Picture this: it’s Christmas day, you’re overloaded with turkey, surrounded by the remnants of wrapping paper and you’ve just settled down to watch the Queen’s annual speech. It’s a tradition for many at Christmas. But, what if I told you that the Queen’s speech isn’t the same as it was in more recent decades than, say, in the 1950’s. Of course, here I’m not talking about the content of her speech (of course that changes year by year!), but rather her pronunciation of what is sometimes referred to as ‘the Queen’s English’.
Jonathan Harrington along with colleagues set out to find out how changes in society have influenced the ‘Queen’s English’ by examining the Queen’s speech in her Annual Christmas broadcast over three time periods. This synopsis focusses on just one of these papers, Harrington, Palethorpe & Watson (2000).
The ‘Queen’s English’ or Received Pronunciation (RP) as linguists refer to it, is a variety of English spoken by some upper-class individuals and is often associated with power, money and privilege. It also happens to be the variety of English spoken by Queen Elizabeth II (hence the name!). Typically, RP is characterised by pronunciations such as ‘gep’ for ‘gap’ and ‘bottle’ where both of the t’s are still pronounced as t’s, as opposed to ‘bo’le’.
But, as sociolinguists know, language changes over time. This is particularly the case for RP, which has been influenced by the changing social class boundaries between upper-, middle- and working-class communities. These changes are likely to influence language use. As Harrington and colleagues observe, these changes have already influenced RP, such that the tendency to pronounce an ‘l’ in a word like milk as something like a ‘w’ – a feature that was once typical of working-class varieties, such as Cockney – is now regularly heard in the speech of many RP speakers. So, then, how do these changes relate to the ‘Queen’s English’?
By examining the Queen’s Christmas address across three different time periods (1950’s, late 1960/ early 70’s, 1980’s), Harrington and his colleagues examined how the changing social landscape related to the Queen’s English. They did this by looking at what linguists refer to as ‘acoustic properties’ of the Queen’s vowels. Vowels, like other sound forms (e.g., music) can be measured in Hz. These measurements are then plotted onto a graph and linguists are able to track changes in the way a particular vowel was pronounced over time or by speaker.
In Harrington and colleagues’ analysis, they measured the acoustic properties of 11 vowels, including those in the words: heed, hid, and hoard. They also compared the Queen’s pronunciation of these vowels with data from Standard Southern British English speaking females to see how the Queen’s speech related to more general patterns of speech.
What they find is that, over time, the Queen’s English appears to have moved towards the pronunciation typical of the Standard British English speaking females. Although she doesn’t mirror their speech, the English spoken by the Queen in the 1980’s appears to be dramatically different than the variety she spoke in the 50’s, sounding more like younger speakers who are lower on the social class hierarchy - in other words, the Queen has become less posh!
For instance, in the next two videos, compare how the Queen says ‘Happy Christmas’ in 1950 (0.31, in the first video), where happy is pronounced more like ‘heppy’ and in 1980, where it pronounced more like ‘happy’ (8.55, in the video below).
So, it seems that, whilst the Queen may have become less ‘posh’, it’s quite clear that she’s not part of the Royle family just yet.