The C-Word

Hamlet & Ophelia

Hamlet & Ophelia, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Within the past few decades, a difference has arisen between British and American English concerning ‘the C word.’ I won’t repeat the word here, as it’s arguably the most offensive in English, but most will know what I’m talking about (it rhymes with ‘hunt’ and refers to female anatomy).

The C-word is still extremely shocking in American English. While other profanity has lost its power to offend in all but the most formal contexts, this one word remains taboo even in offhanded conversations.

This supremely offensive status is arguably a recent trend. After all, of the major English profanities, the C-word is the only to be uttered (almost) explicitly in Shakespeare, as per this pun in Hamlet:

HAMLET Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

OPHELIA No, my lord.

HAMLET I mean, my head upon your lap?

OPHELIA Ay, my lord.

HAMLET Do you think I meant country matters?

Get it? Even in the 20th-Century, the word only seems to have adopted its disproportionate infamy more recently. D.H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams all used the term in their literature, and while none are particularly uncontroversial writers, their use of the C-word didn’t seem to garner them an abnormal share of outrage.

Getting back to the point though. Within the past half-century, the C-word appears to have increased somewhat in the UK. And unlike the US, where the word is typically reserved for the female gender, the British C-word often refers to men. Where did this convention begin?

I recall an interviewee in the Sex Pistols documentary ‘The Filth and the Fury‘ suggesting that the British punk scene gave rise to this particular usage. And yet it’s fairly clear that using the term as a derogatory word for a man predates the era of mohawks and fashionable safety pins. After doing a Google Books Search (which took me on a whirlwind tour of the 20th-Century’s most horrible erotica), the earliest British use of this type I could find was in the 1967 novel Poor Cow.  So this unique insult seems to date back a bit further, its origin still mysterious.

And it’s curious as to how this emasculated use became popular in the UK, but much less so here in the States. Any ideas?


Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged | 41 Comments

Inner-City Dialects


Clichy-Sous-Bois, a banlieue of Paris.

This week’s Economist features an article about the Kiezdeutsch dialect of German, mostly spoken by inner-city youth. One may recognize controversies similar to those about non-standard English: ‘purists’ argue that Kiezdeutsh is bad/lazy German, while linguists see it is a legitimate variant of the language.

The article explains the difference between the dialect and Standard German by using the phrase ‘Tomorrow I’m going to the movies’ as an example.  (I’ll summarize this here, as the original article’s explanation is a bit cursory.) In Kiezdeutsch, the phrase is …

Morgen ich geh Kino

… which literally translates as ‘Tomorrow I go movies.’  This is already a strikingly non-standard sentence, but keep in mind that in Standard German, the verb would come before ‘I.’  So the Kiezdeutsch realization equates to a hypothetical English dialect where the construction would be ‘Tomorrow go I movies.’

Throughout the English-speaking world, and beyond it, one finds similar varieties of non-standard ‘inner-city’ language. These include urban African-American Vernacular English in the US, Multicultural British English in the UK, and ‘Verlan‘ in the French Banlieu*. But what do we mean by an ‘inner-city’ dialect, exactly?

The descriptor ‘inner-city’ is admittedly problematic. The term harkens back to 1960s America, and is very much an artifact of its time and place. In the mid-to-late-20th-Century US, cities were typically blighted and low-income, yet surrounded by affluent suburbs. In non-American cities quite the opposite is often the case: In Paris the ‘inner’ city is largely wealthy while low-income neighborhoods lie on the outskirts.

‘Inner city dialect,’ then, is crude shorthand for speech common among young, urban speakers, often the children of immigrants or ethnic minorities. Such dialects differ from London’s Cockney, Montreal’s Joual, or other urban working-class dialects (although their origins may have been similar). ‘Inner city’ language is often more of a political issue, prompting a lot of handwringing from the linguistically conservative set. Here is a thinly-veiled gripe, as per the Economist article (emphasis mine*):

Kiezdeutsch is not a dialect but a style of speaking, says Helmut Glück, professor of German at the University of Bamberg. Such patois often develops among students, soldiers and other groups to foster a sense of belonging.

