DIGBY Jones has set a hare running with his Twitter criticism of the BBC Olympics broadcaster Alex Scott’s sloppy pronunciation, because she omits the final ‘g’ sound from swimming, fencing, etc. Scott in her reply insisted that dropping the ‘g’ sound at the end of present participles equates with her ‘accent’. No, it doesn’t.
What Lord Jones of Birmingham, a former Labour minister, was referring to could be called ‘dialect’. Accent has nothing to do with the matter. Accent is a regional thing, and relates purely to the sound or intonation patterns of speech in particular areas of the country. The lilt or rhythmical stress will be generally the same for all Glasgow Scots, though varying in intensity and intelligibility, as Stanley Baxter made clear in many of his comic routines.
If Scots such as the late Ludovic Kennedy spoke with an English accent, that is because he was sent to Eton and Oxford and so ended up with what my Scottish in-laws would call a ‘pan-loafie’ accent, which is a working-class term for ‘upper crust’.
The Liverpool accent goes from genteel to very thick, but the sound of both are instantly recognised as the accent or music of Scouse speech.
What Alex Scott meant was dialect, but although dialect also belongs to a particular area or region, it belongs not just to the sound of the voice, but to particular idioms and distinctly different vocabulary.
Loss of the aitch at the beginning of words, like the loss of the consonant digraph ‘ng’ at the end of a present participle, is a sign merely of sloppy pronunciation and, among the educated classes, something to laugh at. It is an excluding matter, as the hard-of-hearing may well misunderstand any non-standard pronunciation. There is a good reason why we adopted Standard English in the first place: it facilitates ease of communication. But it can still be spoken with an accent such as Scots or Liverpool.
There are two sets of people to blame for defending the non-standard. The BBC assume that this is how working-class Londoners talk. I can enlighten them, as neither of my parents spoke like characters out of EastEnders, yet both were Londoners, born in working-class Battersea. My father was a plumber and my mother a dressmaker. But they had been at school before World War Two and would never have been allowed to get away with sloppy speech. Neither ever dropped an aitch nor the ‘ng’; neither of them ever produced flat vowels.
Let’s get this right. The inability to pronounce words properly is also a sign of the failure of schooling in the last 30-40 years, during which time phonics was abandoned for fancy ideas such as ‘Real Books’ which used pictures to teach children to read! I know – unbelievable! Teachers in our primary and secondary schools actually refuse to correct children’s errors of pronunciation, even though they themselves may adhere to the rules. As a school and university inspector, I met many a teacher or lecturer who was determined not to undermine the children’s confidence in their own ‘dialect’, as they called it.
However, when I was at secondary school, my English teacher had no such qualms. I was the sole pupil in the class who knew the name of Orpheus’s wife, but of course never having heard it spoken, having only read it, I mispronounced Eurydice to rhyme with price. We didn’t study Latin at my school, let alone Greek, which could have alerted me to the emphasis on the final long ‘e’ sound. But, no, my English teacher decided this was a good teaching point for the whole class, and so he corrected me in front of them all. Was I embarrassed? Of course I was, but it helped me in the long run. His job was to teach us all and that meant extending our knowledge.
Let us start at the beginning. First, the failure to pronounce the consonant digraph ‘ng’ at the end of a present participle is a failure to put the tongue in the right place in the mouth. This is because for over 40 years infant teachers ceased to use phonics to teach reading to their pupils. ‘Look and Say’ was the dominant ‘method’, when a whole word on a flashcard was held up before the class and children had to recognise the word from its overall shape and repeat the name of the word as teacher articulated it. That was followed by the even less useful ‘method’ of ‘Real Books’.
Dropping aitch and ‘ng’ is only the start of the problems many youngsters today have in speaking clearly. Many use the glottal stop for ‘butter, better’, etc, omitting the double ‘tt’ altogether. That won’t help them with the spelling of such words, of course. What happens to the ‘th’ which has two different sounds, a voiced and an unvoiced sound, as in ‘the’/ ‘then’ and ‘thumb’/ ‘thin’? Neither of them begins with V or F, which is what we hear constantly today, as our language is mangled by the ignorant and the ill-taught. One cannot blame the individuals who speak like this, as their teachers are to blame, but it is a mistake to be proud of such solecisms.
I wonder how Alex Scott pronounces words ending in ‘g’ which are not participles, such as ‘strong’, ‘among’, ‘string’. I cannot believe that she omits these ‘g’s. It is a shame that she lets herself down by mispronouncing words. It is a mistake to use an excuse drawn from the class war, as there are still large numbers of working-class people who do pronounce such words correctly. Anyone who is a role model should bear in mind their responsibility not just to those who admire them for sporting prowess, but also to the spoken clarity the language needs for mutual intelligibility.