Sign of the Times: William and Kate’s Accents

Regent StreetYes, even a blog about accents needs to touch on the Royal Wedding a little bit.

I won’t spill more digital ink about the wedding, nor the wedding-mania that swept America this past week. I am, however, fascinated by the standard narrative regarding William and Kate, namely that the Prince married a “commoner.” Indeed, she was born into a middle-class household (albeit one that later became wealthy due to a business venture) and therefore one of the most humbly-born royals since the Earl of Wessex married the daughter of a tire salesman.

And yet, when you hear William and Kate actually speak, her accent is (to my ears) more “aristocratic sounding” than his. Look at this clip of the young couple discussing their upcoming nuptials.

Both fiancee’s speak within the “Near-RP” family of accents (speech that is close to Received Pronunciation/Standard British, but with a few regionalisms or contemporary features thrown in). However, William’s accent has a quite bit of Estuary English (modern London-inflected English) mixed in: his diphthong is words like KITE starts at a backer place (compare his “side” [sɒɪd] vs. her “I” []); and his diphthong in words like GOAT is closer to Estuary as well (compare his “no” [nɜʉ] to her more genteel “know” [nəʊ]).

So, in my opinion, the Prince speaks a bit closer to the average Tom, Dick and Harry than his “common born” wife, who ironically speaks with a more, shall we say, royal-sounding accent.

What are we to make of this? I think this says several things about the radically changing attitudes toward dialect in the UK:

1.) If (probably when) William becomes monarch, he will perhaps be the first in British history to speak with an accent relatively close to how “average English people” speak.

2.) The ties between class and accent further continue to weaken in the UK. The spread of Estuary English is beginning to look at lot like the spread of General American in the mid-20th-Century US.

3.) Is it time to start ringing the death knells of Received Pronunciation?  If in a few decades we’ll see a king who doesn’t speak the Queen’s English, then how much longer can this accent survive?

William has been criticized in the past for his “mockney” accent.  And yet I think his less-than-genteel speech is admirable:  he’s remained true to himself, his generation and the Britain he’s grown up in.  Perhaps the last vestiges of England’s icky Edwardian ideas about dialect are finally, mercifully dying.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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36 Responses to Sign of the Times: William and Kate’s Accents

  1. dw says:

    The spread of Estuary English is beginning to look at lot like the spread of General American in the mid-20th-Century US.

    This is a new one on me. I thought that “General American” originally referred simply to accents that were neither Eastern nor Southern. You seem to be indicating that there was some kind of homogenization of accents in the middle of the 20th century. Is this a well-established fact?

    • trawicks says:

      If you see GenAm as a bundle of features (as I do), then yes, I’d say it is. In accent after accent, regional features were replaced with GenAm features in the postwar years: non-rhoticity was replaced with rhoticity in many parts of New England, the old NURSE diphthong in New York English disappeared, glide deletion started to recede in more metropolitan Southern cities, and traditional dialects like that of Charleston, SC were nearly decimated. I don’t know if there has been a study of the spread of GenAm as a whole, but there’s considerable evidence in the various accents that have adopted GenAm norms over the past seventy years or so.

      • m.m. says:

        Don’t forget that in the states, people will deny they have any marked regional accent, and believe that they speak “unaccented” english, and that television is making everyone speak the same. [One might speculate that the ‘homogenization’ view is the result of GenAm being the most portrayed on television, creating a kind of false dichotomy] It’s amazing that people with NCVS honestly believe they speak like the people on television, who themselves aim towards GenAm.

  2. dw says:

    If (probably when) William becomes monarch…

    OT, but a 2006 poll found Britons evenly split over whether the UK would still be a monarchy in 2056, and overwhelmingly dubious that it would be one in 2106. If Charles turns out to be as long-lived as his grandmother, his reign will extend to 2050. (And abdication by either Elizabeth or Charles is a practical impossibility, even if either wanted to do so, it would require separate legislation in all 16 Commonwealth realms).

  3. Christopher Burd says:

    And abdication by either Elizabeth or Charles is a practical impossibility, even if either wanted to do so, it would require separate legislation in all 16 Commonwealth realms

    I’m doubtful of this, at least with regard to Canada. No special Canadian legislation was required for Edward VIII to abdicate, and I’m not aware of any constitutional changes since that would change that. Abolishing the monarchy, on the other hand, would require the approval of both houses of the federal parliament, plus the legislatures of all ten provinces.