I don’t buy into the notion that ‘inner city’ dialects arise purely out of a desire to ‘sound different’ or ‘belong.’ (Although that may play some part.) I think it’s more a matter of children who lack ‘standard language-speaking’ parents and peers. So why the ongoing perception that non-standard language is a ‘deliberate’ choice? Perhaps because cities are by definition densely populated places.

Let me explain. If I were to travel to a remote part of Appalachia, no doubt encountering a strong regional dialect, my first thought would not be that the locals are ‘trying’ to talk differently. I would just assume that their geographical isolation offered them little exposure to English ‘norms.’ But if I were to travel to a neighborhood two miles from my house, a dialect radically different from my own might seem willfully ‘out of place.’

To put that more simply: Do we feel that those who live geographically closer to ‘standard’ English have less of an excuse to not speak ‘standard’ English?

*A least two of these require caveats.  AAVE is only urban in the sense that a large proportion of its speakers live in cities, and ‘verlan’ is (apparently) less a dialect than a narrow set of syntactical features vaguely akin to rhyming slang.

**I’m actually a bit unclear whether these sentiments are directly attributable to Prof. Glück, as there are there are no quotation marks.


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Nasal Vowels

Nasal cavity


In French, the /n/ at the end of words like ‘garcon,’ ‘mon,’ and ‘Americain’ is typically  unpronounced.  Instead, the vowel before ‘n’ is nasalized, while dropping ‘n’ itself.

How does one ‘nasalize’ a vowel, exactly? It’s fairly simple. The speaker lowers the velum (soft palate), which forces air into the nasal cavity at the same time that he or she is producing the relevant a, e, i, o, or u sound.  (Children seem to do this unconsciously when they whine, to the endless irritation of their parents.)

French is not the only such language that prominently features nasal vowels, of course. Portuguese and Polish also use nasals: the ‘ao’ in São Paolo and the ‘ę’ in klębowiec are examples.  Classical Latin is believed to have used nasal vowels to replace n’s and m’s , much as French does, so there’s a quite a long history of this kind of thing in Romance languages.*

Nasal vowels are used in English as well, albeit in a much more run-of-the-mill way. They occur before nasal consonants, as in ‘man,’ ‘can‘t,’ or ‘then.’  Few of us notice this nasality, unless we’re listening very carefully, because it’s uncommon in English that nasal consonants are dropped entirely, a la French.

(It’s worth noting that in English, we don’t absolutely have to nasalize vowels before nasal consonants.  I could say ‘man’ without nasalizing the ‘a,’ although this might sound rather effete or vaguely British to American ears.)

There are some situations, even in more mainstream accents of English, where nasal vowels can entirely supercede an /n/ or /m/.  For example, many people pronounced the word ‘can’t’ without really fully articulating the /n/, and the word ’embalm’ without the /m/.  These are rather mundane observations, though.  Because the following consonant in each word is in the same place of articulation as the preceding nasal, most of us barely notice the difference between ‘can’t’ with a full-on /n/ and ‘can’t’ with only a nasal vowel.

The only examples of English I’ve encountered with anything remotely similar to French-like nasality are some varieties of African-American Vernacular English (and probably some related accents of the deep American South).  It’s possible in this small set of accents for the phrase ‘Hey, man!‘ to be pronounced without the /n/, the ‘a’ in ‘man’ being a nasalized vowel.  Hence I had a coworker from Georgia who frequently pronounced my name, Ben, without an articulated ‘n.’

But for the most part, there are few varieties of English that ‘go the French route,’ and drop nasal consonants entirely.  Are there any others that come to mind?

*When people think of Classical Latin, they usually imagine it being pronounced similarly to the Liturgical Latin of the Catholic Church.  In reality, Classical Latin, with its unstressed long vowels and nasality, would probably sound very strange to most modern ears.


Posted in English Phonetics | Tagged , | 11 Comments


James Joyce


One of my ‘nerdiest’ passions is for conlangs, short for ‘constructed languages.’  Examples of these include Klingon and the various tongues in Tolkien’s books.  These are often created by creative linguists or people with an advanced knowledge of languages, although countless laypeople create them for fun.

