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Red Leather, Yellow Leather …

No doubt you will have seen, at some time or other, the film My Fair Lady.  In the current Winter Collector’s edition of The Lady there is an article which highlights speech in which the writer of the article, Liz Hodgkinson, says, “One may remember George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, where professor of phonetics Henry Higgins argues that the only difference between flower seller Eliza Doolittle and a great lady was the voice. And in many ways he was right. Eliza successfully enters high society without changing anything but her accent.”

So, I ask the rhetorical question, does it matter how we speak?  Well, I think it does (and you have every right to disagree, of course; this is my own personal viewpoint.)

When I was a child my parents and I moved from the then industrial heartland of England, the North, to Devon.  From Lancashire to be more precise. If you live in the UK you will have an idea what the Lancashire accent is like, but if you live overseas, and haven’t seen Coronation Street (set in Lancashire), it’s a very different accent from that in Devon, which has it’s own particular accent.

So thick was my Lancashire accent that my parents opted for me to have elocution lessons at school (this was an extra to the curriculum in those days.)  Indeed, some time ago when I was in my hairdresser’s the young shampoo girl and I got on to the subject of speech (perhaps because I was complaining about the mumbled words of so many TV and film stars these days) and I mentioned to her that when I was young I’d had elocution lessons.  She asked me what elocution lessons were?  I can tell you now that I felt very old trying to explain they were to teach people to speak correctly:  what was once called “received pronunciation” or “the Queen’s English”.  I still think she was mystified!  Since the days of the Beetles, regional accents have been not only acceptable, but elocution has been considered arcane, and certainly not to be taught in our egalitarian society.  Glottal stops were fine, so if you said “‘oo’er'” instead of “hooter” and “ma’er” instead of “matter”, you were not corrected by parents or teachers.  Also dropping the g and t off the ends of words, so that “thinking” became “thinkin'” well, that di’n’t ma’er a’ all!

But to return to my story.  To rid me of my dropped aitches (and people who refer to the letter H as ‘haitch’  annoy me, but it would be very bad manners and totally insensitive to correct them; the word for the letter H is aitch, not haitch) and the double g in the middle of a word such as “singing”, pronouncing it as “sing-ging”, I had elocution lessons. Hence the title of this post, “Red Leather, Yellow Leather …” as that is a tongue-twister that we would sometimes recite, and at speed, resulting in laughter as you might well imagine.  All I can remember of the lessons today is that they were fun; plus, learning poetry and standing up to recite such poems as The Brook, by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

It must’ve been noticeable to my friends that I spoke differently – although my closest friend also had elocution lessons with me.  This was demonstrated to me many years ago, when a friend and I were in what was then the new, rather posh dept store, Hooper’s, and she wanted to sample some scents, she said to me, “You ask, you speak better than me!”  She found the soignee sales’ women rather intimidating, her strong Devonshire accent caused her to lack confidence.  Because a strong regional accent can have that effect, making the speaker sound not as well-educated as those with no such accent, even if they are highly intelligent and well-educated people.

What brings all this to mind is how badly (well, badly to me) many people now speak, especially on TV and radio, today.  I find that the female weather forecasters are some of the worst spoken, and in this instance it’s not so much accent but their high-pitched voices which result in something akin to a nasalized whine.  They speak down their noses, they haven’t been taught how to project their voices, or how to breath correctly, not through their mouths, but through their noses.   They also run words together and gabble. I know they have much to tell us in a short space of time; a pity they can’t give fewer pieces of information and more slowly.  The male weather forecasters don’t have high-pitched voices, they don’t make me grab the remote so I can hit the Mute button; women’s voices do tend to be higher-pitched than men’s, even the Prime Minister, the late Mrs Thatcher, had to have voice coaching to give what she said more gravitas.

“A clear, fluent speaking voice helps you to be more persuasive and makes the speaker seem more intelligent, nicer and more approachable, whereas glottal stops and missing off aspirates can made people seem stupid and uneducated, although many celebrities such as violinist Nigel Kennedy, entertainer Ricky Gervais and broadcaster Paul Merton speak in such accents,” says Liz Hodgkinson.   “But,” she says, “as celebrities they can maybe get away with it.  It is part of their shtick.  The rest of us can’t, if we want to get on in life.  A well-modulated speaking voice that is easy and pleasant to listen to opens doors.”

I know there will be many of you who will disagree, you will love the wide variety of accents in this country, but I know that I am glad my parents paid extra for me to learn to speak correctly, so that I don’t say, “corr’ec’ly”.  Indeed, according to Liz Hodgkinson’s article, elocution lessons are once again on the rise, people at last realizing that an attractive voice makes people sound more poised, confident and articulate.

And with that may I wish you a Happy New Year (not An ‘Appy Noo Year!)

