Was There Ever a ‘Veddy British’ R?

One of the supposed traits of older types of British Received Pronunciation is that /r/ can be a tapped sound (for those reading this week, this sound is similar to the ‘tt’ in American ‘butter’). In ‘traditional’ RP, this typically occurs in between vowels, as in words like ‘very’ and ‘terrible,’ resulting in the (wrong) impression that these words are pronounced ‘veddy’ and ‘teddible.’

It’s clear that this was, in fact, something that at least some RP speakers did who were born before World War I or so (for reasons I’ll mention below, it would be near-impossible to get any more specific). This is obvious in the speech of, say, Noël Coward (born in 1899):

But a number of factors make it difficult to assess the scope of r-tapping in older types of RP. First, it strikes me that among British actors of a certain generation, this could often be a very deliberate theatrical choice. Rex Harrison taps his r’s quite frequently in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady, yet hearing interviews with him from around that time, this feature was not present (or rarely present) in his own accent.

This real life/stage life dichotomy is a problem that goes beyond one feature. For example, in older RP, the ‘o’ in ‘code’ is pronounced much as it is in General American English, with a fairly back-starting diphthong (transcribed as [oʊ]). You can hear this sound in this old recording of John Gielgud reciting a monologue from Othello. Yet in this interview from the 1960’s, it’s clear that in his personal speech, Gielgud used a central-starting ‘o’ sound typical of more contemporary RP.

The other complicating factor with people like Harrison and Gielgud, though, is that I would bet many one-time RP r-tappers dropped the feature as the decades when on. We know that Queen Elizabeth II ‘contemporized’ her accent in the late 20th-Century (thanks to this study). It would be unsurprising if r-tapping weakened in the speech of individuals as it became less common.

So what’s the bottom line with RP r-tapping? Unforunately, it started declining in frequency just at the dawn of recorded speech. So whether it was ever truly widespread as a naturally occurring feature is a bit hard to tell.  Thoughts?

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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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24 Responses to Was There Ever a ‘Veddy British’ R?

  1. dw says:

    In French, even though the rhotic of the vernacular is an uvular fricative or trill, classical singers (and possibly actors) are trained to use trills [r] for word-initial and doubled written R, and tap [ɾ] for intervocalic written R (so that the written Rs are interpreted much as if they were Spanish). I can’t say I care for this myself, but it is a “standard” of sorts. According to this book, it originated in the Comédie-Française

    Perhaps a similar phenomenon was at work in English? I believe that public speakers used to be trained to use alveolar trills in English, especially before the days of amplification.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s quite possible. Dame Edith Evans, in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ did something quite similar, rolling her r’s syllable-initially and tapping them intervocalically. Of course, she employed the most exaggerated of U-RP roles for that film (I loved her comically elongated ‘-er’s, as in ‘whatsoever’ [ʍɒtsoevʌ:]).

  2. Jon says:

    Ben – the intervocalic tapped [ɾ] is alive and well in Scottish English. For example, female speaker in St Andrews, recorded for BBC Voices 2004-2005: “I do try and correct [kəɾɛkt] them”

    We also found it (with the low frequency you describe) in conservative RP contributors to the BBC Voices sound recordings, such as one young female in SW London (also 2004) “I always remember coming back from America [əmɛɾɪkə]”

    It reminded me of a similar realisation in urban accents of the north of England (e.g. central Manchester and satellite Lancashire towns like Bolton, Bury and Rochdale) and we have the example from 2005 – again young female speaker: “0:10:30 I don’t swear apart from when I’m very very [vəɾɪ vəɾɪ] angry”. Sociophonetically, this has a different connotation/effect from the ‘veddy’ you describe above, in that the speaker is most definitely not aligning herself with traditional RP!

    All these recordings and transcriptions should be online at the British Library as part of the Voices of the UK project in six weeks or so, and I’ll let you know via a comment on here when they are accessible.

    all the best

    Jon Herring

  3. dw says:

    Listen to this guy (starting at around 8:08: since this is the BBC the sound file will probably be removed any moment). He has a very weird combination of labialized and alveolar tapped /r/s in what sounds like complementary distribution.

  4. boynamedsue says:

    Interesting post about a feature I’d never noticed despite growing up in England (though to be fair, I met my second RP speaker when I went to university at 18, so perhaps I was a little sheltered in that respect).