  4. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    Is it time to start ringing the death knells of Received Pronunciation? If in a few decades we’ll see a king who doesn’t speak the Queen’s English, then how much longer can this accent survive?

    Only if you see RP as an invariant, unchanging accent, which it never was.
    Sure, when William gets crowned no one will speak like, say, Christopher Hitchens (to mention him again :), but this doesn’t mean there won’t be an educated, upper middle class with (virtually) no regional features.
    What will happen is that this future non-regional accent will have plenty of features that once were strictly regional. Indeed, contemporary RP exhibits features that some time ago were considered Cockney vulgarisms (BATH-PALM merger to name one).

    • trawicks says:

      But is the entire notion of an “elite” accent going to survive?

      Elites in America, whether labelled such due to wealth or education, have rejected “prestige” accents in favor of “neutral” ones. Estuary speakers likewise eschew elitism in favor of a kind of (London-centric) normality. To put it in visual terms, for much of the 20th-Century it seems RP-speakers saw themselves as speaking on one extreme of the spectrum of British English; these days younger British elites seem more likely to see themselves as speaking in the center of this fanciful spectrum.

      So I guess what I’m curious about is not so much the survival of RP as a literal dialect; but more of the survival of RP as a kind of abstract ideal.

  5. Lindsay says:

    Can I just say that I am an English woman around the same age as William and Kate and both of them have what the majority of English people would class as ‘posh’ accents. No one speaks RP anymore. Even the BBC makes sure it’s newsreaders are from various different regions with regional accents intact. I feel that Americans think we all sound like the Royal family but nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed accents are so diverse that I struggle to understand fellow English people if I hear them on TV depending on what region they are from. Sorry it was an interesting article and I don’t mean to sound snotty but most normal people sound nothing like William and Kate.

    • trawicks says:

      I agree that William and Kate are posher sounding than most English people, but I think William is a world of difference from previous generations. The point I’m trying to make is that, up until very recently, the speech of both royals and major heads of state (Thatcher being an excellent example) often diverged so radically from the accents of normal English people that it was as if they were living in a different country. William has some posh features in his speech (he carefully avoids glottal stopping, for example), but his accent at least seems part of the continuum of contemporary British English.

  6. Rob D says:

    I agree, it’s interesting to see that her accent is ‘posher than his’, I hadn’t realised. Actually, I don’t think I’d heard her speak except in the clips I saw of the wedding. But it would be good to properly compare their speech in different situations. I would imagine there’s an element of style-shifting going on here, especially on her part, but probably on his too. It might be the case that she is trying to shift ‘upwards’ and he ‘downwards’ as she wants to be seen as a princess and he wants to be seen as a man of the people. In doing so, perhaps they’ve crossed over in terms of where their accents originated.

    • Erica Walch says:

      I think this is a big part of it. She seems quite nervous and her voice seems stuck in her throat (as it did when she said her vows) — and completely to be expected, who wouldn’t be nervous in her shoes! And his word choice even seems to be consciously “of the people” with his “bit of a giggle” line. I agree, it would be interesting to hear how they sound in their natural setting, but I don’t think I’ll be a fly on the walls of Buckingham Palace, so I may never know!

  7. Darren says:

    1.) If (probably when) William becomes monarch, he will perhaps be the first in British history to speak with an accent relatively close to how “average English people” speak.

    Im not too sure about this one, do we know for a fact that Kings through out history had completely different accents to the commoners in England? We tend to think of all interpretations of Royalty and Nobility in history as having posh accents (thanks to movies/tv). We tend to think of Shakesphere plays as having posh speaking characters (non rhotic), but we don’t actually know how they spoke, as they might have been Rhotic (correct me if im wrong). Another example might be Wuthering Heights, the characters are from Yorkshire, but are portrayed with posh accents typically, there are many more examples. It does seem to be changing though with modern versions of Robin Hood for example where the characters have an accent closer to the region (Nottingham).

    • trawicks says:

      The English spoken in London during Elizabeth I’s reign was most likely rhotic, and more akin to West Country or Irish English. And the British RP spoken on the TV Show The Tudors is as anachronistic as the strapping young Irishman who plays Henry VIII. Back in his day, English would have basically sounded like a completely different Germanic language.