Until next time.








About Margaret Powling

Margaret Powling
Margaret’s main interests are her husband and family, her friends, her home, her garden, writing, literature, architecture, décor, social history, photography, historic houses and gardens, and towns, villages and the countryside. She writes about the things she enjoys: flowers, scent, fine soap, monthly style magazines, and other such small indulgences, such as afternoon tea or simply enjoying her summerhouse with a book. She invites you to enjoy this virtual visit to South Devon, England.

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  1. . All the different accents of the British Isles fascinate me, they are so varied. I learnt to speak The Queen’s English when I lived with my grandmother during my teenage years, because that is how she spoke. Strangely, my father, who was very eloquent & also spoke well – I never once heard him correct any of his children on their speech. But when we lived with Nanna, he did correct me. Frequently. A strange form of snobbery from him. My youngest talks beautifully. And although it may be old fashioned, it was the language that was used, by me, throughout her life. And I do think that it makes a difference. Eloquence can make a person sound not very clever, and that does affect their life.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      I’m delighted that the wide variety of accents here in the UK fascinate you, Ratnamurti, and how lovely to learn that your father spoke well that, today, your youngest speaks beautifully. A good clear speaking voice is an asset more than physical beauty.

  2. I am in complete agreement Margaret. I always taught my children that it was important to speak clearly and properly. People who pronounce the letter aitch as ‘haitch’ drive me crazy!

  3. I thought this was a fascinating post you wrote today, Margaret. I’ve visited your country many times and as an American, my accent stands out when I travel overseas. But, I find it a bit sad that society can peg you, so to speak, the minute you open your mouth and start to speak. I remember being in the West Midlands, visiting with some lovely German people who happened to be living in working in the UK. We discussed people using Queen’s English which to either of us, was so very different than in our own countries. It was as if you didn’t speak proper, then you were not in a proper class of people. I’m from the western part of the US where we think we have no accent; yet there’s the midwest accent and the much loved southern accent, Boston accent and NYC accent to name a few. But, we could be speaking to the PhD, CEO of a big corporation and he’s speaking in a southern accent. I guess what I’m saying is that the society, class, money, and even education one may have, has no bearing on how one speaks here in the US. I’m looking forward to reading more comments on this most fascinating subject. My best to you, Pat

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Yes, there are accents all over the USA, too, Pat, some of them easier on the ear than others. But here, someone can be educated but not sound educated if they speak badly. Of course, all this poses the question, what is language for? For communication and to foster understanding between people. I find that a heavy regional accent is something of a barrier to understanding; on TV recently, someone from the far north of Scotland (he might’ve been from one of the islands) there were subtitles on the screen so we could understand what he was saying although he was speaking English. Whenever I’ve heard Americans speaking on TV (unless in TV drama series where they speak too quickly so we miss certain words) I’ve found that they speak fairly clearly and that is what makes them classless, I think.

  4. I can’t abide “haitch” either. We have a mixture of accents in our house. I was born “up North” hence I have a northern accent – similar to Yorkshire but not Lancashire. My husband was born in Devon, where he lived for 21 years, and he has a Devon accent (which is definitely different to Cornish). It always amused the children, and still does, how he pronounces certain words – even after living in the North for 31 years!! He sounds posh as he calls “grass” graas, “bath” baath, etc. But then he’ll say “Eyup” (hello). Accents fascinate me!!

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      I am now wondering where you were born, Mrs Hughes, perhaps not as far north as Northumbria. Yes, it would amuse your children how your husband pronounces words if you say “bath” with a short a, and he pronounces is “Baath” with a long a.

  5. My sister and I attended elocution lessons when we were in primary school. I must admit that I still tend to ‘correct’ my adult children when they mispronounce a word or leave the beginning or end of a word. For some reason my two brothers weren’t sent for lessons. Both speak well and one is a teacher. I love hearing different accents both from overseas and here in Australia, although I don’t like too much Aussie slang.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Perhaps your parents thought that it would be more ladylike for you to speak well than your brothers, where it might’ve been considered more manly or even unnecessary for them to speak correctly? How great, though, that even without the benefit of lessons they speak well. I confess I don’t know much Aussie slang, but then I’ve not been to Australia and there are few Australian programmes on TV here.

  6. Oh I love the many different accents in England and it never ceases to amaze me how there can be so many for what is such a relatively small area of land – I mean when compared to Australia where most of us speak with the same Aussie drawl. With the exception of those from Adelaide (where our former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, originated) as their accent is quite distinctive. I have no idea why Adelaide, a city of one million would have its own accent, but there you go. Older country folk tend to say ‘orf’ instead of ‘off’ but I haven’t heard it for decades.

