Piers Morgan’s “Hoity Toity” Accent

Politicians have a curious habit of mocking their own markers of privilege. How else does one explain Mitt Romney slamming Obama for attending Harvard, Romney’s MBA alma mater? Or G.W. Bush describing the “intellectual arrogance” he encountered while at Yale? (I’m sure there is a liberal example that I’m forgetting).

Such self-contradiction extends to talking heads as well. A few days ago,  British commentator Stuart Varney took umbrage with, of all things, Piers Morgan’s British accent (as reported in a dailycaller.com piece):

“It makes me very uncomfortable,” Varney said. “And I don’t think we should do that. I don’t think British people should come over here with that hoity-toity accent, talk down to Americans and tell Americans that there is something wrong with their society.”

Varney elaborated on Morgan’s accent, which he said was associated with “snobbery.”

“[The accent] is associated with snobbery,” Varney said. “The worst thing you can do is come over here with a British accent and talk down to people as you’re supposedly giving the news. I don’t think you should do that, period.”

For reference, here is a clip of Varney speaking:

Yup, pretty British. So on the face of it, Varney’s critique is that of a very black pot slandering his fellow kettle. There may be more going on in the subtext, however. For starters, Varney has resided in the States far longer than Morgan, and has the slightly muddled accent to show for it. In my opinion, transplants are the most likely to mock accents reminiscent of their homeland. (For instance, the most vicious Boston accent haters I’ve know are native New Englanders.)

There is also the matter of Varney’s formative years in England. He grew up in Derby, and while he clearly surpresses his East Midlands accent, one can still place him: note the lack of TRAP-BATH split in words like ask and chance, and his occasional (albeit very subtle) betrayal of a raised STRUT vowel. Given, Varney attended the world’s most prestigious Economics school, but he may nevertheless resent native RP speakers like Morgan.

There is a larger context to this story, of course. Varney’s accusation came on the heels of a controversial moment on Morgan’s program in which he called a gun rights advocate a “stupid man” who “doesn’t give a damn about the gun murder rate in America.” One can certainly take issue with Morgan’s choice of words here; it’s definitely one of the more combative things I’ve heard a journalist say during an interview. But such hostility doesn’t strike me as British condescension.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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16 Responses to Piers Morgan’s “Hoity Toity” Accent

  1. Robert Cox says:

    I noticed that he also has /ɒ/ in (every)one, which is a Midlands and northern feature. This is a feature that I’ve heard from northerners. The vowel he uses in ask sounds longer than I would would expect for someone from where he’s from. I wonder if that may be due to American influence.

    • Robert Cox says:

      Damn, I wish I could go back and edit that comment. What I meant to say in the second sentence was something like, “This is a feature that I’ve heard from northerners with nearly RP accents.” In my experience, it seems to be a feature that northerners still have in their speech even after all other northern features are gone. For instance, Jeremy Clarkson, one of the hosts of the British car show Top Gear, is a Yorkshireman. However, his accent sounds sort of southern English or RP or Estuary or something else (but not northern English). But even he has /ɒ/ in one. A little off topic, but oh well.

      • Ed says:

        I think that more research should be done on these STRUT words that have /ɒ/ in some English accents. It seems to me that there is a group of words in which some have /ɒ/ only in a small area of England and some have /ɒ/ very widely. Your example of “one” is a case of a widespread use of /ɒ/ (I’ve even heard it in East Anglia), and Peter Roach’s EPD has now recognised this as acceptable in BBC English. On the other hand, if somebody said “tongue” with /ɒ/, then it’s a safe bet that they’re from Lancashire or somewhere nearby.

        I actually have “none” with [ɒ] and “one” with [ʊ]. That might seem crazy to the rest of the world, but a lot of people in this area have that combination. I think that we’re stuck between isoglosses.

        • Ed says:

          P.S. Looked this up in Petyt (1985). It seems that this has been a trend for a while. On a footnote on page 111, he talks about words such as bomb, combat, comrade, accomplish and says that there is a move in RP from /ʌ/ to /ɒ/. I’m amazed that these words were said with /ʌ/ in RP, but then I was only born in 1985.

        • dw says:

          @Ed:

          Interesting that you include “accomplish” in that list: I would have regarded LOT in that word (but only that word, out of your list) as a non-RP Northernism.

        • Ed says:

          @ dw: I’ve just looked up “accomplish” in John Wells’s LPD. He gives the pronunciation with /ʌ/ in bold and then the one with /ɒ/ as an RP alternative. His preference poll shows 92% for /ʌ/ and 8% for /ɒ/.

          Now here’s a question. In his poll for “one”, 30% chose /ɒ/ yet he gave that a non-RP marker. Why is /ɒ/ more acceptable in “accomplish” than in “one” despite the poll results?

          I’d hazard a guess that Wells did this because he sees the regional variable as less significant for “accomplish” than for “one”.

        • dw says:

          So you are “amazed” that “accomplish” ever had the STRUT vowel in RP, even though Wells lists it as a 92% preference?

        • Ed says:

          No, I didn’t word that comment very well. I was amazed at bomb, combat, comrade. I have heard “accomplish” with STRUT, although I’ve never come across any stigma on using LOT in the word (unlike, say, in “tongue”).

  2. dw says:

    Yes: my otherwise very RP parents both have the LOT vowel in “one”. They both grew up in the Home Counties but moved to Birmingham (where I grew up).

  3. Ed says:

    Stuart Varney’s pronunciation of “asked” at 0:27 sounds very American. It sounded out of place in his speech.

    I don’t think that Piers Morgan sounds especially posh (hoity toity), but it’s true that there’s no sign of America influence on his speech yet.

    • dw says:

      Also his /l/ in “results” at 0:06.

    • Hjalmarsson says:

      I’m curious what you think the difference is that you hear (in phonetic terms). There very well could be some phonetic difference between an American and an English post-vocalic L. You don’t read about it in the linguistic literature, though, where they simply say that it is “dark” in both places.

      • Ed says:

        There are differences in some areas of Britain. In Lancashire, all cases of /l/ are dark. In Geordie, all cases are clear. Increasingly in the southern half of England, /l/ is vocalised at the end of a morpheme.

        Derby is not known for being a very distinctive accent. I have had a look at the relevant chapter in Urban Voices, and L-vocalisation does occur in Derby (see page 52). That is probably what dw was referring to. Derby is probably the northern frontier of L-vocalisation, as it does not occur in Sheffield (30 miles north). They may conquer us yet.

  4. Gonfal says:

    I think a lot of people have complicated feelings about accents and immigration and group membership – the overall vibe I get from Varney is of someone who’s trying very hard to sound american, but perhaps doesn’t have the best ear. It’s possible that when he, someone from the Midlands commenting on a far-right, often ridiculed news channel, hears criticism from someone with a “prestige” accent, from the same country, criticizing something that he believes in, he takes it really personally, and it might cause weird identity conflicts. This is just supposition.

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