Jane Austen’s English

Emma Jane Austen

Illustration from Emma, by C.E. Brock

A reader recently wrote me with a question about the language in Jane Austen’s novels:

I see you’ve talked a little about accent in Shakespeare’s time, but do we know how English people sounded during the Regency era? I think it’s watching all the Jane Austen adaptations that makes me wonder which things the adapters have gotten right and which ones they’ve totally messed up.

Good question! In my opinion, the era’s pronunciation dictionaries and guides provide abundant evidence (albeit circumstantial) for how “elite” English was spoken during Jane Austen’s lifetime. It was arguably during the Regency that such accents started resembling Received Pronunciation as we recognize it today. But of course, there were striking differences.

One obvious such difference was the vowel in “goat” and “go.” In adaptations of Austen’s work, actors tend to speak with a centralized diphthong, in line with contemporary RP (gəʊt, or crudely, “geh-oat”). In the early 1800’s, however, this almost certainly would have been a back vowel, resembling either that of a conservative American accent (goʊt) or the pure monophthong common in rural Irish English (got).

Then there’s the matter of /r/ and whether it was pronounced or not at the end of words like “car,” “nurse,” or “care.” As I’ve mentioned before, late-eighteenth-Century pronunciation guru John Walker advocated a pronunciation in between the firmly r-ful Irish English and the r-lessness of London speech. I’m not sure what Walker meant by this “in between” /r/, but it seems r-lessness would have been at least fairly common among the gentry by the time Austen published her masterworks.

Then there is the matter of the TRAP-BATH split, a salient feature of many contemporary English accents whereby words like “bath,” “dance,” and “demand” are pronounced with the “broad a” in “father.” One of the more perplexing sections of Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary concerns this question (emphasis added):

This sound of “a” was formerly more than at present found before the nasal liquid “n,” especially when succeeded by c, t, or d, as “dance,” “glance,” “lance,” “France,” “chance,” “prance,” “grant,” “plant,” “slant,” “slander,” &c. … The hissing consonant “s” was likewise a sign of this sound of the a, whether doubled, as in “glass,” “grass,” “lass,” &c. or accompanied by “t,” as in “last,” “fast,” “vast,” &c.; but this pronunciation of “a” seems to have been for some years advancing to the short sound of this letter, as heard in “hand,” “land,” “grand,”&c. and pronouncing the “a” in “after,” “basket,” “plant,” “mast,”&c. as long in “half,” “calf,”&c. borders very closely on vulgarity.

In other words, Walker advocates using the “broad a” in half, path, bath, and calf, but is less enthusiastic about “broad a” in danceprance, plant, and similar words. Although I can’t say for sure, it seems likely that the split would have been somewhat inconsistent among England’s gentry in the early 19th-Century.

The bottom line, though, is that these differences are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. It is far less an anachronism for Kiera Knightly to speak Received Pronunciation in Pride and Prejudice than for Jonathan Rhys-Meyers to do the same in The Tudors (not to mention his being an strapping guy in his early 30s). English has certainly changed over the past 200 years, but, one could argue, not as radically as it did in the time between Shakespeare and Austen.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

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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11 Responses to Jane Austen’s English

  1. Peter S. says:

    For the treatment of ‘r’ after vowels, there have been different but very substantial changes to both British and American English. This seems like it cannot have been just a remarkable coincidence. Was there something unstable about early 18th century English ‘r’s which led to both the Mary/marry/merry merger in America and the loss of ‘r’s in the U.K.?

    • Dan C. says:

      A quick Google search turned up this paper by Aaron Dinkin in which he argues that the MMM merger is caused by a different syllabification of merry, etc. in rhotic accents. I’ve seen this argument elsewhere. He says that rhotic accents syllabify merry, etc. as /mVr.i/ and non-rhotic accents syllabify them as /mV.ri/. If he’s right that it’s a different syllabification of the R that causes the merger, then I wonder if Irish and Scottish accents (which are usually rhotic and don’t undergo the merger) syllabifymerry, etc. like non-rhotic American accents.

      • dw says:

        People can’t agree on even how to syllabify the most unproblematic English words, so I wouldn’t expect universal consensus on anything in this area.

        IMHO, the North American pre-R mergers can be explained by a combination of loss of length distinctions, and syllabification. The loss of length distinctions is also evident in the father-bother, cot-caught, and fill-feel mergers (for those who have them), and also in the pronounciation of “king” as though it were “keeng”.

        Many Irish and Scottish accents have resisted some/most of the changes of the historically short vowels before R. Not only the fir-fern-fur merger, but also the divergence of the TRAP-START and LOT-NORTH vowels. This removes many of the syllabification difficulties that arise in American and RP-style accents.

        • dw says:

          By “the divergence of the TRAP-START and LOT-NORTH vowels” I meant
          * the backing of START and raising of TRAP, so that they are no longer similar in quality
          * the similar divergence in the qualities of NORTH vis-a-vis LOT

        • Ellen K. says:

          I’m curious, dw, about your claim that the lack of length distinction is evident in the caught-cot merger. How? These two words, after all, differ in quality (roundedness), not length in North Americans who do not have the merger. So how does length play into it? I can’t see how it would.

        • dw says:

          @Ellen:

          The evidence shows that historically, after the Great Vowel Shift, “caught” was differentiated from “cot” by length as well as by quality, and it still is in many accents today (most native English accents outside North America, Scotland and Ulster).

          As you say, in nearly all North American accents the length distinction has been lost. But not quite all — traditional Newfoundland accents still retain a length distinction. Had this distinction not been lost, then cot-caught would remain distinct everywhere, regardless of vowel quality.

        • Peter S. says:

          I think maybe you’re right about it being due to syllabification. Irish and Scottish accents don’t change vowels before ‘r’, so they may not have undergone the fern–fir–fur merger, and start and marry still can have the same vowel. Once you start pronouncing mare differently from may and maybe moor differently from moo, you get an immense number of different vowels before ‘r’ depending on syllabification, an unstable situation that was resolved differently in the U.S. and elsewhere.

  2. Sooryan FM says:

    In Irish Newfie (on Avalon peninsula) it’s different, for example, the
    St. John’s accent is cot/caught merged, both cot and caught are pronounced [kä:t], the same quality, the same quantity/length.

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  4. Patrycja says:

    Totally unrelated to the topic, but I need some phonological help. Can somebody transcribe few words spoken by Rafiki for me? (yes, it’s the baboon from The Lion King.) I’m writing a short paper on accents/dialects in Disney. (also about the Polish versions.) But I am lost, I have no idea how to phonetically transcribe Rafiki’s Swahili/African-accented English. Can someone help me? Even three words or a sentence will do. Or can you perhaps name some diagnostic features? (apart from the dental /d/)?

    Please contact me – smilefomedaddy7@wp.pl ,
    I would really appreciate your help. Patrycja

  5. Justtristo says:

    Australia was first settled around the time Jane Austen was writing her novels. Australian English is based on the dialects of the South-East of England.

    Apart from people living in the state of South Australia. The majority of Australians use the broad A for words such as half, path, bath and calf. However they use the “flat A” for words such as dance, prance, plant, etc. I would expect the speech of the gentry in Jane Austen’s novels to be similar in that regard.

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