    It wasn’t until I read the 44 Scotland Street series of books by Alexander McCall Smith that I understood the origin of the many Scottish accents – such as those from Glasgow vs those from Edinburgh. I once attended a wedding reception where our table of ten included several Scottish blokes and I couldn’t understand one of them at all whereas the others were music to my ears. Australians tend to love the sound of Irish, Scottish and English accents and many a young U.K. traveller has used this to their advantage in our country, adding to their charm 🙂

    When I was in primary and high school, correct spelling, grammar, handwriting and so on were all considered important and I happily admit to being a pedant. If I see a spelling mistake on a menu or advertising sign it irritates me. I think I am in the minority as I see many examples where none of that seems to matter. Hmmm maybe I’m getting old 😉

    I think that Australians are probably the reverse in that we would notice a ‘posh’ accent. I recall watching a program which mentioned the history of the spoken word on our national radio and television channel and the ‘English’ spoken by the announcers in the 1950s and 1960s was much more formal (and ‘British-sounding’) than now.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Oh, how funny, Lara, that even in Adelaide the residents tend to say “orf” for “off”! Our royals (and they are your royals, too, of course) have often been mocked because not only do they speak like that, and “that” is pronounced “thet” and “house” is pronounced “hice”. Really strange to the rest of us, of course! But yes, in our small islands we do have lots of regional accents, as well as Welsh, Irish and Scots, all very distinct and they have regional accents of their own, too, so that Scots from an area called Morningside have a very distinct sound compared with say, those from Glasgow.
      Yes, poor spelling and grammar on signs irritates me, too. Most are caused by misplaced or unnecessary commas!
      What I really dislike is the very formal accents of the 1940s and 1950s as heard on many old films and TV programmes, that awful British strangulated voice sound and sadly what our Queen sounded like as a girl, pronounced “gel” of course, by the upper classes, ha ha!

  7. I was sent to elocution lessons when I was a child. There was certainly no fun involved. You just stood in the middle of the room, with your hands behind your back, and recited poems etc. My sister had dance and riding lessons. I had elocution.

    I still talk with a West Country accent (like a pirate) so I think the money was largely wasted. 2/6 if I remember correctly.

    • Margaret Powling

      It’s amazing that a number of readers of this post have said that they also attended elocution lessons when they were children. We were taught by a Miss Bright (lovely name!) who was a teacher of speech and drama, and I enjoyed the lessons – well, what I can remember of them! I can’t recall how much the lessons cost, I went to a small, private fee-paying school until I went to grammar school. I’m sure you don’t speak like a pirate, ooh-aarrrrr!

  8. Hello Margaret, I will reply to your email when I get some time to do it justice. Thankyou for your kind response. As to accents, for me its about comfort. I live in Yorkshire but was born and raised in London. Whenever I find someone with a Southern accent I want to just immerse myself in it. I feel like stopping them, out in the street, at the bus stop, in the supermarket queue, ‘Let me just listen… say that again… oh!’. I dont get back to the South very much, but its the accent that I miss the most. Over New Year I was at a party and introduced to two sisters, before they had finished speaking I bubbled over… ‘Oh, you speak like my mother, where are you from?’ I didnt know where to put myself. I’ve been up here for nearly 17 years, and every year has been the same with regards to this issue. Obviously, although I feel fairly settled here, a Southern accent will always mean home for me.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Hello, Lee, and thank you for leaving a comment. Accents that we knew when we were children become very much a part of us, don’t they? Coming from Lancashire and although I’ve lived in Devon since I was seven years old, I still lapse into the Lancastrian way of speaking when with other Lancastrians, my elocution lessons and more than 65 years in Devon falls away like morning mist in the sunshine. So, like you, a Lancastrian accent will always be home to me, too.
      I was once praised for my voice. It was in the summer of, I think, 1976 and I was working part time in our local Information Bureau, giving out advice to holidaymakers, booking hotels for them, directing them to the railway station or the nearest public loo, and as such I was talking all day long and my voice became very husky. One day a chap came in and said I had the most sexy voice! Well, that was a first and it’s not happened again, but I can still remember it!

  9. Eloise. (thisissixty.blog)

    Having discovered that we have many attitudes in common, we have discussed this issue before and have agreed to disagree…to a degree! I don’t think there is any question that we need to speak in such a way as to be understood by others. But although the need for a prescriptive convention for the written word is indisputable, I am strongly against any call for a single way of pronouncing words, believing that we should celebrate, and not condemn linguistic variation and accent. The glottalisation (or dropping) of  the ‘t’ sound in ‘water’ is often deemed lazy or wrong but is simply a feature of a different accent, not an inferior one, and as such is no less valid. This said, I am aware that I speak in a way that has been described by colleagues (when I worked in the Black Country area) as quite ‘posh’. My mother was very insistent that I spoke ‘properly’ so, despite my waving the flag for accents, I rarely drop a t!
    I look forward to reacquainting myself with your sexy voice soon!

