Saturday 21 January 2012

On the rising demand for elocution

Another week in which the phone hasn't stopped ringing. Accents again, this time. During the week a private tuition company ( 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.


Marc Leavitt said...

Despite reported changes in attitude in recent years regarding regional accents(throughout the English-speaking world),the snobbism regarding "best" accents still continues.
About 35 years ago, John Molloy wrote "Dress for Success," in which he keyed economic achievement to proper business attire.He did a marketing survey here in the US about best accents. The result? A London cabbie with a 12th grade education was the hands-down winner. (I presume, at least to American ears, that his accent was heard as the equivalent of the best RP).
Unfortunately, to many minds a regional accent still stigmatizes the speaker as a member of the lower classes.

Expat mum said...

I've always found it very interesting that here in the States, people aren't at all embarrassed to admit to deliberately "getting rid of" a strong regional accent. In the UK, although many people do round out their accents, they would rather die than say they did it deliberately, even though in my opinion, regional accents are still considered second class.

Michael Rundell said...

'Even RP can be a handicap': Yes! A year or so ago I heard a woman on the radio (sorry, can't recall her name) who was a theatrical voice coach. She said that, in addition to her thespian clients, she sometimes worked with 'advanced RP' speakers who wanted to tone down their accents - which they saw as holding them back. (Having said that, this was before the Bullingdon Club boys took over the UK government - maybe that has fuelled the demand for elocution...)

David Crosbie said...

In the 1920's and 1930's, my mother's family migrated in ones, twos and threes from Swansea to London. At one point, my mother, an elder sister and two brothers formed an economic unit; they shared lodgings, supported one another and sent money back to Wales.

The elder sister kept house and the elder brother was a professional musician taking on all manner of classical and popular gigs. The younger brother was a full-time university student, but earned money as a 'deputy' — struggling as an amateur (until he was fired) to play the numbers while his professional brother played a different gig. So my mother was the second breadwinner — not an easy position as she'd finished school early with no qualifications as a result of a long illness at the age of 13.

Her solution was to invest in classes in deportment and elocution. And in those days elocution definitely meant losing your regional accent. Two sisters died in the Blitz, but I knew and spent a lot of time with all the survivors. Apart from my mother, they all lived in London and all spoke with an obvious Welsh accent — probably little different from many middle class speakers who never left Swansea.

My mother's accent was totally RP, perhaps a little unnatural and/or old-fashioned. But it paid off. She was continually employed as a 'demonstrator' in department stores all through the thirties when jobs were hard to come by.

DC said...

Lovely story.

Lady Isabella Fortuna said...

I love the idea of elocution classes. I live in America, and the trend in the last 15 years is for grown women in radio ads to have baby-doll voices like children. Give me voice like Lauren Bacall...

Serena Greenslade said...

I teach elocution in Dorset, UK and Find that 90% of the adults I teach want to lose or soften their accents which I personally think is shame. It is easy to learn to speak clearly and confidently with an accent. Having said that I do have to be careful that I don't teach people from all around the world (via webcam) with my Dorset accent.

thalinda said...

I personaly believe that accents are important, especially when you run your own business.I would kill for a brithish accent:)

Anonymous said...

I am interested in elocution lessons (to learn RP) simply because I am bored with discussing where I am from EVERY SINGLE DAY.

I'd like to be able to speak with a different accent in public during moments when I simply don't want to be asked my life story.

DC said...

Well, it depends where you end up. Even with RP, in many parts of the world you'll be asked for your life story.