    Is this connected to the more common feature of intervocalic “r” deletion which also occurs in some very posh RPites?

    “I was vehy, vehy pleased to meet you”

    • trawicks says:

      It’s interesting how in this respect and the pronunciation of GOAT, U-RP seems to go to one of two extremes. Either /r/ is tapped, or disappears entirely. Either GOAT is a back vowel, or else it’s fronted.

      • dw says:

        U-RP is all about differentiating the old elite from social climbers. How this is done — whether by retaining ultra-conservative forms or by innovating — is relatively unimportant.

  5. boynamedsue says:

    PS, I also seem to remember Dickens transcribing some Cockney characters as saying “veddy” in Oliver Twist, but I can’t say I’m sure I’m right.

  6. Sooryan FM says:

    Americans fail to hear the difference between intervocalic [ɾ] and [d].
    But in Scotland, southernmost point of New Zealand and in India, English speakers find it easy to distinguish one from another. 😉

    Eddie: Hello, how are you doing?
    Jane: I’m ve[ɾ ]y well E[d]ie.

    • Katherine says:

      “Americans fail to hear the difference between intervocalic [ɾ] and [d].”

      Who told you this? I’m American and I certainly don’t fail to hear the difference.

    • Ellen K. says:

      My impression: We Americans may fail to hear difference between intervocalic [ɾ] and [d] when they both represent the same phoneme (/d/). I certainly don’t notice the difference. However, that doesn’t mean we hear [ɾ] as /d/ when it’s an /r/. Due to accent recognition and/or word recognition, it’s no trouble to tell when [ɾ] is /r/ and when [ɾ] is /d/.

      • Katherine says:

        Well, I don’t think the [ɾ] I use for for /d/ in Eddy is the same as the [ɾ] in Spanish caro or ScotEng grain despite the fact that people use the same symbol for them. Similar, maybe, but not the same. But that’s okay; different people hear things differently. Nothing new there.

        “We Americans may fail to hear difference between intervocalic [ɾ] and [d] when they both represent the same phoneme (/d/).”

        I don’t think I do even then, but maybe someone could test me on it. I don’t think [d] is very common for /d/ in intervocalic positions where I’m from in America anyway. It sounds kind of foreign and too “deliberate” to me.

    • dw says:

      Sooryan:

      You frequently make claims of this type. Can I ask whether these are based on your personal experience or your interpretation of reference books?

    • Katherine says:

      I’m sorry if I was rude to you, Sooryan. I thought you were a troll. I need to get some sleep. I’m misinterpreting too many things.

  7. Allan says:

    My favorite part of the first clip was hearing them both say [tʰaːd əv biːɪŋ ədˈmaːd] back to back 🙂

    Anyway though, I have a few other clips. Here’s one of C.S. Lewis. You can hear him say very with an alveolar tap at the part of the video I linked to. Interestingly, he has a very stereotypical, old-fashioned, U-RP accent, despite the fact that he’s from Belfast (of all places!). But that was a different time. Also he did go to boarding school, a public school and Oxford all in England. If anyone would classify his accent differently though, I’d like to hear their thoughts. I don’t want this to get too off topic though.

    And of course if I bring up Lewis then I have to mention his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Here’s a video clip of him speaking. I think there are some alveolar taps there, but the sound quality is kind of bad, plus I just find Tolkien kind of hard to understand. Some of the other clips on the side may be more reliable. This video has several alveolar trills!

    I have one last clip from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. If you listen to the speech that the Minister for Magic makes at the end of that video (I linked to that part), you’ll hear him say every with an alveolar trill amazingly. I wonder if this is somehow related to what dw was talking about. I’d like to know the name of that actor if anyone can tell me. I already looked on IMDB, but I can’t find it.

    I don’t really have any thoughts or opinions of my own on this matter though. I just enjoy providing clips.

    • boynamedsue says:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6u5BgQAFiI&feature=related

      There are a few better examples of Tolkein speaking here, he interestingly uses a single post vocalic ‘r’ 04,36 in the phrase ‘star shines upon ouR meeting’, but he is translating from Elvish, so I wonder if he is using an ‘Elvish accent’

      The programme has a selection of extremely interesting ’70s accents (and social attitudes), including proto-estuary from the guy with Militant Tendency hand gestures.

  8. Jack says:

    A very interesting article. I first noticed the discussed pronunciation in interviews of Sir Alec Guinness.