Tuesday 18 August 2009

Stephen Fry’s shame

The trailers weren’t exactly inspiring, but I thought I had better listen to Fry’s English Delight on BBC R4 this morning (“Stephen Fry explores the highways and byways of the English language: Speaking Proper”).
It was pretty dire. Harry Campbell put finger to keyboard before I did. He called it
a farrago of urban myths, old wives' tales and
"experts", mostly self-appointed, who proceed to discredit themselves as soon as they open their mouths. Never more so, you may imagine, than when the subject is phonetics. Scarcely a true word spoken at any point, with the usual confusion of the concepts of accent, dialect, voice tone, diction.

There was Joan Bakewell explaining how upper-class speakers don’t move their mouths and that in order to lose her northern accent she had to learn to do the same. And Deborah Hecht, the American dialect coach, explaining that to sound RP Americans have to learn to use more lip action and more muscularity. No one commented on the fact that they cannot both be right.
There was an elocution teacher from Rochdale who told us, in an unreconstructed Lancashire accent, about the importance of pronouncing all the letters correctly and enunciating the beginnings and ends of words. In her case this meant making all final voiceless plosives ejective.
My colleague Sophie Scott from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, who spoke good sense about the so-called foreign accent syndrome, must feel ashamed to have been associated with such a ragbag of a programme.
If you feel strong enough to listen to it yourself, it’s here for the next seven days.


  1. Yes, that was disappointing this morning. The elocution teacher was embarrassing, tried to sound posh by overaspirating her ts and opening her ɪs.

    Still curious about the third part.

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  3. I thought the point around 25 minutes about the accent-voice distinction and Janet Street-Porter was interesting. Many people say that judgments on how people speak are all based upon prejudice, but I've thought that this can't be the reason why Street-Porter's speaking is so unpopular, seeing as most people don't know where she's from or what her background is. As is said in the programme, it's her voice rather than her accent that causes opposition. However, that doesn't make it any less unfair on her.

  4. But what does "voice" mean? Register? Intonation? "Basis of articulation"? Features such as squeezed throat or nasalness? There are surely individual differences, but primarily they're part of the very accent, some of the suprasegmental.

    I think mocking imitators of languages or accents would focus on these things just as well as imitators of a given person.

  5. I agree it was very disappointing, after last week's encouraging episode. When the opening witty monologue included such things as the "controversy controversy" I guessed one of the guests would be a certain Prof J Wells, but I was wrong, of course.

    There was mention of the stereotypical attitudes to some accents of British English but no real challenge to those attitudes, even when someone told a story about a foreign businessman who wanted to sound like Alan Sugar without realising that Sugar doesn't have a prestigious accent. The fact that non-native speakers don't have the same feelings towards accents as native speakers do only goes to show that the attitudes are social stereotypes rather than anything to do with the objective sound of the accent itself, of course.

    And I was gobsmacked to hear another guest claim that a Belfast accent was great for comedy but if what you wanted to do was communicate information then RP was better. Had it never occurred to him that jokes need to be understood for them to work? If Belfast English is good for comedy then it must be good for communicating information. Pity the poor business people who pay for advice from these consultants...

    I number myself among the great throngs of Stephen Fry fans, and I did enjoy last week's episode, so this morning felt like a bit of a let down. So many interesting and educational things could have been said, though I suppose given Fry's background in Eng Lit and drama it shouldn't have been too surprising that a programme on pronunciation majored on voice coaching and elocution.

  6. (Yes, rather like the fellow myself, which added to the disappointment.)

    Of course, jokes have to be intelligible unless this is part of the joke, but the point probably was that an accent, including at least some forms of RP, is often considered funny on its own. I think Belfast was merely a random example.

  7. I don't think we should assume that Stephen Fry was responsible for the content of the programme, or even that he wrote his own script, as opposed to simply parking himself before the mike and reading out what it said on the page. His role is to and add credibility or gravitas or something, and generally fulfil some commissioning idiot's craving for a celebrity "personality". However, he is very much at fault for being associated with this kind of rubbish.

