The Queen, Gawd bless ‘er, celebrates her 80th birthday:
She’s in good nick, isn’t she? Of course she can afford the best doctors and the best moisturisers. Forget free radicals – her radicals cost a Royal Mint. But for somebody who, as a late relative once told me, never goes to the toilet – or if she does, she closes her eyes for the Royal We and Royal Flush – she looks radiant and happy. Many Happy Returns, Your Majesty, and long may you continue to reign over us, if only so that the jug-eared plant-fancier doesn’t get a chance to rain over us.
It is good to see that the Queen has got over that bad case of annus horribilis she had a few years ago.
(As a little aside, one of Edinburgh's many private schools, which had better remain nameless, sent out letters advising parents about yet another rise in fees. Unfortunately, they made a spelling mistake and said that the fees would be payable "per anum" instead of "per annum". One parent wrote back and said he was prepared to pay the new amount, but would rather continue paying through the nose...)
The annus horribilis may have passed, but the state of Her Majesty’s vowels is another matter altogether. “Another metter,” she might have said at one time. But no longer:
Once she sounded like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. Now, according to Australian researchers, 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.
"Our analysis reveals that the Queen's pronunciation of some vowels has been influenced by the standard southern British [SSB] accent of the 1980s, which is more typically associated with speakers younger and lower in the social hierarchy," said Jonathan Harrington and three colleagues at Macquarie University in Sydney. "We conclude that the Queen no longer speaks the Queen's English of the 1950s, although the vowels of the 1980s Christmas message are still clearly set apart from those of an SSB accent."
The researchers report in Nature today that they see the gentle shift from cut-glass to cockney as part of the blurring of class distinctions in Britain. Modern received pronunciation, for instance, resists the dropped "h" of those born within the sound of Bow bells, but there is a cockney-influenced tendency to pronounce the "l" in milk as if it were a vowel. Some of these changes have been led by younger people who reject establishment pronunciation, the researchers say. Could the older generation have resisted the influence of the young?
So Dr Harrington and his colleagues went straight to the older generation at the pinnacle of the British establishment. "The Queen's Christmas broadcasts were ideal for addressing this issue. Firstly they have been annual for a long period of time; secondly the Queen's accent is obviously not going to be influenced by geographical changes; thirdly any changes we observe are not going to be influenced by changes to style and content of the messages, because these have been quite consistent throughout."
With the blessing of Buckingham Palace and help from the BBC archives, the team compared the royal vowels of the 1950s and 1980s with the vowels of other female broadcasters. They found that in each case the Queen's accent had drifted towards the vowels of the younger generation.
"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."
At least the Queen still says “orf”. I have never met anybody who says “orf”. They are a bit thin on the ground where I live. In fact, I’m probably one of about three people in my street who have ever said “whom”. But it is good to know that, where it counts, people are still saying “orf”.
It is said that Prince Harry once attended his brother William’s fancy dress party, not as a Nazi, but as a character from the children’s television series, “Vision On”. “What have you come as?” asked Prince William. “I’m Morph,” said Prince Harry. Prince William looked disappointed. “Must you go so soon?”