September 2015

Tidbits on the English Language - No. 2: Growing Beyond the United Kingdom Borders

In the previous issue, we discussed differences in speech in the United Kingdom informed by geography and social class during the 19th century. This time, we will examine the developments that ensued in the English language.

A Widely Accepted Accent

The development of the industrial cities Lancashire and Black Country altered the status quo regarding regional and class-related dialect idiosyncrasies. With the shift of manpower from rural areas to urban districts came an improved literacy rate, which allowed for further standardization of written English (spelling, etc.).

The industrial revolution brought social infrastructures - like roads, canals and trains -, which triggered geographical migration and more interactions between social classes. Education erased the linguistic differences among children from all regions and classes, as they adopted the revered Received Pronunciation (RP) and triggered its spread throughout the country. This particular type of English also started being used by the British Army and the imperial Civil Service, and became recognized as the "voice of authority" not only on a national level but in the British colonies worldwide.

In 1922, the BBC took to the airwaves. Since then, voices were recorded and broadcasted through radio. For the first time since the dawn of history, the public could listen to voices of speakers repeatedly when they weren't present physically. From the outset, the policy at the BBC was to use RP on the radio-waves, and employ a vocabulary that could be understood and easily accepted by all. For example, they gathered specialists such as scholars, authors, historians and journalists to deliberate whether the "traffic lights" was a more appropriate term than "stop-and-goes" (incidentally, they decided to adopt "stop-and-goes" at the time). From the very beginning, they decided to consider this from an international point of view, aiming at common English within the UK as well as in all the colonies around the world, i.e. what would later be known as the Commonwealth of Nations. The golden age of radio in Britain and America lasted from the end of the Great War in 1918 until the conclusion of World War II in 1945. The RP favored by the BBC had an influence in parts of the United States, especially in Wall Street where some would hire secretaries who could speak with a proper RP accent in order to add a touch of class.

Language changes with time, however, and this applied to RP too. The RP of the first part of the 1900s drastically changed in the latter half of the 20th century, around the 1970s-1980s. Initially, it was the language of the upper echelons of society (city nobility, army officers, imperial civil servants, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, etc.), then it was replaced by the middle class accent. This can be explained by the newfound interest the middle-class lifestyle and culture enjoyed post-war, as society was growing abundant and stable. The tendency reversed in public schools too, where speaking in an upper-class English made one the target of mockeries, which led them to acquire the middle-class accent instead. (This, however, does not mean that class consciousness had disappeared altogether.)

Anyhow, through wars, colonization and radio broadcastings, British English spread around the world and became the lingua franca from the later 19th century until the first half of the 20th. But after WWII in 1945, the British Empire had lost its former power. What usually happens in a circumstance like this is that the influence of the language starts to wither with the decline of the home country, like the Roman Empire's Latin and France's French (these two languages used to hold the position of lingua franca in Europe). English didn't suffer the same fate though, as the United States became a superpower.