Related to this concept are what might be called condialects. There are, in a number of works of fiction, intricately crafted varieties of English that are entirely made up.  Many of the most famous examples of these appear in popular or renowned works of literature and film.  Here are a few examples.

1.) Yoda from Star Wars.  Creating Yoda’s distinctive idiolect mustn’t have been very complicated.  It was simply a matter of changing the typical word order of English, which is normally Subject-Verb-Object to Object-Subject-Verb.  A very simple trick this is.

Interestingly, Yoda at times treats modal and auxiliary verbs as separate from the main verb.  For example, in one line, Yoda says,  find your planet you will,’ splitting the verb phrase ‘you will find.’  So he seems to have a solid grasp of the finer points of English   morphology, but somehow misses some basic structural rules.  A flaw with Yoda-speak, perhaps. Then again, why is anybody in Star Wars speaking English in the first place?

2.) Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. Many Joyce scholars classify this as a language, but this classic of Irish literature is arguably in some kind of English, albeit of a very strange type.  Here’s a sample, from the first few pages:

Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand, freemen’s maurer, lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofarback for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy…

I don’t have a PhD in Joyce Studies, so I can’t delve too deeply into how the work should be classified from a linguistic standpoint.  Also, I admittedly haven’t read it (sorry).  The novel is written in strange blend of poetic language, with bits of Norwegian, Biblical allusions, and Hiberno-English thrown in.  Again, I’m not quite sure if you could classify it a ‘dialect,’ but it’s at least worth an honorable mention here.

3.) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The language in this novel is the most unambiguously a condialect, and created by a trained linguist, to boot.  Set in a horrifying futuristic Britain, the protagonist speaks a Cockney-ish dialect that has a number of Russian-derived slang words, such as ‘droog’ (meaning ‘mate’), which derives from Russian druk and ‘devotchka,’ meaning girl.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Burgess creates a number of words that lie in between Russian and English.  Take ‘lubbilubbing,’ for example, which means fornicating.  The word apparently derives from Russian lyublyu, meaning ‘love,’ but is also believable as an entirely English neologism.

4.) Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Saffran Foer.  A large chunk of this novel is narrated by a Ukrainian English-learner named Alexander Perchov, hence this charmingly error-ridded beginning to the book:

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.

Foer’s detractors complained that too much of the book read like an elaborate misuse of the thesaurus function on MS Word. But there is a certain skill to employing just the right wrong word. (Using ‘facile’ in the above sentence instead of ‘flaccid’ wouldn’t have the same comic punch). It’s a lot less linguistically complex than what Burgess did, but much more of an achievement than critics give it credit for.

5.) Room by Emma Donoghue.  Like most entries on this list, it is highly debatable whether  this Irish writer’s harrowing novel about abduction is written in a ‘dialect,’ but it definitely has its own syntactic and grammatical oddities.  Donoghue conveys the story through the voice of a five-year-old boy, which normally might disqualify it as an example of condialecting.  However, this particular child lives in a tiny room with his mother: both are prisoner of a psychopath who has contructed an inescapable cell, although the boy doesn’t realize this until well into the book.

This results in an odd mother-child language that goes beyond mere child-speech. Objects are referred to as if they were almost people, sans article: ‘Room,’ ‘Skylight,’ ‘Lamp.’  With this comes an interesting system of genders (‘Plant’ and ‘Refrigerator’ are female, while ‘Watch’ and ‘Jeep’ are male).  The sun is referrered to as ‘God,’ pills are ‘killers’ (presumable a shortened version of ‘painkillers’), and television stations are ‘planets.’  The book examines what happens to a child’s mind when it’s cut off from the world, including a child’s language.

Those are a few examples I can think of off the top of my head.  Any other renowned condialects?



