Weighing up a new style of pronunciation
Post written by Michael Bulley, based on an article in the latest issue of English Today
In this article, I express my disapproval of a recent development in pronunciation found in an increasing proportion of native speakers of British English. I thereby run the risk not only of offending those who have the feature I criticize but also of being frowned upon by linguistics professionals who think aesthetic judgements have no place in the discipline.
The sound in question is a pronunciation of the letter ‘r’, in words like ring, bread and around, that is closer to a /w/ than to a ‘traditional’ /r/. The BBC television news contains many presenters and reporters who exhibit this feature. Academic studies, sound archives and my memory confirm that this style of /r/ was rare until the 1970s. In fact, until quite late into the last century, it might well have been diagnosed for adults as a speech defect needing treatment.
My criticism is on two fronts: first, that it narrows the distinction between /r/ and /w/ with no apparent compensatory benefit to the language and, secondly, that it can sound childish, inappropriately so in a serious context. The origins and cause of this ‘w-for-r’ are not clear. I speculate that children’s television may have had an influence, with adult presenters imitating the pronunciation of their audience.
The controversial aspect of the article is my suggestion that this topic should become a public issue, so that people may choose how to pronounce this phoneme. As examples of the influence of social factors on pronunciation change, I point to the demise of the old RP [æ] and the rise and fall of upspeak in Britain. To counter a possible accusation of ‘prescriptivism’, that is, of promoting certain usages as inherently superior to others, I propose that language should be considered as ‘man-made’, in the same way as many other features of our environment, and thus open to aesthetic judgement. I argue that the wish to speak and write well remains valid, even if there may be no objective criteria to judge one usage against another. I invoke the concept of ‘responsibility towards the language’.
This leads on to a more general consideration of the nature of language study. I argue that the view of language as qualitatively neutral is mistaken and has wrongly persuaded many university professionals to assert that linguistics should be regarded as a science. It seems to me more appropriate to treat most language study, especially where meaning is involved, as a humanity. Objectivity must still be paramount, but where the topic lends itself to it, judgements, including aesthetic ones, can properly be made.