Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pronunciation - Eighteenth Century style.

by Mike Rendell

It is fascinating to conjecture what our ancestors would have sounded like - how they spoke, and whether they had a strong accent. We can read what they wrote down, but we can never be sure what their pronunciation was, in the era before tape recorders and gramophones! I recall seeing learned articles suggesting that Shakespeare may have spoken with an American accent (and why not: the accent must have derived from something, somewhere - why not the English Midlands in the 16th Century?).Of course it is difficult to draw conclusions from one indicator - then, as now, there would have been huge variations based upon origin, background, education and wealth. But I can comment upon how my ancestor Richard Hall chose to speak, or at least, how he aspired to speak, in the 1700's because he wrote down those words which might otherwise trip him up. The fact that he wrote them down shows how important it was to "speak proper English" - how vital it was to appear different to all those migrants heading into the capital in the middle of the Eighteenth Century. London's deaths exceeded births, yet the population in London still increased every year, thanks to the drift of men and women seeking work, looking for the streets paved with gold. They came from the villages and towns up and down the country, and brought with them the regional accents, colloquial expressions and slang from their own region. If my 4xgreat grandfather was to succeed in business he needed to sound the same as his wealthier customers, not the same as a yokel from the shires!
To modern ears some of the pronunciation sounds a bit twee and precious, but think for a minute how accents and pronunciation changes. Think of Her Maj, who in the sixty years she has adorned the throne, has altered enormously in the way she pronounces the "Queen's English." Fashions change. And if further proof is needed think of the way the name of the Duchess of Devonshire is pronounced in the film 'The Duchess' - "Georgi-ay-nah" rather than the more usual"Georgi-arnar". It is almost as if the aristocracy wanted to make sure that they spoke differently from the hoi polloi!
Where the spelling differed from the pronunciation Richard Hall jotted down the reminders: so, we get "shaze" for "chaise", "dimun" for "diamond" and even "crownor" for "coroner"
I was also intrigued to see that "gold" was pronounced "gould", farthing as "fardun" and  daughter was "dawtor" and nurse was "nus".  O.K., some of the examples are obvious ("yot" for "yacht") but on the whole he does come across as a tad affected by modern standards!

Place names and proper nouns were obviously not the same as now: I can just about remember people calling "Cirencester" by the name of "Sissester" and the Somerset village of Congresbury being pronounced "Coomsbury" but although we still talk of "Brummies" we don't call the city "Brummijum" any more. Bartholomew is not, so far as I am aware, pronounced "Bartolomy". And even in Richard's time "Brighthelmstone" was being abbreviated to match the way it was pronounced - "Brighton".

I suppose it boils down to the fact that pronunciation, like spelling, changes over the centuries. as well as from locality to locality. But it does make you think, when a well-educated man like Richard speaks of "hartichokes" rather than "artichokes", and calls his cucumbers "cowcumbers". Step back in time and I might have quite a problem being accepted in polite company as I rather think my ancestor would have fallen about laughing at my strangled vowels and plummy pronunciation!

Wristband was pronounced "risban", waistcoat was "wescote" and if you were sitting at the table doing your toilet (i.e attending to your wig, powdering your nose, applying a little white lead to the forehead, and rouge to the cheeks....) you would of course remember to call it "twaylet" or even "twilight".
In some ways you can brand Richard a snob - he cultivated the way he presented himself because he was desperate to be accepted.
The story of Richard's life, how he married an heiress, how he built a shop at One London Bridge, how he fell out with his family and retired to become a gentleman farmer in the Cotswolds, is told in my book The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman. I also do a blog, three or four times a week, on life in Georgian England. You can follow it here.


  1. Some pronunciations were still derived from French - your "toilette" being one. And it's not only the pronunciation that may have altered. My Grandmother who was born in 1891 said "interESTing" and "caraVAN" - the latter is a pronunciation that still lingers in Northern England.

  2. That is a fascinating record, but what is harder to fathom is how on earth he was pronouncing these words before he resorts to his aide memoir. It is hard to guess at an accent that would pronounce busy, circle, colonel, cough, cupboard, daughter etc. any other way...

  3. Perhaps he was writing them down so he'd know how to spell them in the accepted manner. We are reading it now as "this is how he would have pronounced them" but he must have already known that, so it's more likely he was making sure that he didn't make an ass of himself on paper when writing to better educated friends.

    1. Quite possibly. I still have to think very hard how to spell Belvoir (as in The Belvoir Hunt) because I know it is pronounced "Beaver". And then of course there is our old friend Cholmondeley (pronounced "Chumley") but never Bottomly (pronounced "Bumley")!

    2. I do agree Sue, clearly he knew how the words sounded but was perhaps semi-literate in the sense that he needed to make a correlation between the words as he could hear them and their written counterparts.

      From the 21st century point of view the discrepancy is interesting between the way that he describes the sound of the words as he knows them by ear, with the way that he's telling himself they're spelled.

      I can't see that it is an accent thing at all.

    3. His education was extremely good actually (I still have all his school exercise books!!). I think it was more that London was a complete melting pot of accents from all over the country (migration from the Provinces kept the population growing: in other respects London deaths exceeded London births in 18th Century - the deficit was made up by new visitors from the sticks!). Accent was EVERYTHING - and in a way nothing has changed in Britain, where "class" is still measured by accent. Richard was astonishingly well educated - and very conscious of the need to impress. Speak like a country bumpkin and you were judged as a bumpkin!

    4. I can't think your interpretation is completely correct in ascribing his motives in producing this note to pronunciation.

      You can't seriously think that he didn't know that circle was pronounced with a soft c? Surely his note is to remind himself that it's not spelled with an s the way it sounds? I don't know of a regional accent that would have given another pronunciation (other than a Berkshire rhotic r, but he doesn't mention that). But Kirkle? No I just don't buy it.

      I'm convinced by Sue's conjecture that this is about recording words that aren't spelled the way they sound, like your Cholmondeleys.

  4. Where was he from then, so that we can at least guess at his accent?

  5. Family came from a wealthy background - coat of arms and all that - from Berkshire in England. They fell on hard times (early stock market crash in 1720 otherwise known as South Sea Bubble). Richard was apprenticed as a humble hosier determined to rise back up the social ladder (which he did by marrying an heiress). All those elocution lessons were not in vain!

  6. A study at the University of Leicester highlights the need for a new approach to the teaching of English pronunciation given that English is now a lingua franca, with more non-native speakers in the world than native speakers How to pronounce London place-names