      I can’t comment on the speech of monarchs who pre-date recording technology. But given how isolated English monarchs traditionally were, holed up as they were in castles and educated by foreign tutors, I can’t imagine their English could be described as “of the people.” There no way of really knowing, though–hence my “perhaps.”

    • Andrej Bjelaković says:

      We do have a pretty good idea how people spoke in Shakespeare’s time. As trawicks says, the accent was rhotic and would remind one of some regional accents of the present-day UK and Ireland, most likely West Country. Just search
      “original pronunciation” on YouTube, there should be some readings done in as close an approximation of OP as we can reasonably reconstruct.

      Regarding the speech on monarchs in those times, I think I read somewhere (I think it was in one of David Crystal’s books/lectures) that the speech mainly differed in vocabulary and maybe grammar, and that accent differences were mainly regional. In other words a London commoners sounded pretty much like members of the Royal Court, also seated in London. Apparently there was no strict accent division in terms of class. Also, we know that some courtiers, like Walter Raleigh for example, retained the accent of their region of origin even after coming to the London court.

  8. Aidan says:

    @trawicks
    You might be interested in something I wrote a while back on the Yola language. This dialect of English came to Ireland in 1169 and survived up until the nineteenth century as a language isolate. It is partially documented, I have links on the post as well as a link to an RTE documentary.
    It gives a nice view on how English used to be spoken.

    • trawicks says:

      I know surprisingly little about the Yola language. Looking over a sample text in the language, I find it interesting that it appears in some ways harder to read than Chaucer’s middle English–despite Yola co-existing with modern English!

      Thanks for the link!

  9. Aidan says:

    It is incredible how it survived as an isolated dialect. It seems that the geography of that particular part of Wexford made those areas relatively inaccessible. It wouldn’t have been in contact with modern English until relatively late in the day. At first it would have been in contact with Irish and French more than other varieties of English.
    One thing I am not sure about is how many of these people emigrated to Newfoundland. The dialect there is very heavily influenced by Wexford dialects so there may well be some Yola words in their modern dialect.
    In many ways English seems to have been as foreign a language to these people as for the Irish speakers. The 1659 census of Ireland classed the people under the linguistic criteria Irish, English, Scots and Old English. The last category was to account for the Barony of Bargy where Yola was spoken.
    In books by some modern Irish writers you will see occasional Yola words popping up where they slipped into south eastern dialects of Irish English, in particular in the work of Colm Tóibín and Claire Keegan.

    • Nathan says:

      “The dialect there is very heavily influenced by Wexford dialects so there may well be some Yola words in their modern dialect.”

      I thought it was much more influenced by Waterford dialects. The number of people with the surname Power there is evidence of that. I’m not saying there weren’t any people from Wexford who immigrated to Newfoundland though.

  10. Aidan says:

    You are right that Waterford was the main county of origin but Wexford borders Waterford.
    I found the info below here :http://social.ireland.com/groups/profile/1621

    “Nine of every ten came from homes within a sixty-mile radius of the port of Waterford.(20) In addition to Co. Waterford, the primary areas of origin included south Kilkenny,(21) southwest Wexford, southeast Tipperary and east Cork. Between 1790 and 1850, the first four counties accounted for fully 85 per cent of Newfoundland’s Irish immigrants”

    In terms of the language they brought with them it seems that nearly all were Munster Irish speakers except for those from Wexford so maybe some Yola speakers were amongst that group:
    “With the exception of Wexford, all the other areas of origin remained strongly Irish-speaking into the early decades of the 19th century.(37) In 18th century Newfoundland, the extensive use of Irish would have been quite unremarkable—a commonplace experience of everyday life that was noted in official documents only when really necessary.(38)”

  11. Erik Singer says:

    A few observations:

    @trawicks, William does glottal stop plenty, though perhaps he takes care not to some of the time (don’t have time to go back and listen again). I think in general you are correct in saying that William sounds very different from older generations of RP speakers, but off-base in suggesting that he speaks garden-variety Estuary English. Linday is right, they’re both very posh (Kate’s GOAT vowel, for example; William’s acrolectal laziness and a certain characteristic drone). He does indeed have a number of EE features, especially vowels, but no Brit would think the Duke sounds like anything other than a very privileged young man. There are absolutely differences between the two of them, though—you’re right about that, too. And your speculation about the reasons may well be dead on. But there’s also the fact that women’s accents generally locate them “higher up” on the sociolectal spectrum than men’s.

