen to a brief extract from that 1931 broadcast:
His voice is high-pitched, phrase-final syllables are weak and often not phonated

What, then, did Wells have in common with the seven SED informants from rural Kent?

Six sound changes for Estuary English, in progress in rural Kent in the 1870s and 1880s, were checked in the speech of the SED informants: loss of rhoticity (losing /r/ in syllable codas like ca(r)t), TRAP shifted away from DRESS, THOUGHT from [ɔː] to [oː] and LOT from [a] or [ɑ] to [ɔ], PRICE from [ʌi] to [ai] and MOUTH from [ɛʉ] to [æɒ].

Wells had acquired three of these six changes: loss of rhoticity, PRICE and MOUTH. But his TRAP, THOUGHT and LOT still had their earlier Kentish timbres.

Comparing Wells with those SED Kentish informants who had acquired the most of the six sound changes – Stoke 1868, Farningham 1881, and Warren St 1894:

  • Wells 1866: nearest to London, 3 sound changes
  • Stoke 1868: very near estuary towns, 3½ sound changes
  • Farningham 1881: near London and estuary towns, younger, 4 sound changes
  • Warren St 1894: near estuary towns, the youngest, all 6 sound changes

The remaining four informants, in the south and east of Kent and farthest from London and the estuary towns, had fewer of the sound changes. Appledore 1880, farthest away of them all, had acquired just one of the six sound changes.

Listen to Wells’ [aʊ] or [ao]-like GOAT (RP had [əʊ]):
promotion, Jones, broken

Listen to Wells’ [æɒ]-like MOUTH (RP had [aʊ]):
power, found, doubt, bound

Figure 2. Start and end points of three Estuary English diphthongs
(PLACE, MOUTH and GOAT) by H G Wells.
RP had [eɪ], [aʊ] and [əʊ] respectively.

Wells’ LOT was darker [ɑ]-like.  This would ultimately be shifted to [ɔ] by subsequent generations, but before that happened THOUGHT was shifted from [ɔː] to [oː]. Only two of the seven SED informants had shifted both THOUGHT and LOT to their new timbres. Wells didn’t get that far and still had the earlier [ɔː]-like THOUGHT and his intermediate [ɑ]-like LOT.

Listen to Wells’ [ɑ]-like LOT (RP had the similar, but rounded, [ɒ], making it even darker):
communist, not, job, lop, on, possibly

Wells still had the earlier bright [aː]-like BATH.

Listen to Wells’ [aː]-like BATH:
Stalin, last, task

Wells’ STRUT and BATH had the same timbre, [a], differentiated by means of quantity.

Listen to Wells’ [a]-like STRUT:
Russia, summing, structure

Figure 3. F1/F2 diagram for Wells’ monophthongs, exhibiting several conservative features of earlier Kentish pronunciation: [æ]-like TRAP is still close to DRESS, STRUT and BATH have the same bright [a]-like timbre (F2 1300-1500 HZ), THOUGHT is still [ɔː]-like (F1 500-600Hz). Note also the high F2 frequencies of GOOSE.

For comparison, here is a sample of RP speech by William Somerset Maugham, who was born in 1874, only a few years after Wells. Maugham’s RP was adopted. His first language was French, and he was teased for his bad English at school at Canterbury. He adopted RP completely:

Figure 4. F1/F2 diagram for William Somerset Maugham’s (1874-1965) late 19th century RP monophthongs. TRAP and THOUGHT were the same as Wells’, superficially because that’s where they both had been in Kentish and RP; now Kentish was already shifting both, RP shifted TRAP about 30 years later, and started shifting THOUGHT about 60 years later. Maugham’s STRUT was the same as Wells’, but his RP BATH was darker [ɑ] (F2 around 1100 HZ). His RP LOT was rounded [ɑ], i.e. [ɒ] with lower F1 than BATH due to the rounding. Maugham’s RP GOOSE was darker than Wells’, with F2 800-1300 Hz (a brighter RP GOOSE with higher F2 was allowed some 50 years later).

Figure 3 has many similarities with Figure 4. But that’s because RP and Estuary English are both variants of Southern British English. But RP and Standard Estuary (or nowadays perhaps Standard Home Counties) are two distinct sociolects and any accent differences between them are significant. H G Wells didn’t modify his halfway Estuary English towards RP (witnessed by his PRICE, MOUTH, GOAT, BATH, LOT and GOOSE pronunciations). He continued to speak it and broadcast it until 1946.

©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2015
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