    Respectable authorities like Prof Scott may well be embarrassed to find themselves in such bad company, but they generally do so in good faith. The only explanation I can find of Fry's actions is that he simply doesn't care. It's such a shame when with his undoubted wit and erudition he is in a position to be a champion for intelligent discussion of language (for example see http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=817), instead of which he destroys his own credibility by fronting programmes like this. There must be plenty out there who just assume him to be yet another pompous, censorious old windbag.

    So yes, he should indeed be ashamed of himself for doing stuff like this.

  8. Ah, I don't know. After all, he's not a professional linguist, and outside of expert circles - and too often enough even there - people aren't aware that letters and sounds aren't the same, or will violently deny that the first vowels in about and success are the same.

    And he isn't patronising, or writing a book about it like An**w T***or.

  9. You don't need to be a professional linguist to present a decent radio programme. He's a highly educated and well-read man, as well as a famous and very rich one who doesn't need to do rubbish for (not even very much) money, and he should know better. As I say, just read his lively and informed writing on language, or watch that old Fry and Laurie sketch on Language Log which combines silly humour with some nice points about language, including a subtle reference to langue and parole; and then contrast that with Fry's English Sh*te. The first episode of the previous series was particularly crass: I had no idea how many everyday English idioms came from obscure nautical shaggy-dog stories about brass monkeys and such. And it must be true, they have it on the authority of a naval historian or museum curator or someone. And now there's a book, God help us, perpetuating the same weary old canards for another generation. How about a series with Michael "Port Out Starboard Home" Quinion, called something like "Do You Seriously Believe That For A Single Moment, If You Think About It?"

  10. **Disclaimer: Haven't heard the show yet, BUT...** As for Deb Hecht vs. Joan Bakewell, it seems that they're NOT necessarily contradicting one another. RP isn't the same as "upper class speakers" who
    "don't move their mouths", at least not in MY mind. First off, these people are talking about moving to a sound from 2 very different starting places--American towards RP, vs. whatever Bakewell is toward "upper class" speech, which is probably quite heightened RP, such as the Royals use. We North Americans have to really get our mouths going for the fully rounded sound of the THOUGHT lexical set; this is a very muscular action, compared to the unrounded, open vowel we so often use for our merged back vowel sets. On the other hand, speakers of other British accents, which may be even more muscular, and certainly far more rounded than heightened RP speakers would do, would have to do less. I don't see how you can say that they can't both be right.

  11. I would like to second Eric Armstrong's point. To sound like a RP-speaker, an American would have to add extra lip-rounding to the LOT and THOUGHT vowels. But a northerner would have to subtract lip-rounding from the STRUT vowel.

  12. I did listen to the program, and, though I think there were some factual issues largely due to individuals not having the proper vocabulary to frame their thoughts, I found a number of interesting and insightful ideas presented. One that has stuck with me is the concept that observing the brain's activity indicated that changing the way one speaks is likely assisted by changing one's physicality. Though not ideal, I think dismissing this half-hour completely is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  13. Don't totally blast the consultants; they could well be imparting valuable information to their clients about the perceived prestige of certain accents, for instance RP. It would be wrong to dismiss their advice simply because it is articulated using an inaccurate understanding of phonetics. The attitudes that people bring to the languages they hear are defined by non-linguistic emotions (aesthetics, stereotypes, etc.), but the layman is likely to attribute these feelings to linguistic causes, simply because the speaker's style of language is the trigger.

    I always found it interesting, as an American English speaker and native of the USA, that RP is also considered the most upper-class and highly valued of English accents here in the US; however, I discovered, when I traveled to Eastern Europe and the Rep. of Georgia, where students of English as a foreign language are taught dictionary pronunciation in proper RP, that they preferred my American accent when they heard it :) I had to tell them, "No! Even us Americans realize we don't have as nice-sounding an accent as the English!"

  14. Nice Information.

  15. I think it was Max Mueller, back in the 1860s, who pointed out from his own experience in lecturing in English, that however fluent one is in a foreign language, it is much more tiring, over a period of time, to speak it than one's own. I think the same thing goes for accents. Americans naturally find the BrE LOT and THOUGHT vowels harder work. That doesn't mean that they are more difficult or 'require more muscularity' in any absolute way. When I try to imitate an American accent (to general amusement), the sounds seem a lot more work to me (the American LOT vowel seems to need some extra effort with the lips and the back of the tongue), and that is simply because my mother tongue is (sub-RP) British English.


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