I’ve been watching Lucy Worsley’s latest TV series on the monarchy – “Fit to Rule”. Dr Worsley is the Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and this is not the first series she has presented. They all seem well researched, and I’ve enjoyed them.
Even her Wikipedia entry notes her over-rounded /r/ (which it calls rhotacism) and she occasionally uses a bilabial trill when a word begins with ‘br’, but this post is about something else. In addition to her problems with the /r/ phoneme, she seems to have no dental fricatives in her armoury: /θ/ and /ð/ are almost invariably replaced, either by /f/ and /v/, or, in the case of /ð/, by /d/. To have one well-educated speaker in a TV programme who has failed to learn these phonemes is disconcerting enough, but she seemed to go out of her way to find others to interview with a similar problem. At least two of the other experts – both with otherwise approximations to RP and both clearly not just ‘experts’ but Experts – exhibited the same feature.
What was once characterized as a Cockney dialectal feature, and disparaged by people who thought they knew better, now appears to be gaining ground at an increasing rate. Are we seeing the beginnings of the loss of a pair of phonemes? In certain words, such as murder from earlier murther for example, this has happened in the standard language, and is recognized in the spelling. In one word, it may have gone the other way: the place name Keighley, which was presumably originally pronounced with a velar fricative, is, uniquely for words spelled ‘gh’, now pronounced with /θ/. Was it formerly /ˈkiːfli/?