Wednesday, 8 December 2010

the myth of maɨθ

Commenting on yesterday’s blog, the prolific Anonymous complained
You know, if you listen to the Queen (plenty of clips on YouTube), she does not pronounce "about" as abite. Where did this idea ever come from? I've even watched the old videos and she didn't do it then either.

Strange, isn’t it? Yet an awful lot of people seem convinced that both she and her son Charles do just that. Here’s Steve Bell again, in today’s Guardian.
A kynecil hice in the grinds (a council house in the grounds)? Really?

YouTube can be our witness that Charles’s MOUTH vowel is usually pretty unremarkable. Here he is
  • when young, in 1969. Notice how he says thousand at 1:24 and down, round, out at 1:32-1:39; and
  • just a few years ago, in 2006. Listen for out at 0:43 and 0:50, then a thousand pounds at 1:17.
In Accents of English (p. 292) I saidIn a quick search I haven’t been able to come up with a clip in which the Queen or Charles utter a genuine .

Perhaps they have been laughed out of it. A more likely scenario might be that they tend to pronounce just very occasionally, say one time in thirty or forty — and the popular stereotype has seized on this rare variant as being typical and pervasive.

26 comments:

  1. "maɨθ" is a well-known stereotype of the upper and upper-middle classes - remember the "Skites and Brinies" correspondent earlier this year - and my first guess is that people are simply ascribing it to the Royal Family by default. If you ask someone to impersonate an upper-class person, of course they will try to squeeze in as many stereotypes as they can think of.

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  2. Leo: Come on, not upper-middle. Upper, yes.

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  3. Well, Alice Roberts has the occasional maɨθ, and I didn't think she was upper class.

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  4. What about the other upper-class stereotype, the ɛɨ or ɛʏ pronunciation of the GOAT vowel? It's mentioned, for example, by Stephen Fry in his book The Liar when he says that "toast" is pronounced by pubilc schoolboys as "taste" - an approximation of [tɛɨst]~[tɛʏst].

    Is that a myth too?

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  5. I am the Anonymous who wrote this.

    If you confine the "upper class" to the owners of huge country homes, it's a bit difficult to monitor how they speak since most people never get to hear them speak. I have never heard anyone use /ai/ in MOUTH, but that might be because I've never met a member of the upper classes.

    I believe that Tony Benn originates from the upper classes, and he does not use /ai/ in MOUTH. Is there any other well-known figure who is upper-class (royalty excluded)?

    If you have a broader definition so that it includes rich people in general, you might observe how children speak at Eton or a similar school. Judged by David Cameron and Boris Johnson (old Etonians), this is much like RP.

    I have noticed that young girls from all-female private schools are often Americanised in their speech. They say "Oh my God!" all the time, which I find very annoying.

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  6. I think the myth there is that it's U-RP. My impression is that it was simply fashionable for some time, say, between 1950 and 1980, but in all of RP. To me, a stereotypical U-RP GOAT vowel is rather unremarkable, quite similar to the GenAm [oʊ], or maybe [ɵʊ̈] at most, though this can border on a genteel, "refained" pronunciation.

    John W.?

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  7. @Pete: GOAT-fronting is very common in Saith Dublin, where MOUTH is also rising. I find non-natives often confuse my GOAT vowel for FACE and doubly so for MOUTH.

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  8. I think there is *something* there. There is a particular style of UC vowel that does seem to be higher than the current MC version. Listening to very early recordings of the Queen there is a marked difference. Some have speculated that Kate Middleton has received elocution lessons to move her vowels higher, I can't find a pre-engagement recording of her speaking to compare: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NK3ODM5S0Lg
    (btw, I don't recommend watching the whole video, it's a bit squirmy)

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  9. (sorry, I meant fronter, rather than higher. Not that fronter is a word. I think it's sort of high-mid-ish. Wish I could look at it on a spectrogram.)

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  10. @Anonymous: I suspect that some of those politicians (Cameron, for example) deliberately affect a middle-class RP accent - possibly even going as far as having elocution lessons? Just a hunch!

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  11. ə kaɨnəsɪl haɨs in ðə graɨndz indeed! I haven't stopped laughing since I read this.

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  12. Well. But where do you get the schwa in kaɨnəsɪl?

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  13. Isn't [aɨ] (or something like that) for MOUTH broad Ulster accent?

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  14. Using OU for the GOAT vowel is common to a lot of regional accents and is not considered posh. It is EU that is considered posh for GOAT and the Queen does use this.

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  15. army1987: Ulster English has [æɵ] (X-Sampa [{8]) for the MOUTH vowel, as does Scottish English.

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  16. Anonymous no. 57835,

    that's what I meant. She and the Duke of Wales fit the timeframe, while her father had a starting vowel more to the back. Both aren't rare for the RP of their time. If there's an element of class habits, I think it's more how open the first part of the sound is than how far back.

    (PS: Only now saw the accompanying photo - great choice!)

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  17. @ army1987: I've even heard [ai] in Ulster. It seems to be much more common there than in RP.

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  18. @Lipman -
    please, the PRINCE of Wales - not dook! :)

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  19. Yes. I suspect this is because I listened to this great calypso song yesterday. (By the way, the text should have been "It's Nazi sympathies and Nazi sympathies alone", but that turned out to scan badly.)

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  20. Well. But where do you get the schwa in kaɨnəsɪl?

    From the 'e' in kynecil, and because with a schwa it sounds even more ridiculous. Of course the 'e' in 'kyne' could be silent, but everything to do with cadhain is a wild goose chase...

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  21. kynecil without the e would have been read by most as ˈkɪnsɪl. The e was necessary to make the vowel long (when I was at infants' school, it was called the 'magic e').

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  22. You learnt about kyne at infants' school? It must have been a prestigious institution indeed, either that or it was a long time ago.

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  25. The 'abite' pronunciation seems a bit exaggerated, but I agree that something more akin to [əɥ] is a lot closer to the actual pronunciation. (This same pronunciation is also evident in the pronunciation of perceived upper-class-ish young people in the media: cf. Emma Watson in the Harry Potter films.)

    This same sound shift already happened at least once in the Germanic language family, which is why we have such pairs as ghost/Geist most/meist- with modern German.

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  26. Ad Andrew

    The same shift in the Germanic family.

    It was the other way round,they (language historians) tell us: from 'I' to 'owe', the Old English intermediate form was 'ah': 'gyste', 'gahst' 'gowst' (ghost), whereas in German it was just 'gyste' 'gayste' 'gyste' (Geist). The stift from 'out' to 'ite' seems unparallelled in any other language, afaik --- like much else in English... .

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