    As has been pointed out in other comments, RP is a moving target. As a dialect coach, you know that 1950s RP sounds very different from 1980s RP, and that both are very different from contemporary RP (without even taking into account the fact that upper-end EE or “near-RP” seem to be taking over from RP entirely—your original point). Estuary English itself, however convenient a term, simply does not describe a unique accent. It’s a continuum, and a very broad one at that. It encompasses everything from David Beckham, on one end, up through Ricky Gervais to, say Kate Winslet. Still a useful concept, but obviously not a monolith. Not even close.

    With regard to the discussion about how British monarchs sounded, it depends! We’re talking about a great swath of history here! The first Plantagenets, on through at least Richard II, were native French-speakers. Later on, William of Orange was brought up Dutch (though with English tutors), so probably spoke with a Dutch accent, and both George I and II surely spoke with German accents. (If anyone has any sources or knows better, please correct me. I’m making some assumptions here on vaguely remembered information. No time to do any deeper research just now.) There may have been a period in the 15th and 16th centuries where royals and aristocrats spoke with an accent closer to that of most of the population of London than has been the case for the last several centuries, but I would imagine there were still definite social differences. Elizabethan London would have been a riotous hodge-podge of regional and social accents (though they were almost certainly all rhotic). As trawick and Andrej mention, there has been a good deal of wonderful work done on “Original Pronunciation,” most recently by David Crystal, who has audio clips on his website, but before him by John Barton and other scholars. Definitely worth a listen. There are productions are being done in OP from time to time, and though I have never seen one, they are apparently quite exhilarating. The rhymes work, for one thing!

    This summer’s edition of the Voice and Speech Review, a peer-reviewed journal, will have an article about an OP production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Paul Meier in collaboration with Crystal. Further information on the production here: http://www.paulmeier.com/shakespeare.html

    • trawicks says:

      Regarding Estuary, I should point out that earlier classifications of the dialect are more genteel than how most people think of Estuary. The boundaries of that JC Wells’ has used to describe Estuary, for example, strike me as being more along the lines of RP or near-RP: no word-internal glottal stopping, no TH-fronting (i.e. no “bruvahs” or “muhvahs”), no h-dropping, no glide reduction in the MOUTH diphthong. Although by almost anybody’s admission, EE is a quite artificial distinction.

      Just want to be clear though: I really don’t think William’s accent could be classified as full-on Estuary, merely that (like many other contemporary RP speakers), he has some “Estuary” features in his accent. Namely, he has some of the vowel shifting in the GOAT and PRICE lexical sets that have been traditionally used as markers of EE.

    • trawicks says:

      Ps forgot to mention–that OP production looks very cool! That production script is really fantastic!

  12. Erik Singer says:

    @trawicks,

    You were quite clear to begin with. I didn’t understand you to say that you felt William’s accent was EE. You classified it as near-RP, which clearly falls in a border zone between upper-EE and full-on RP. That’s my whole point, though (or one of them)—it’s all a continuum! Which isn’t to say that the terms and classifications aren’t useful. Not at all. Just that we need to be constantly aware, when using them, that we’re talking about overlapping continua rather than fixed points.

    John Wells has since admitted, by the way, that his early anatomies of EE are no longer particularly useful, for precisely that reason—many of the features that he initially wrote automatically _excluded_ an accent from being EE are now commonly understood to be markers of it!

    By the way, I wouldn’t classify William’s PRICE onset (nor, for that matter, “general EE”) anywhere near as far back as you have it, nor as open. Centralized cardinal 14, perhaps. I also find your transcription for his GOAT vowel a bit odd. The majority of the tokens sound pretty much like [əʊ̯] to me, i.e. dead-on classical RP. Occasionally I hear something like more like an EE [ʌʊ̜]. Kate’s GOAT vowel is consistently fronted [ɛʊ̯]–very posh. The most Estuary (or contemporary?) things about both of their speech may be their notably fronted and unrounded GOOSE vowels and, in Kate’s case, at least, unrounded FOOT vowel.

    Glad you liked Paul’s production script and website. He and David worked very hard on the resulting production, which I hear was marvelous.

