Another week in which the phone hasn't stopped ringing. Accents again, this time. During the week a private tuition company (www.thetutorpages.com) issued a report headed 'Elocution in the new Britain', in which they told us that they were receiving more requests for elocution lessons than for any other subject, and that demand had doubled. Inevitably, this was translated into media headlines about 'soaring demand' and 'death of accents'. I did a handful of radio interviews. The general attitude of the presenters was that they were appalled - reflecting the current BBC ethos that regional accents are a very good thing. They were certainly surprised - as indeed was I.
And saddened, for two reasons. The report highlights quotations from some of the enquirers which showed that there is still a great deal of national antagonism towards some regional accents, especially in the West Midlands and Birmingham. And it showed a woeful misunderstanding of what elocution is all about.
Elocution is not about replacing regional accents. As the report concluded:
'Today’s elocution teachers are responding to these trends not by seeking to take their students back to the days of The King’s Speech. Most people who come to them for help no longer wish to acquire a cut-glass accent or learn to speak like the Queen. On the whole they wish to retain their accents but to develop a clearer, softer, or more authoritative voice.'
That's the point. There are all sorts of reasons why people feel they need voice help. In some cases it's speed of speech that is the problem: they need to slow down. In others it's a desire for a different voice quality - a softer voice, for example, or one that is less breathy or creaky. (Some quite famous politicians have gone down that road.) In others it's anxiety over speaking in public, which is far more than a purely linguistic matter. In others it's a need to sound more confident, which again is not solely a linguistic matter. In others it's the need for better breath control. And in some cases, yes, it's a worry - real or imagined - that their accent is holding them back in their career.
The point has to be made, loudly and clearly, that all these problems affect all accents - Received Pronunciation included. Even RP can be a handicap in some circumstances, being perceived as too posh, distant, or customer unfriendly. And it's perfectly possible for an RP speaker to lack confidence, speak too fast, or be phonetically unclear. If you want examples, turn on Radio 3, where the infamous 'dropped intonation' at the end of a sentence is often heard obscuring a critical part of the information focus:
'That was piano concerto in D by .......'
'The programme will be repeated next Thursday at .......'
Or listen to some of the RP voices on PA systems in airports, ferries, and railway stations. I spent some weeks once training the people who made the announcements on Stena ferries. Almost without exception, they spoke too quickly - regardless of the accent they had.
Voice training can be enormously helpful in these respects. However, despite the hype, it's worth noting that in all of this, we're not talking about thousands of people. The report refers to 'over 500' enquiries only. That's a tiny tiny fraction of the population. But, from the comments quoted in the report, it's clear that there is still a cause for concern. For whatever reason, far too many people are still being made to worry about their accent.