“A word in your shell-like. Do you fink I’m fick?” The presenter Cole Moreton went looking for the vanishing voice of his grandmother’s wartime East End generation – “half Queen, half cockney”– and touched on the most interesting of subjects: how broadcasting has affected the way we speak (28 April, 11am). “I’m looking for a voice that’s almost disappeared,” Moreton went on, explaining that the “posh cockney” accent came about when people started listening to the wireless and hearing the compellingly over-civilised RP of the 1930s.
The resulting “Vera Lynn voice”, or “June Brown voice”, has now segued into something more estuary and is almost entirely gone. Put simply, “Queen’s cockney” was influenced by BBC radio, and estuary by later American movies – and now it’s all moving and shifting again. “People change their voices all the time,” Moreton claimed. And he’s right. There’s usually some performative, aspirational influence. My own father – born and raised in working-class Kilburn to Irish immigrants – speaks in perfect RP. As a young man he trained to become a Catholic priest, and when he was at seminary in Osterley, west London, and later in Andalusia, he was taught to project his voice, to be precise, so as to be fully understood and roundly respected in the pulpit.
In effect, the Church took his voice apart and gave him a new one. I once asked my uncle (whose accent is pure cockney) how he felt the day his brother came home speaking proper. My uncle said that, oddly, he couldn’t really recall the moment. This new voice of my father’s was now so much a part of him, and made so much sense, given his burgeoning occupation as a priest and preacher and teacher, that he couldn’t think of a time his voice had been any different.
It’s only now that we have the evidence in front of us – the immense archives of recorded human beings on radio and screen – that we can fully appreciate quite how labile accents are. Nothing is constant. It seems accents stick around for twenty to thirty years and then alter again: subtly, but profoundly. And with each remodelling, a little bit of music for the English language is lost. Countless deaths and rebirths (1 Corinthians 15: “. . . and we shall be changed”).
This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning