The Queen’s Christmas Message

Damien Hall on the Variationist List today noted that the Queen’s Christmas Message will soon be upon us, and pointed to research on changes in the Queen’s variety of English over the years, using these broadcast messages as data.

The way the press reported this research is a story in its own right.

From Damien Hall:

this is the first of the Queen’s Christmas Messages to be broadcast on national TV, in 1957.

Listen to those vowels, then (for a less-complex summary) read this [a 2000 treatment of the matter in the Guardian, wryly covered by John Wells in his phonetics blogs] and / or, for the linguistic detail, see Harrington, Jonathan et al. 2000. Monophthongal vowel changes in Received Pronunciation: an acoustic analysis of the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 30: 63-78.

On the Royal Christmas Message, from Wikipedia:

The Queen’s Christmas Message (or King’s Christmas Message in the reign of a male monarch) is a broadcast made by the sovereign of the Commonwealth realms to the Commonwealth of Nations each Christmas. The tradition began in 1932 with a radio broadcast by George V on the British Broadcasting Corporation Empire Service. Today, the message is read by Elizabeth II and broadcast on television, radio, and the Internet via various providers.

Now the Guardian coverage (12/21/00):

Once she sounded like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Now, according to Australian researchers [Harrington et al., above], the Queen sounds just a little more like Jonathan Ross in Film Night.

After tuning in to three decades of Christmas messages they found that, over the years, the royal vowels had shifted daintily down the social scale.

… “We are all familiar with the change that has taken place in the vowels of words like ‘that man’ where, in the 1930s, we still had something like ‘thet men,’ ” said Jonathan Wells, professor of linguistics at University College London. “She is only following along trends that exist in any case. She still remains well behind them, shall we say, and of course she still sounds upper-class, the way she always did.”

So changes, with a direction, though as John Wells pointed out, not by any means a collapsing of social differences in pronunciation. (John observed on his blog that his name is not Jonathon, and that he’s Professor of Phonetics, not Linguistics; they did get UCL right, though.)

The leader for the Guardian piece, however, was even less nuanced than the story:

In any other country, such musings [as those of Harrington et al.] would interest philologists only. But since this is Britain, they amount to a significant discovery. For it means the boundaries between the classes are now so blurred that even the very summit of the class pyramid is becoming fuzzily indistinguishable from the rest of us.

Well, it made a much better story than the truth.

3 Responses to “The Queen’s Christmas Message”

  1. Chris Ambidge Says:

    I’m not sure that the Queen’s vowels ARE “shifting daintily down the social scale”; I suspect that everyone’s vowels are shifting slowly. Her Majesty provides a well documented example of one person over more than half a century (researchers don’t need to stop at 57, I believe she made radio broadcasts every year since 52 before TV)

  2. Claire Duffy Says:

    I love this ‘controversy’. Where would we be without the Royals to dissect and to criticise. If there were an archive of anyone else saying nearly the same thing for ten minutes a year for fifty years would their speech have been studied? More here:

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Why the snarkiness?

      If we had similar data from *any* other source, the keepers of the linguistic databanks would be snapping it up, storing it, and analyzing it.

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