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I’m Hoarably Sorey

Canadians (or those familiar with the Canadian accent), may recognize the weak pun in today’s title: ‘I’m horribly sorry‘ can sound to someone from the UK or elsewhere a bit like ‘I’m hoarably sorey.’ (I’m using ‘hoar’ to be family friendly; if you replace the syllable with the more illicit word that sounds exactly like ‘hoar,’ it will result in a much more disturbing pun).

Joking aside, though, what’s going on here?  Well, in many varieties of North American English (including General American), /or/ words of any kind–‘horrible,’ ‘porridge,’ ‘sore,’ ‘poor‘–are all pronounced with the same vowel, roughly akin to the ‘aw’ sound in ‘flaw.’ ([ɔ] in the IPA.)  There are exceptions to this, in the Eastern United States, but for the most part /or/, /orr/, and /oor/ aren’t much distinguished on this side of the Atlantic.

In many types of British English, by contrast, ‘poor,’ ‘sore’ and ‘horrible’ can be pronounced with three entirely different vowels (although this is more commonly two in contemporary accents).  The pun in the title derives from the fact that, for accents that make the distinction, ‘horribly’ and ‘sorry’ are pronounced with the ‘short-o’ in ‘lot’ (i.e. /hɒɹɪbli/ and /sɒɹi/).  So to British, Australian, or New York ears, the Canadian syllables might sound uncomfortably close to ‘whore/hoar’ and ‘sore.’

But what about ‘sorry?’ Here is where things get complicated.  In many American accents, ‘horrible,’ ‘Florida’ and ‘corridor’ are pronounced with the vowel in ‘flaw.’ But ‘sorry,’ ‘borrow’ and ‘tomorrow’ have the same vowel in ‘lot,’ as in British accents. In Canada, meanwhile, all such /or/ words have the ‘aw’ vowel, including ‘sorry.’  Why is ‘sorry’ an odd word out in America but not for our neighbors to the North?

What makes this even more peculiar is in the case of accents out here in the Western US, where the cot-caught merger is typical.  I can’t account for every regional accent, but my impression is that for most, sorry has the ‘short-o’ in ‘lot,’ while horrible has an entirely different ‘aw’ sound ([ɔ] or [o]).  Is this the one exception in which Westerners distinguish between the two vowels?  Or does /or/ follow an entirely different pattern?

(I’ll acknowledge an objection from the more linguistically advanced: you could make the case that in Western American accents, ‘-orr’ words like ‘horrible’ are merging with the vowel in ‘core,’ which can further be argued to be an allophone of the /o/ in ‘goat.’ Still, that doesn’t quite explain why /orr/ words have joined two different phonemic camps.)

None of this really explains, however, why Canadians went fully in one direction, but Americans didn’t.  Unlike other Canadian/American differences, this can’t be explained by vowel shifts or loaned British pronunciations.  Any ideas?


Posted in American English | Tagged , , , | 39 Comments

More Thoughts on the New York Accent

Ellis IslandI somehow missed this NY Post piece, in which Kara Becker, a linguist at Reed College in Oregon, pens a broad overview of the long decline of the ‘classic’ New York City accent. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to get a general look at the way that New York’s distinctive accent has changed over the past few decades.

This observation is made about many cities throughout the English-speaking world: ‘Cockney is disappearing,’ ‘the Dublin accent is disappearing,’ or ‘the New Orleans accent is disappearing.’ But these gripes prompt a rather obvious question: just what made these accents the ‘definitive (insert city here) accent’ in the first place?

I think it is safe to say that for most major cities, the local dialect is primed to change, often radically, every few decades. This is one of the major exceptions I take to complaints about Cockney being supplanted by Multicultural London English, or General American usurping any number of working-class accents throughout the United States. Such events are business as usual throughout the history of English.

With that in mind, I can think of four major dialect ‘events’ that (perhaps) occurred to New York City accent:

1.) At some point in the 19th-Century, a type of non-rhotic, ‘aristocratic’ English became prestige in the city.

2.) Around the turn of the 20th-Century, millions of immigrants brought unique influences to the local speech which strengthened pre-existing features of the accent and introduced several innovations.

3.) After World War II, the spectrum of accents known as General American became common in the city due to high levels of American inmigration.

