It appears the queen’s English ain’t wot it used to be. A scientific study of Queen Elizabeth II’s accent has found her vowels moving steadily downmarket.
The study published in Nature magazine found there was a drift in the queen’s accent toward one “characteristic of speakers who are younger and/or lower in the social hierarchy.”
Professor Jonathan Harrington of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and his colleagues analyzed the vowel sounds from every Christmas broadcast made by Elizabeth from the 1950s through the 1980s. The results showed the trend was toward a middlebrow standard southern British, or SSB, accent, which is widely heard on the BBC.
Using recordings of female BBC broadcasters as their model for a standard southern accent, the team determined the queen’s vowels in her Christmas messages had “moved towards, but not attained,” that accent.
For instance, in the queen’s Christmas broadcasts of the 1950s, the word “had” almost rhymed with “bed.” But 30 years later, “had” was closer to the SSB pronunciation, which rhymes with “bad”.
No one, however, suggests the queen is dropping ’er aitches à la Eliza Doolittle, and she’s unlikely to require the help of a modern-day Professor Henry Higgins.
Decades ago, the queen would spend Christmas at her highbrow haime with her family, with the first vowel sounding similar to that in the word “tame.” Now she is more at home with everyone else — although it’s not the Cockney ’ouse of Windsor — yet.
In fact, as the team admitted, the queen’s diction is still miles apart from SSB in many cases.
“The vowels of the 1980s Christmas messages are still set apart from those of an SSB accent,” the researchers wrote.
But not everyone thinks Her Majesty’s changing speech is a mirror of the changing times.
Peter Roach of Britain’s Reading University in England, and editor of a recent update of Daniel Jones’ classic English Pronouncing Dictionary suggested the new accent was not so much an influence of the monarch’s mixing with hoi polloi as a deliberate public relations move.
“Everybody’s pronunciation changes over time, but I’m sure that there is more to this than natural progression,” he said in Nature. “I think it is a sign of a deliberate policy by the royals to become less of a target. If your accent was constantly pilloried and satirized then you would change it pretty quickly as well.”
He cited the swiftness with which several members of the royal family dispensed with the use of “one” when referring to themselves, once the media began poking fun at it.
But other linguists dismissed the idea. “There is no evidence that there is any deliberate manipulation of pronunciation happening,” said Gerry Docherty, who studies changing accents at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Department of Speech.
He instead suggested the changing accent was in keeping with the rigors of television addresses.
The study, said Oxford University academic J. S. Coleman, “shows that not even the queen is immune to the social forces that cause everyone’s pronunciation to change over time.”
Coleman is uniquely placed to comment on how the English teach their children to speak. He is reader in phonetics at Oxford University, a post held originally by Henry Sweet, the model for George Bernard Shaw’s Higgins character in Pygmalion — the play that inspired the musical My Fair Lady.
But unlike the pedantic Higgins, Coleman believes changes in language are natural. He said the Australian research proves “that talk of ‘sloppy speech’ is inappropriate too. Languages have been slowly changing since the dawn of time, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.”
Not even Buckingham Palace, which was refraining from comment “on so personal a matter,” a spokeswoman said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.