‘Hi nigh brine kai?’ is often the first sentence you will learn in Received Pronunciation (RP) – how to enquire about the health of a brown cow at a precise moment in time.
Of course, the Queen’s English is used not only to establish the welfare of tan cattle, but to impose the way people expect us to speak. And by ‘people’, we mean society. One needs a clipped accent to be respected or to have one’s authority accepted, in order to advance in life.
What might not be appreciated so much is that that word ‘received’ is loaded. The suggestion is that one’s pronunciation should be something that should be communicated or despatched (from the ruling classes) and accepted (by the hoi polloi) i.e. received. The pronunciation must be registered (in our minds), much as one might in analogy sign for a courier-delivered parcel to verify its receipt. By wiggling one’s finger across the screen of that big mobile phone thing couriers hand you.
‘Is that OK?’ you ask the courier. ‘Is that alright as my signature?’
‘So, I could have just twitched; squiggled anything? And you would have accepted that as my signature?’
‘Or I could have forged the signature of the person who this package is for? Like forging banknotes, but instead of making fake money you can spend fraudulently, getting something random you might not want from Amazon? Like unexpected socks?’
‘Alright, mate?’ says the courier by way of taking his leave, finding an excuse to terminate the further probing of the verification process. He is on a mission to deliver as many parcels as he can, aspiring to prove to Jeff Bezos that he can meet the minimum wage on a zero-hour contract if he works fast enough and doesn’t waste time on signature talk.
It wasn’t though, as commonly thought, the British who invented Received Pronunciation. That honour belongs to...
...the Spanish. Ferdinand, the 14th Century King of Castille, reputedly considered it more convenient for his subjects to adopt his lisp rather than have his speech impediment corrected. Another first here – the phrase, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ later replaced Ferdinand’s proclamation: ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’ And it was he who coined the phrase, later to be amended: ‘You can change the world, but you can’t change yourself.’
In Ferdinand’s reign, an envoy would have been despatched to announce to the populace, ‘We’re all going to lisp now, everyone, thtarting from now; that meanth you and the retht of Thpain. Got it?’
‘I can’t do that. I’ll sound like a girl,’ says one touchy male subject of the Spanish kingdom.
‘Well that might sound politically correct now,’ says the envoy, ‘but sometime in the future, believe me, #it will not.’
‘Not doing it.’
‘Look just because you lisp doesn’t automatically mean you’re effeminate. Really, is that what you’re afraid of?’
And the envoy was right because the infamous heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson has a lisp and he was the kind of person who could beat you to a pulp and eat at least one of your ears.
‘And anyway you already started lisping without knowing it,’ adds the envoy.
‘You, everyone, you’ve all been calling our monarch, King Ferdinand. His real name’s ‘Serdinand’.
‘Yeah, think about it. He’s got a lisp. He’s been trying to tell people for years.’
In the modern era, it was the king who shouldered the responsibility for correcting his speech impediment. It was deemed that instead of reaching out to correct the entire population, it was more cost-effective to tackle one person’s denial.
George VI of England didn’t speak with a lisp (otherwise we’d have seen his plight depicted in a film titled, ‘The King’s Thpeech’ ), but a stutter. Had he adopted the King Ferdy approach, the British people would have stuttered, spelling dire consequences for the learning of English in foreign countries. In schools, a half-hour lesson would have been taken up with the children greeting their teacher: ‘Ge-ger-ger-ger-ger-good mer-mer-mer-mer-morning Mer-mer-mer-miss’; followed by ‘Ger-good mer-morning, cher-children. Per-pack up yer-your ber-books and things ner-now, the-there’s the ber-bell fer-for end of ker-class.’
The King F lisp story is contended. Really, did a whole populace change their pronunciation for the sake of their ruler? Are we to believe that a king with a different kind of speech defect could have the same impact? Say, a king with Tourette’s? Surely not. But then there are the highly contentious historians who will say that there were kings of Scotland…
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