4.) In the latter half of the 20th-Century, various innovations from African-American Vernacular English entered the linguistic landscape (really a process that dates back much further, but seems most salient in recent decades).

Some of these may be debatable. Regardless, the point is that what we think of as the ‘New York accent’ is a type of English that was common at a particular point in the city’s linguistic history (arguably ‘step 2’ in the list above). So why do we say ‘the New York accent is dying out’ and not ‘the New York accent is changing?’

I think the problem here is that recorded sound has been a part of mainstream American life for a relatively short period, only about 90 years. Without being able to hear how people talked 150 years ago, laypeople have only had enough time for to make two very simple empirical observations: (a) people used to speak a certain way, and (b) we speak rather differently now.

I’m interested to know what it will be like 300 years from now, when we (hopefully) will have centuries of recorded speech at our disposal. Will we then be more aware of the changing nature of accents, rather than assuming unique speech features are perpetually ‘dying out?’


Posted in American English | Tagged | 21 Comments

The Accents in Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle, filming location for 'Downton Abbey' (Photo: Richard Munckton)

I am apparently the last person in the English-speaking world to watch Downton Abbey, but got a chance to see the first series over the past two evenings.  For the unfamiliar, the show takes place in an English country estate around the time of the First World War.  Like Mad Men, it is set in a transitional time in a country’s history (in this case, 1910’s Britain), and as such, it is interesting to see how the show deals (or doesn’t) with the dialects of its characters.

Within watching the first few minutes of the program, there is a very obvious dialect divide between the aristocracy (who speak Received Pronunciation), and the servants (who mostly speak with local Yorkshire accents).  As with Mad Men, the show’s creators seem to have made striking choices about the speech of the show’s characters, some of which (deliberately) differ from how people actually spoke in the 1910’s.

Most strikingly, the actors who play the wealthy characters eschew older varieties of ‘Upper Crust’ Received Pronunciation for slightly more contemporary varieties of RP.  For example, many of the younger actors use some glottal-reinforcement for voiceless plosives like /t/, /p/ and /k/–perfectly normal for modern ‘mainstream’ RP, but probably less so among early-20th-Century aristocrats.  Although arguably anachronistic, I think this was a wise move.  Because these characters sound more modern, I suspect the choice elicited more natural and unaffected performances from the cast.

(The one brilliant exception to this is Maggie Smith, who plays a Lady Bracknell-ish grandmother with a somewhat more patrician accent; for example, she pronounces ‘off’ as ‘orf’.  Smith’s character is of another time, of course, so the fact that her speech is different from that of her progeny is a justifiable choice.)

This is true of the actors who play the servants as well.  Most speak with Yorkshire accents (feigned or authentic), but the more inscrutable Yorkshire dialect features are not on display.  I admit I’m rather ignorant in this regard: in a country manor a century ago, would the servants have spoken traditional dialects among each other downstairs?  Or would standard English have been more typical as a type of lingua franca among staffs that would have no doubt come from a variety of backgrounds?

Perhaps the most fascinating (and ‘meta’) bit of casting in the show is Elizabeth McGovern as the youthful matriarch of the household.  McGovern plays an American who married into the British aristocracy and has lived in England for many years; fittingly, McGovern herself moved to England for marriage in the early 90’s and has lived there ever since. This results in the strange situation of an actor with an American accent tinged with British influences (listen to interviews with her on YouTube) adopting an American accent tinged with British influences … from a different time period.

All of this is to say that Downton Abbey is a fascinating show from a linguistic perspective, and I highly recommend it.  Any fans wish to comment?

(NOTE: I’m a bit busy in unrelated areas of my life this week, so I may be a bit a light in the comments section.)


Posted in British English | Tagged , , , , | 100 Comments

Circumstances – Circumstnses

Forgive the trivial nature of today’s post, but I’m curious about a minute detail of British pronunciation. That would be the word ‘circumstance.’ To clarify, when I say ‘British pronunciation’ here, I’m referring to the word’s pronunciation in British RP and related accents (I realized how reductionist that is).

