The Queen’s English – literally


Serendipitously, not long after writing my last post, I watched a TV programme called “The Queen: in her own words“, which, as it said on the tin, included many examples of her speaking, the extracts used coming from the whole of her public life, from the first radio broadcast during the Second World War, when she was a teenager, up to the present day.

It was immediately obvious that over that period, nearly 80 years, her accent had changed. This was commented on by the narrator, and Jane Setter, the Professor of Phonetics at Reading University, as most of my readers will know, was asked about this (starting at around 50 minutes into the programme). It was probably a result of the cutting, which is always done for journalistic priorities rather than factual accuracy (I speak from personal experience!), but Jane appeared to be saying that the Queen had deliberately changed her accent in order to sound more approachable and more ‘like one of us’ rather than distant, speaking from somewhere ‘up there’.

Unless there is any documentary evidence for this, I think it is far more likely that as a result of her exposure to a much wider range of accents, her own has, like mine, changed by imperceptible degrees, just as all accents are gradually changing. As a child, the Queen and Princess Margaret did not go to school, but had a governess. Their language models were probably restricted to a very narrow range of variation. Starting when she was allowed to join the ATS when she was eighteen, and learned to drive as her contribution to the war effort, she would begin to experience a wider variety of speech. There would not be an immediate effect, but perhaps this was what started the change.

In the 1970s and 80s, it became noticeable that the TRAP vowel was changing from its relatively high front quality to a more open version. Princess Anne and the actor Anna Massey were both pilloried in the press for using this pronunciation, and often spelled “Princess Unne” and “Unna Mussey” to show that adherents of the older pronunciation felt they were replacing it by the STRUT vowel. And also to imply that they were doing it deliberately to show that they were trying to sound more egalitarian. This criticism has disappeared, presumably because most people now use the more open version of TRAP, and the old one belongs to what is often described as a ‘cut-glass’ accent.

It is strange how assumptions can change and reverse direction. Calling an accent “cut glass” appears to imply that it is an affectation, and yet when Princess Anne was accused of using the less cut-glass version of TRAP, this in its turn was ‘blamed’ on affectation.

Are these not just more examples of accentism?


  1. Fabricius (2007 in JIPA) found that virtually no-one born after 1945 acquired the old closer TRAP in RP. That marked the end of an era. For new open TRAP, her earliest RP example was born in the 1920s, suggesting it was appearing early in the 20th century. So it’s not surprising that Her Majesty’s generation was acquiring it. In regional speech, I found old closer TRAP disappearing in Kent in the middle of the 19th century, so there’d be plenty of new open TRAP from the houshold staff. It wouldn’t be unlikely if HM had been persuaded in childhood to suppress it in favour of the old closer TRAP still spoken by the elderly officers of the Royal House, (mustn’t sound like the servants) and then stopped pretending later in life.

  2. Sidney – I’ve not only just read Fabricius (2007) but also gone back to the Harrington et al (2000) also in JIPA. It seems that most of the development in HM’s speech patterns was between the 1950s and the 1960/70s, with less between then and the 1980s. I was interested to see that although this change was not statistically significant, there was a slight ‘falling back’ of the first formant in many (not all) vowels towards the earlier values. There are a lot of earlier recordings of HM that could have been used – the wartime one from 1942(? exact year) and the 1947 one from South Africa when she pledged her life “whether it be short or long” to service. The fundamental frequency certainly lowered throughout her life, and this may have been deliberate early on (there is a rumour that Margaret Thatcher was advised to lower her pitch when she became Prime Minister). It might also be interesting to compare her pronunciation with that of her father.

  3. Hi thank you for this article. Judging by the Queen’s changing accent, it would seem she has slid down the social scale during her lifetime! This sliding down is evident in her family too; Prince Harry even uses the glottal stop!
    I made a few remarks on the queen’s pronunciation in this post if you would be interested in having a look:

  4. I do not think that the Queen “has slid down the social scale”. I did not mean to imply that. What has happened is that her accent has changed, and there is no implication of degradaton in that term. As it happens, London English still has a TRAP vowel that is much closer to [ɛ] than to [a], corresponding to the pronunciation the Queen used in her earlier days. All accents are constantly changing, as are many other aspects of our lives, without there necessarily being any “improvement” or “deterioration”. To say that Prince Harry “even” uses the glottal stop implies that this is a slovenly way of speaking. It has been common in RP for many years now for a glottal stop to be produced simultaneously with voiceless stops. Such glottal reinforcement has been common knowledge among phoneticians since at the very least 1950, and I remember David Abercrombie referring to it as having originated perhaps as early as the 1920s. From that to elimination in some contexts of the /p,t,k/ element, and in particular the /t/, leaving only the glottal, is not surprising, and no more ‘slovenly’ than the gradual disappearance of initial /k/ in ‘knife’, or the initial /h/ from Old English ‘hnutu’ to leave ‘nut’ – something we don’t even think about.

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