  13. John Cowan says:

    Technically, Edward didn’t abdicate: the U.K. Parliament changed the Act of Succession to exclude him and his descendants from the throne. This remains one of the few sole competences of the U.K. Parliament under the Act of Westminster, 1925, which set up the dominion system. In addition, Elizabeth (unlike any of her predecessors) is separately Queen of her various dominions (Queen of Canada, Queen of Australia, etc.). If India and Pakistan could become republics, then New Zealand (to pick the most unlikely dominion) could decide to recognize a different monarch by act of its Parliament.

    ObTrivia: Most Acts of Parliament are made retroactive to midnight of the day in which they receive the Royal Assent, so that the particular time of day they are enacted does not matter. The change to the Act of Succession, however, was expressly not made retroactive: Edward remained king until the following midnight, so that there could be no doubt of the validity of his assent.

  14. dw says:

    Technically, Edward didn’t abdicate: the U.K. Parliament changed the Act of Succession to exclude him and his descendants from the throne. This remains one of the few sole competences of the U.K. Parliament under the Act of Westminster, 1925, which set up the dominion system.

    The Statute of Westminster 1931 states in its preamble that “it would be in accord with the established constitutional position of all the members of the Commonwealth in relation to one another that any alteration in the law touching the Succession to the Throne or the Royal Style and Titles shall hereafter require the assent as well of the Parliaments of all the Dominions as of the Parliament of the United Kingdom”.

  15. Montmorency says:

    I succeeded in avoiding the RW completely, so hadn’t heard this or anything like it, but I regret, William’s vowels (or dipthongs) are not a sign of more social equality to come. He just sounds like a modern son of a privileged background who doesn’t have to try too hard and so doesn’t try too hard with his speech either, so what we get is what I call “sloppy RP”.

    You are right about Kate. Her speech is much more careful. “Correct RP”, I would call it.

    Going back to William: he does that “foyne” thing with “fine” that Victoria Coren (and many others) do, and that very strange thing with “about” that David Cameron does so it sounds something like “abaheeowt”. I thought it might be regional with Cameron, but it can’t be with William.

    If you want to hear some relatively modern, correct, unsloppy and unaffected RP, then I suggest listening to Stephen Fry. He’s public school, but doesn’t really have a “posh” image. He’s of an older generation than William, which I suppose makes a difference, but he’s reasonably characteristic of a large number of modern English male speakers, although perhaps more articulate and intelligent than most, and is a better model than William (nice chap though he seems to be).

  16. Mandy says:

    There is nothing wrong with how they speak, but I feel it’s somewhat a shame that the potential future monarch doesn’t speak like his father or grandma, her majesty the Queen. I must admit, things (and accent) move with time, and it’s rare to find one in the younger generation to speak like the Queen these days. It’s just that that accent will be lost eventually is quite a sad thought..

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  19. Lucy says:

    Does anybody today speak like the Queen did in the 1950s?

    • Mike Ellwood says:

      I don’t know about exactly like that, but I have definitely heard “posh” older people talking in a very similar way. They tend to be more or less of the Queen’s generation, but it might include people who are slightly younger.

      So I think that style of speech will die out, although there is a large remaining slightly younger generation with recognisably public-school accents, represented by the likes of Jeremy Paxman, and Jon and Peter Snow (all well-known figures on British TV over many years). I know plenty of people who speak like them in “real life” as well, so it’s not just a media thing.

      Younger, supposedly “RP”, speakers generally sound less “posh” than people like Jeremy Paxman, in my opinion. These people often seem to affect a slightly Cockney flavour to their speech, and often include glottal stops and fail to pronounce their “t”s clearly – You’d never catch Jeremy or Her Majesty doing that. 🙂

  20. David says:

    Good article that has stood the test of time. Recent years have seen the rapid adoption of a fashionable use of EE features replace RP amongst young people. For the urban young professionals, creatives and toffs alike, it is seen as inappropriate “or not cool” to advertise their class or privellege – a post economic melt-down desire that has seen investment bankers remove their ties on hot days and wear plain suits rather than pin-stripes. Cultural cues from the world have also levelled class distinctions everywhere and RP is increasingly something for the older set.

    I agree that for most of history French was the native language at Court and when King Jamie the saxth, King of Scots, inherited England from his aunt Bess, or King Billy the Dutchman or Georg the elector of Hanover did likewise, the language at Court was seldom that of the people. Queen Victoria spoke German at home.

    In an age where it is important to appear democratic and meritocratic and of the people, it is wise that Wills cultivates at least some credentials of the common touch.