The first pronunciation of ‘circumstance,’ listed in a number of dictionaries (Collins, for example), feature the schwa: [ˈsɜːkəmstəns]. For the non-IPA-literate, this means that the word is almost pronounced as ‘circumstns,’ with not much of a defined vowel in ‘-stance.’

However, another pronunciation seems more common. That would be ‘circumstance’ with the ‘short-a’ sound in ‘man.’ (Prime ministers John Major and David Cameron have both said it this way in interviews.) As you might surmise, this is similar to the American pronunciation of the word, minus the /r/ in ‘cir-.’ It can sound a bit strange at first hearing, as you might expect that the last syllable in ‘circumstance’ would rhyme with British RP ‘dance,’ and be pronounced with the ‘broad a’ (that is, the ‘ah’ sound in ‘father’).

Indeed, the ‘broad a’ type of ‘circumstance’ is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, which has [ˈsɜːkəmstɑːns] as one of three British variants (I’ve listed the other two above). And yet I’ve never heard this ‘circumstance,’ which leads me to suspect it’s somewhat less common.

Why so many pronunciations of one word? Since the last syllable is the issue here, let’s look at it in isolation. Skirting questions of etymology for a moment, the word ‘stance’ seems to share the same pattern of pronunciation variability as ‘circumstance:’ according to the OED, it is pronounced with either a short-a or a broad-a in British English.

But all other monosyllabic ‘-ance’ words are much more consistently pronounced with a ‘broad a,’ at least according to the OED: lance, prance, chance, dance, France*, and glance are all pronounced with the ‘ah’ in ‘father’ (by those who have the complete TRAP-BATH split). What makes ‘stance’ unique?

And indeed, why is ‘circumstance’ such an odd duck? Off the top of my head, this is one of the only words I can think of that has three distinct pronunciations within British RP and related accents. Why?

*I may be wrong, but I seem to recall hearing at least one RP speaker say ‘France’ with a short-a.  Although place names always strike me as being a bit variable.


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Accents or Dialects I Haven’t Heard

The Hamptons

The Hamptons, where the 'Bonac' Accent is Spoken

A question I get asked a lot (as anyone with a passion for accents and dialects is probably asked) is whether there are any varieties of English I haven’t heard. There’s no easy answer, of course, since accents aren’t clearly defined collectibles like postage stamps or baseball cards.

Ergo, I’ll admit I’ve never listened the accent of Three Rivers, Michigan, nor the dialect of Forfar, Scotland. That’s not to say that I don’t have an idea, given what I know about the Scottish and Michigan English, of what both might sound like. But there are countless local variations and quirks to account for, making this question something of a nonstarter.

That being said, there are a few accents and dialects that I’ve either never heard, or haven’t heard enough of to identify their salient features. These are:

1.) The Bonac Accent. This curious term refers to a local accent once spoken in the Hamptons in Long Island. Due to the influx of wealthy outsiders to the area over the past half-century, the accent apparently faces extinction.

I’ve been pointed to a few reported clips of Bonac accents, yet I’ve never really gotten an idea of what it is, or how it differs from the rest of Long Island. My impression is that it shares some features with New England English, but I’m unclear as to what specifically makes it unique.

2.) Shelta. This is the language of the Travellers, a nomadic culture in Ireland. Whether Shelta can be called a dialect, creole or simply a language is a topic I couldn’t possibly broach. Regardless, I’ve yet to find a really good clip of Shelta, a problem no doubt compounded by the isolated nature of the Traveller community. Although 28 seconds into this news story from Al Jazeera, I would note that they seem to have a rather unique accent:

3.) Non-Rhotic Canadian Accents. For years, I’ve read and heard rumors of accents in the Atlantic Provinces that ‘drop their r’s’ the way New Englanders do. This might make sense, given New Brunswick’s proximity to r-less Maine.  But have I ever heard an Atlantic Canadian do this? No. If anyone knows of someone with such an accent, let me know.

Any other accents or dialect you’ve been unable to find samples of?


Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged , , , | 30 Comments

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?


Posted in British English | Tagged , , | 24 Comments