It’s OK to be “posh”, but not too “posh”? More language myths

This is a post in the Language in the news series. See more.

Just as a quick follow up to last week’s post about the New Zealand accent being called ‘a disease’ (see Lyndsay Perigo’s original article here, and my commentary here). The themes in Perigo’s piece were that the media were somehow degrading English in New Zealand, making it more ‘sloppy’, when in fact there is a ‘correct’ form of English that everybody should use. I wrote that in all discussions like this, certain points occur again and again, which are connected to language myths like it’s all the children’s fault!, or it was much better in my day!

I just read an article in the UK’s Daily Mail, with the headline:

My voice was too posh for TV: Ben Fogle turned down elocution classes to make him sound less well-spoken when presenting.

According to Wikipedia, Ben Fogle is an ‘English television presenter, adventurer and writer’. You can hear what he sounds like here (when he’s actually visiting New Zealand).

The article reports that Fogle was advised to get elocution lessons to make his accent ‘less posh’, because someone thought that it would help him get work in the media.

The reader comments below the article show that exactly the same language myths are at work in the UK, as in New Zealand.

One reader writes:

“Ben Fogle’s accent is not “posh”. It is just correct English, as used to be taught in most schools, prior to the introduction of the Comprehensive system.”

That is: this is the way to speak “properly”, and people who are “less educated” do not do so. (The term ‘comprehensive school’ is sometimes used in a derogatory manner, to contrast with e.g. ‘Grammar School’ or ‘Private School’, which are believed by many to offer a better standard of Education than comprehensives).

Another writes:

“Absolutely loved his voice…. but sadly what Television wants today is a load of youngsters gabbling on about themselves in their text type dribble that they call English! The more common and unintelligible they sound the more they are used….Its all to do with ‘dumbing down’ the English so that other will move in and take over!”

That is: English is being dumbed down by the media. And it’s all the fault of the young! These are exactly the same thoughts that came through in the article about NZ. (Oh, and it’s all the fault of text messaging, too, of course!)

And another writes:

“I’ve always liked Ben Fogle and his diction is so clear and easily understood. There are too many presenters on TV these days who slur their way through their lines, miss out words or syllables, mispronounce words and make grammatical mistakes. I end up shouting at the TV more and more as presenters say ‘bought’ when they mean ‘brought’ or vice versa, turn every ‘s’ into a ‘sh’ sound (shpecial, shtudio, shtudent), say ‘sickth’ or ‘sick’ for SIXTH, and fail to add the apostrophe s sound where required. I’ve just listened to the news on TV and the roving reporter told me that “Queen Beatrix surprise announcement …” No wonder children in Secondary schools are so inept at applying the possessive ‘s’ when they are not having the language spoken properly at home or in the media.”

That is: upper class pronunciation is associated with ‘clarity’, and the opposite is that people (especially on TV) ‘slur’ their words (remember that Lindsay Perigo said that NZ news presenters don’t speak, they ‘quack’?) There’s also the belief that younger people can’t use language as well as older people (the golden age, folks). This commentator does seem to have a decent ear for what’s going on phonetically in many accents of (British) English, but we should be careful not to automatically assume it has anything at all to do with declining standards or sloppiness.

So, these beliefs may be about a variety of English on the other side of the world, but they are very similar to those in the article about the New Zealand accent.

As soon as you start to spot language myths and prejudices to do with the way people use language, you’ll see this sort of discussion everywhere! We cover this sort of material in LING102, where I show students how to spot language myths in different types of text. We consider both how myths get there in the first place, and how they spread across communities in such a way that they come to be shared across the world.

Kevin Watson (kevin.watson@canterbury.ac.nz)

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Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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