Thursday November 29, 2007

How the Edwardians Spoke

I recently saw an interesting BBC documentary about British accents of the early 20th century.  It's up on Google Video, so here it is:


The documentary concerns audio recordings made of British prisoners by the Germans during the First World War.  The archive is at Humboldt University in Berlin (a beautiful campus where I had the good fortune of attending a meeting last summer).  It consists of about 1600 recordings, of which about 200 are of British prisoners.  The project was the brainchild of Alois Brandl and Wilhelm Doegen.  Its purpose was apparently to provide training materials for Germans, who at that time were optimistic about winning the war, to speak the languages of what would be their new colonies.  (It's not clear to me whether this meant they were expecting merely to relieve the British Empire of its overseas colonies, or if they expected Britain itself to be a German colony.)

The archive itself is made up of a large number of shellac phonograph discs.  The documentary describes the procedure for playing these discs.  Apparently phonograph speeds weren't then entirely consistent, so the inner groove of each record contains a recording of an A note.  In order to play back the disc at the correct speed, the operator first syncs that A note with the note produced by a tuning fork, then moves the needle back to the beginning of the record.

The archive is interesting enough by itself, but the documentary also contains a lot of opinions of just what causes British dialects to sound how they do.  The host and narrator (and presumably the author of these opinions) is Joan Washington, a voice and dialect coach for actors.  (She has apparently worked for many years with John Madden.  No wait, I think I mean John Madden.  Yes, that makes much more sense.)

Washington has what I can only describe as a thoroughly odd bunch of notions about dialects, their origins, and their articulation.  Below, I've collected some of her more entertaining comments from the documentary—taken out of order and out of context for humorological purposes:

  • "The British Isles has a rich tapestry of different accents.  Over the years I've come to feel connections between the way we speak and and the scenery that surrounds us.  It seems to me that landscape dictates or has something to do with the tune of an accent.  It certainly feels true that the flatter a landscape the flatter the accent."
  • "One of the most interesting factors in accents to me is whether the tune is in major or minor key."  She characterizes the Birmingham accent as being in a minor key because it "never ever end[s] on a definite note", whereas she claims when she speaks in a North Yorkshire accent she "end[s] very, very much on definite notes, and I'm bound to sound more sure of myself."  I'm not musically qualified to determine what key a dialect is in, but this sounds more than a little suspicious to me.
  • "I've never been here before, but if I'd made a guess on listening to the recording, I would have guessed that it was a place with a lot of openness of space, because you can feel space around it, you can hear it in the quality of the tone, that the tone quality is very open.  It's not nasal at all."  Why nasality, where the velum is open, should be considered less open than orality, where the velum is closed, is a mystery to me.
  • "When I arrived here, I had this memory of Philip's voice in my head, and this idea that it so seemed to fit the countryside, where you see— I mean, everything's very beautiful and neat here, isn't it.  But I suspect that accents have got a bit more, I don't like the term 'lazy', but a bit more slap-happy."  Oh, that's better.  No one's likely to be offended by that.
  • Given her willingness to refer to modern dialects as "slap-happy", I think it's funny that she accuses Brandl of being "judgmental" for saying, "Local dialect in the strict sense of the word is restricted to those of low intelligence, and is consequently deficient in intellectual content."  Pot, meet kettle.
  • "Charlie's gentle, rural burr reflects the undulating, rolling nature of this landscape."  This one's especially odd because it refers to a recording in which Charlie is singing, which you'd think would make it hard to detect the "tune" of his accent.
  • "What do you think the placement of a Geordie accent is, where it's formed in the mouth, what the mouth shape's like?"
  • "Every accent's got a point of tension, and it's very clear in the Aberdeen accent.  I was brought up in Aberdeen and left when I was 18, and I've still got that point of tension.  [points just below her nose]  It's here.  It's the upper lip.  It's very, very immobile. It's something to do with it being the Calvinist coast, about just covering up your orifice, don't look inside my orifice, it's definitely something to do with that.  But it's also the fact that it's bitterly cold here, so everybody's sort of wandering around like that, sort of shielding their mouths against the cold."
  • "The essence of the tone quality in Aberdeen is that it lacks nasality.  This is common to ports.  People do suffer from sinus problems, they sound as if they have a bunged-up nose."  She ascribes this same quality to the accents of Liverpool and New York.  Her imitation of a New York accent sounds really nasal to me, though.
  • "I love the way that she belches out the vowel sounds, and the vowel sounds being the sounds that carry the emotions."

All this discussion of the connection between landscape and dialect is hooey, of course.  (I love hooey.)  Washington's notions about how people articulate their dialects don't sound very well-founded, either.  What does it mean for a dialect to have a "point of tension"?  Has someone done measurements of Aberdonian upper lips and compared their movement during speech to those of people from elsewhere?  Is "tension" like "stiffness", and if so, what do the English think about Aberdeen's appropriation of their stereotypical national character?

Her ideas about different dialects being articulated in different parts of the mouth are pretty iffy, too, but I'm not quite ready to dismiss the idea out of hand.  Of course, any dialect that includes bilabials, alveolars, velars, and vowel sounds is going to involve the lips, hard palate, velum, tongue, and vocal folds, which covers most of the mouth already.  Still, no language makes use of the full range of vocal articulations; English has no uvular consonants, for example, and some dialects of Japanese have no lip-rounding (only lip-spreading)1.  So it might be possible, I suppose, to characterize dialects by doing a detailed study of the speech organs of its speakers.  Somehow I doubt Washington is basing her opinions on such a study, though.

(For another linguisticky take on How the Edwardians Spoke, see this post at Diacritiques.)

1 BTW, am I misunderstanding it, or does the Wikipedia article on roundedness have the facts exactly backwards, i.e. reversing exolabial and endolabial for front and back vowels?

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I am extremely interested in this documentary as I am doing research on these voice recodings. Unfortunately the documentary no longer exists on or - do you know where I could find it online?


Posted by: dd at Jun 22, 2012 5:21:57 AM