Irvine, The Prince, And Military Dialects

Food Network addicts will recognize the inspiration for today’s post, Robert Irvine, the energetic host of Restaurant:Impossible. From the moment I heard Irvine speak, I was more struck by his odd idiolect than his culinary acumen:

Irvine is an Englishman who has spent years in America, and his accent can largely be attributed to cross-Atlantic accommodation. But is that all there is to it? He speaks with a mix of features that come and go as if in a game of dialectal whack-a-mole, sounding at one moment rather like a Geordie, another moment vaguely Scottish, and at other times more at home in his adopted state of New Jersey.

Irvine is apparently from Wiltshire, in England’s West Country, which wouldn’t make my top ten guesses. But further biographical details are sketchy. IMDB claims his place of birth as Trowbridge, while Wikipedia goes with Salisbury, a not-inconsequential drive of about an hour. His Food Network bio mentions only that he is a “native of England,” but offers the provocative suggestion that he “joined the British Royal Navy at the age of 15.”*

That last detail got me thinking: what impact does military service have on one’s dialect? If at all? The question also popped into my head while watching a recent Prince Harry interview about his well-publicized Air Force tenure. His is a far less peculiar accent than Irvine’s, but it still caught my attention:

The Prince’s accent is clearly within the RP family, but some finer details suggest other influences. The vowels in TRAP, BATH and START sound very retracted (“that’s the most bizaw question I’ve ever been awsked…”), for instance, and the diphthong in words like MOUTH seems somewhat inconsistent, ranging from conservative RP (mɑʊθ) to Sheffield (ma:θ). Does any of this have to do with his mixed military peer group? Or is this just the product of an unusual upbringing?

The fact is, I don’t know nearly enough about either Irvine or Prince Harry’s background to assess whether or not their military service played any part in their accent. Both obviously come from slightly abnormal circumstances (Irvine a transplant, Harry a royal). But this nevertheless got me thinking about the role that wars, armies and service play in language.

In most contemporary Western societies, active military personnel comprise a relatively small part of the country’s population. But this was not always so; how may the great wars of the 20th-Century have impacted speech? RP was a notably less “conservative” dialect after World War I–did the aristocrats suddenly fighting alongside butchers and farmers have something to do with this? Did GenAm and Estuary spread after World War II for similar reason?

Such ideas are speculation, but there are more rigorous hypotheses that suggest radical changes during and after major conflicts. The first century of the Great Vowel Shift, after all, notably coincided with the Hundred Years War. Linguists who study American Southern English note that many features we consider “Southern” seem to have become more prominent after the Civil War. It’s not hard to see how bringing thousands of young people together to risk their lives together can result in tremendous linguistic innovation.

*A caveat here, which I don’t bring up to slander Irvine, is that he caused a scandal a few years ago after apparently padding his resume to impress financiers (among other whoppers, he allegedly claimed knighthood). This only adds another layer of mystery.

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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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9 Responses to Irvine, The Prince, And Military Dialects

  1. Rose M says:

    My husband is British. His family is from Surrey, so they speak Received Pronunciation. Throughout the last 18 years of our annual trips to visit his family, I’ve been regularly subjected to “corrections” of my pronunciation (and these aren’t light-hearted, either; they’re said with utter contempt.). When I once said ‘MISS-ul’ one of them said, “you mean ‘MISS-ile’ [long i], otherwise how could you tell the difference between MISS-ile and MISS-ul?” I responded, “by the context, of course. If you hear that Israel is lobbing MISS-uls at the Palestinians, you’re not going to imagine prayer books shooting through the air.” I was v. polite about it; I don’t want to lose my temper, because that would mean I’m no longer in control. I should say that my husband is not like this.

  2. Johnny says:

    When you say Harry’s START is very retracted, do you mean it is very close to cardinal ɑ, because a very back START is indeed standard in British (Southern) English. I think his has maybe some rounding but I’m not an expert.

    • Robert Cox says:

      The descriptions I’ve read of Received Pronunciation (or whatever you prefer to call it) have usually said that the START vowel is somewhat advanced from cardinal 5. Here’s the linguist Clive Upton’s description of the BATH in RP (which is of course has the same vowel as START and PALM in that accent). I’m not an expert either though.

      • I agree with that assessment. I would argue that it is possible for someone to have strict Cardinal 5 for the START set in RP, but that it would be a slightly unusual, idiolectical variant. When I think Cardinal 5, I generally think of regional accents such as South African and New York City. If you listen to Daniel Jones’ rendition of Cardinal 5, it’s definitely more retracted than what I would normally associate with RP.

      • Ed says:

        Wells said that some accents have START or PALM vowels that are even more retracted than RP. He mentions Stoke and Derby in the Midlands, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north-east, as having such a pronunciation (p.360 in Accents of English). This implies that an RP of START or PALM was (when he was writing in 1982) not fully back.

  3. dw says:

    “ask” is in the BATH set, not the TRAP set.

    • Sorry, that was a strange way of putting that. I felt that TRAP tended to be fairly retracted as well. I included the quote that involved “ask” because it’s merged with START in Harry’s accent.

  4. Ed says:

    I imagine that military people must learn to speak quickly to allow for efficient communication in a crisis. Prince Harry doesn’t seem to have many long vowels. It’s not much use speaking like Brian Sewell when the Taliban are coming.

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