John Humphrys has been sounding off about the English language – again. Why is it that reporters – journalists – believe that because language is their stock in trade, therefore they know all about it? This particular article, published in the Mail on Sunday (28 February) is headed ‘Thet men in the bleck het (… or how we finally learned to stop hiding behind ludicrous accents)’.
David Crystal tells us in his autobiography that he challenged John Humphrys to justify his (JH’s) claims about what David Crystal believed. JH had to admit that he couldn’t, not having read all DC’s output. They are apparently now the best of friends. So why does Humphrys lay himself open to criticism from linguists yet again? In this article we find “The rules of RP as observed by the BBC stated that ‘class’ had to rhyme with ‘arse’ (not that such a rude word would have been permitted) and ‘that’ with ‘wet’ and ‘house’ with ‘rice’ and ‘off’ with ‘law’. And so on. In short, it meant thinking posh.”
Where does he get these ‘rules’ from? No BBC document that I have ever seen stipulated that any particular accent was enforced on broadcasters, and if they had been, neither my two predecessors as head of the Pronunciation Unit nor myself would have been employed in that position – they were both Scots, with Scottish accents, and my accent is irredeemably North Midland.
Even BBC radio announcers have long been taken from a wide range of backgrounds, with recognisably non-RP accents. Humphrys brings out the inevitable Wilfred Pickles, who was a Yorkshire-born actor, but in the 1960s, when John Snagge and Alvar Lidell, together with Frank Phillips were still reading the news, so were Roy Williams (New Zealander) and Dwight Wylie (Jamaican). They may have been in a small minority, but I don’t think they would have accepted that they were ‘token’ colonials – if they had not been up to the BBC’s exacting standards, they would not have been employed.
In any case, Humphrys is alleging that people have stopped speaking with ‘ludicrous accents’, and implies that this is a conscious decision by the individuals concerned. He does not allow that RP, like all accents, has evolved during the last hundred years, and that the evolution is not only from one generation to the next, but may also be by imperceptible degrees in the speech of a single person, even though that person is not aware of the changes. He mentions the study of the Queen’s accent which Jonathan Harrington carried out some years ago, which “concluded that her vowel sounds had undergone a subtle evolution” (Humphrys’ words). This was not to be unexpected, but Humphrys says “the posh have given some ground” as if the Queen was deliberately changing her accent, rather than reacting, as we all do, to the speech of those around us
It takes a remarkable individual who can resist all linguistic influence through a long life.