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.