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      In a way I agree, Eloise, as I’d not like to see regional accents disappear. What I like is to hear what has been called received pronunciation on TV and radio so that we can all understand what is being said, wherever we are. Yes, the glottal stop is a mark of a different regional accent from my own but while it’s acceptable for those from the London area to do this, I still think it sounds lazy – if there’s a t in the middle of a word, I like to hear it. After having had elocution lessons it has made me so aware of how people speak and I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing! But I have the choice of speaking what many would call “correctly” and lapsing into either Lancastrian or my adopted Dem’sher! Others, who have been fortunate (if indeed it could be called fortunate) to have had such lessons aren’t as lucky and haven’t learned the difference between a regional accent and received pronunciation. But when we think of all the actors we enjoy hearing – Anthony Hopkins, Dame Judi Dench, for example – I wonder whether we’d like them quite as much if they had very strong regional accents, or had lazy speech with glottal stops, etc? We will have to agree to disagree, which is lovely when we can do this and remain friends! It’s wonderful for us all to have different opinions, that’s what makes discussion like this so interesting.
      I don’t think my voice is sexy any longer; I even lost my voice with my recent cough and cold!

  10. Eloise. (thisissixty.blog)

    I meant to add … Remember the BBC Pathe news accents? I think they sound horrendous!

    • Margaret Powling

      Yes, they were horrendous, but people spoke more slowly and at least we could hear everything that was being said. I remember on the radio when the announcer would say, “this is the BBC Home Service … here is the News, with (whoever) reading it …” and I thought the person said “herm” service, and for years I puzzled over what a “herm” service was!

  11. I so enjoyed this post. I, too, wonder why so many younger women have such a high pitched, silly, sing song type voice. It sounds childish, to me. I know this is off-topic, but: can we talk about handwriting while we’re at it? Another lost art. They don’t even teach cursive in school anymore! In my long ago day, I don’t remember it being called cursive – we had printing and writing. Until very recently, I worked in an elementary school and the student’s handwriting, including actual letter formation, was, more often than not, absolutely appalling.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      That’s exactly how I feel, Jeannine; younger women with these awfully high-pitched sing-song voices, they do sound childish. And yes, we’ve lost the art of handwriting, too. And even how to hole a pen or pencil. So many times do I see a pen or pencil grabbed in a fist, while holding it correctly would make the action of writing so much easier.

  12. What an interesting post – and comments too if course. There is a very funny bit of film where Claire Foy and Matt Smith (who both have lovely voices in their real lives) talk about the coaching they needed to sound like the Queen and Prince Philip. Also to truly appreciate how strangulated the Queen used to sound (I am pleased for her sake that she speaks more or less normally nowadays) watch the Queen’s first televised Christmas message broadcast in 1957. I sound like my mother and my daughter sounds like me despite our birth years being 1930, 1960 and 1996. And how do we sound? Well like accentless Radio 4 announcers of course! That said I adore the male Edinburgh accent but my prize for the best voice goes to Ellen Terry the actress. I once listened to a very rare recording made when she was quite an old lady and it was unforgettable.

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Oh, I’d love to hear how Ellen Terry sounded! And yes, thank goodness the Queen has lost (or should that be “lorst”, ha ha!) that awful strangulated voice she had as a young women. I don’t think I sound like my late mother although I tend to look more like her as I age, as she still had her Lancashire accent but as the years in Devon progressed, this changed too, so it wasn’t as pronounced as it was in 1951 when we made the move south.

  13. Ah, well, you would be truly puzzled by my family. We moved to Canada back in the 60’s.

    At a family gathering back in Scotland, we totally confused the waiters. There was the broad Doric Aberdonians, the educated Scots, a cockney, two self described Hampshire hogs(?), the Canadians and me (I’ve been described as having a Scots-Canadian accent?).

    Having said that my youngest son required speech therapy as a toddler and it lasted until he was seven. I think he has a lovely voice. His therapists told me, my speaking voice was clear and crisp.

    I’ve heard myself and I don’t know. My patients tell me I have British accent and they find it reassuring.

    There are times I think we adapt our speaking voices to our audiences. \\Happy New Year (before I forget)

    • Margaret Powling
      Margaret Powling

      Hello, Linda (WonderCollie), and that’s a wonderful account of the family gathering with all those accents! My friend who introduced me to my future husband (he was a neighbour of hers) moved with her family to Canada from the UK also in the 1960s and she now has a Canadian accent, but to her friends in Canada she sounds English, as you do to your patients (not sure what your profession is, but they obviously enjoy hearing your accent.)

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