George Bernard Shaw famously observed that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.” That was in the preface to Pygmalion, whose hero, Professor Higgins, was a phoneticist who could identify which bit of London any individual Cockney came from — which the flower girl Eliza Doolittle regarded as near necromancy.
Poor Higgins’s heart would have broken this week at the news that Cockney in all its manifestations is on the way out, as is Received Pronunciation or what was in happier days called BBC English.
The new accents are not just uglier and less interesting; they also suggest a bid to fit in, not to attract attention
Instead, we’ve got dispiriting new accents which are testimony to the effect of social media, plus the long-lasting effects of TV, to iron out interesting differences in the way we talk. Regional accents are a casualty: strong rural Suffolk, say. But so too is even Michael Caine’s delicious Cockney. Instead researchers at Essex University have found the young in the South-East speak mostly Standard Southern British English — think Prince Harry’s boring diction — followed by estuary English (Beth Rigby, say). Then there’s multicultural London English spoken by lots of the middle class.
The new accents are not just uglier and less interesting; they also suggest a bid to fit in, not to attract attention. It’s not just how you say things; it’s what you say that’s changed. One dead accent is Standard Thespian Diction whereby actors articulated their words beautifully in a booming voice; the last time I heard it was Brian Blessed calling Derek Jacobi “You darling man!” As for gentlemanly diction, it often came with social hyperbole: “Longing to see you”, or simply, “my dear...”
With Cockney, the accent came with a combative attitude. Lord Alfred Douglas recalled one little girl he sat next to at an East End production where the villain had designs on the heroine. She dug him in the ribs, hissing “Filthy swine!” Could have been Eliza Doolittle.
As for Ireland, satirist Paul Howard observes that the middle class now nearly all speak American. Bernard Shaw’s Protestant Irish accent is one casualty. In Pygmalion he observed that “people troubled with accents that cut them off from high employment” could, like Eliza, transform themselves with effort. They still do, but by speaking less well, not better.
Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist