We’re all speaking Thames Estuary, even way north of the Thames — and it’s really boring

·3-min read
 (Daniel Hambury)
(Daniel Hambury)

When Professor Henry Higgins, phonetics professor, was loitering about in Covent Garden at the beginning of My Fair Lady, he was able to identify any costermonger by his part of London as soon as he opened his mouth. Nowadays, he’d be increasingly hard pushed to identify the part of England a teenager comes from.

According to a study by Cambridge University, children across the North of England are increasingly using pronunciation from the South because it’s easier to pick up. Same in the South-west, where the rolling r — arrrh — is giving way to the London “ah” as in “fahmers”. So, it’s not just local dialects that are dying a death — that’s been evident for decades — but the way people talk.

You know what’s replacing it, don’t you? It’s Thames Estuary, the glottal stop diction taking over the entire country: all regions, all classes. And it’s obviously emanating from London, by virtue of London dominating broadcast and social media. It’s classless — think Prince Harry, whose accent has been described as mid-Atlantic, mid-London and mid-Estuary English. If this is how an Etonian, nicely brought up in Kensington and Windsor, talks, it tells you about the social pressures that are making for diction-conformity. There is, in a social media age, unprecedented scrutiny of how we talk; if you stand out by dint of a rural Sussex burr (that’s dying too) or like the Queen, you get a hard time. Easier to pretend to be cool, regionless, uniform. And boring.

You get the same problem in Ireland, I may say, where young people, especially rich Dubliners, now talk like Americans. There’s a comic fictional Dublin character called Ross O’Caroll-Kelly who sums up the trend; he was nearly run out of town in the West of Ireland because everyone thought he was American, and should be barred on account of Covid. Paul Howard, his creator, gives it 40 years before all Ireland is talking American.

The rot starts at the top. If you listen to the Queen, even her vowels are less clipped now than in old recordings. BBC English used to be a pleasure — clipped, yes (think the older Attenborough) but precise and authoritative; now, I fear, we’ve got nice Amol Rajan on the Today programme going all demotic, calling people “mate”. In other words, what we need is genuine linguistic diversity. We should cherish northern accents, not mock them, as Londoners tend to do. We should prize a genuine Cockney accent like Professor Higgins did. Thames Estuary is the Japanese knotweed of speech; let’s cut it out.

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Has your accent changed over the years? Let us know in the comments below.

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