Friday, 23 April 2010

Pygmalion Cameron


This political cartoon from yesterday’s Guardian (click to enlarge) may be pretty opaque to non-Brits today and will be opaque to everyone in fifty years’ time. It is a comment on the supposed unsuccessful attempts by the leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, to make himself sound less upper-class (blog, 8 April) in preparation for face-to-face television debates with the leaders of the other two main parties.
The cartoon is an obvious allusion to the characters Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion / My Fair Lady (“By George, she’s got it!”).
The cartoonist shows Cameron with a condom for a head, for reasons I can no longer remember.
The hovering Mekon figure (readers of the 1950s Eagle comic will know what I mean) is William Hague, former leader of the party, definitely not upper-class, and notable for having retained an unreconstructed Yorkshire accent and therefore using a “flat” vowel in TRAP words (= an open and retracted [a], like the vowel of RP STRUT).

17 comments:

  1. Wasn't the flat a introduced to the wider world by upper-class girls just a couple of years before Mr Cameron was born? It certainly coincides with the Northern [a], but doesn't the current EE/progressive RP/whatever vowel owe more to the former?

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  2. It reminds me of an American lady trying to teach British pronunciation on YouTube (/ˈboːbeː/ & /ˈkoːfeː/ - beautiful)

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  3. Why does Cameron wear a condom over his head?
    - to cover the spew that comes out of his mouth?
    - to parody his political transparency?
    - ...?

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  4. As I said, I've forgotten why (if I ever knew). Kraut: In earlier cartoons he was represented as a balloon. Looking through the archive I find that the condom appeared for the first time just a few days ago.

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  5. A dick-head unable to pronounce the most common vocoid in the world?

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  6. The earlier Cameron cartoon still seems to show condom, just one wearing a hat. Presumably the reference is to Cameron's strangely shiny baby-faced features as well as his (alleged) vacuity. Those of us old enought to remember will be reminded of Steve Bell's caricature of Ronald Reagan, which combined facial and moral attributes with similarly lethal skill.

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  7. What did you mean when you said this "will be opaque to everyone in fifty years’ time"? I'm American so I don't really understand any of this (or anything) very well.

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  8. @Anonymous:

    Northern English uses [a] for TRAP. This apparently sounds like STRUT to some RP speakers, hence Hague's "cut sut on the mut" in the cartoon. The traditional RP [æ] (or even [ɛ]) can sound a bit old-fashioned/posh (at least coming from someone who actually is posh, like Cameron - it wouldn't sound posh from someone with an Essex accent) so the suggestion is that he might be trying to adjust his vowels to avoid this.

    As to why it'll be "opaque to everyone in fifty years’ time", probably because either the [æ] and higher variants will have disappeared or their social associations will have changed. (I'm sure that to many people in the UK, including me, Hague's TRAP sounds like a perfectly normal TRAP.)

    Also, surely Hague should also be saying "cluss"?

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  9. I know it's out of topic, but: how is (or was) "Mekon" pronounced?

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  10. Well, I'm British and that cartoon made no sense to me at all before John Wells' explanation. I think this is the only time that I've ever seen anyone represent an /a/ sound with the letter u.

    A much better example of a Tory with a non-RP accent is Baroness Sayeeda Warsi of Dewsbury, who makes a lot of appearances on "Question Time". She has an Asian Yorkshire accent, and is much further from RP than William Hague.

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  11. "Opaque in fifty years' time" = "in 50 years' time no one will be able to understand the references in the cartoon", because people will be unable to identify Hague and Cameron from the cartoon and will not know about the issue of Cameron's class accent. Perhaps I should have said a hundred years. It'll be like our puzzlement looking at political cartoons from 1910.
    For [a] represented as 'u' see Accents of English vol 2 p. 291 ('Princess Unne, Ufrica, bunk bulence' in a newspaper article from 1978).

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  12. I wonder if there is a Mekon in the Yukon.

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  13. Oh yes, that makes sense to me now. Thank you.

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  14. Does anyone else remember the more phonetic ˈmekɒn for Mekon? I heard both, but thought ˈmekɒn might be right because he was some sort of *mech*anical or partly mechanical *con*struct. The Wiki image looks as robotic and metallic as I remember him. Both ˈmekɒn and ˈmiːkɒn sometimes had the second syllable reduced. I see on the Web that the rival pronunciations are still a subject of debate among his surviving fan base.

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  15. The 'official' pronunciation of Mekon might be available in the archives of Radio Luxembourg.

    There was a regular Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future show -- sponsored, if I remember rightly, by Ovaltine.

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