BBC English: does it dictate proper pronunciation?
Language use and notions of correctness have always been central matters for large sections of British society – especially those concerned with class, status, and education. Throughout its history, the BBC played a central role in disseminating what is considered ‘proper’ pronunciation. In its early days, the BBC was even meant to not only entertain but also to educate the general public by bringing ‘the best’, including pronunciation, into the greatest number of British homes. The BBC’s first Managing Director, John Reith, said in his famous 1924 Broadcast over Britain: ‘One hears the most appalling travesties of vowel pronunciation. This is a matter in which broadcasting may be of immense assistance’. BBC radio was meant to play a major role in the creation and maintenance of ‘Standard English’. This was the launch of the BBC’s ill-fated foray into prescribing how to ‘properly’ pronounce words.
How should one say ‘golf’?
To this end, John Reith assembled the Advisory Committee on Spoken English – a body comprising ‘the Great and the Good’ of British society including illustrious names like George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Lloyd James, Daniel Jones, and other members of British High Society. Much as standardization of grammar took place in the 17th and 18th centuries, spoken English saw the emergence of Received Pronunciation or RP in the 19th century. And it is RP that the Committee thought ‘best’ in terms of ‘correct’ pronunciation – initially only for BBC announcers and newsreaders, but Letters to the Editors of the Radio Times made it clear that the public, too, wanted to be educated on how to pronounce ‘correctly’. After all, who wanted to talk like an East End flower girl or a London cabbie?
Needless to say, ‘correct’ pronunciation not only caused debate among the Committee members and among the general public but also led to the publication of the enormously popular BBC pamphlets Broadcast English: Recommendations to Announcers. Heated debates ensued within the Committee and the Radio Times on the merits of pronouncing garage as ‘gahrage’ or ‘gerredge’ or golf as ‘goff’ or ‘golf’. And, the Committee learned to listen especially when it came to place names and proper names. Beacons of knowledge of rural Britain (country vicars, parsons, postmasters, and so on) were invited to let the BBC know how to pronounce countless place names, among them Daventry (‘Daventry’ or ‘Dane-tree’).
The futility of the BBC and the Committee’s efforts – in spite of expansions and set-up of specialist sub-committees – became increasingly obvious even to the staunchest of RP defenders. After all, RP speakers comprise only 3-5% of the population. The Committee and the BBC’s efforts to educate the masses on ‘proper’ pronunciation were suspended at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Pronunciation Unit today
Today’s BBC Pronunciation Unit does not prescribe pronunciations, as the Advisory Committee did, nor does it promote a particular accent or a single pronunciation for words with rival pronunciations. Instead, the Unit researches and merely advises on the pronunciation of place names and proper names in any language. The Unit draws from a very large database that has been built up over the decades, and works with a set of clear and narrow policies. Their recommendations are made available to all BBC staff and not to the public.
The media landscape in Britain changed dramatically after 1945. The beginning of commercial television in 1955, the emergence of private radio stations, and even the BBC’s own re-launch of the Home Service as Radio 4 in 1967 and the introduction of Radio One, Two, and Three as well as its first local stations, were all major contributing factors.
Descriptive or prescriptive?
The BBC hovered between maintaining ‘standards’ in language on the one hand and increasingly reflecting the voices of ordinary people on the other. Still, the 1979 Burchfield Report assured the British nation that there was ‘abundant evidence that the standard of spoken English broadcast on the BBC radio networks is in broad terms acceptable’, mostly even ‘pleasantly presented in a variety of styles, and frequently with excellent regional or modified standard accents’.
The 1980s saw the emergence of regionally modified RPs and with it RP ‘proper’ lost its pre-eminent position it held in the first half of the 20th century. RP today is only one accent among several that can be heard on the BBC and other broadcasting networks. Nowadays, the BBC draws on an extensive variety of accents, depending on the kind of station and the audiences targeted: local stations foster the local accent of the target community, while even ‘highbrow’ stations such as Radio 3 or Radio 4 use not only RP but also others, including Scottish and Irish accents. In short, there is a tendency away from socially exclusive or superior speech.
During its history, the BBC has thus moved from the ideal of the single, fixed standard accent on air to a plurality of accents; it has shifted from promoting a backward-looking model of pronunciation to accepting linguistic variation and change, and it has abandoned prescribing mandatory pronunciations for common words with rival pronunciations. Finally, as to the Reithian belief in the BBC as a ‘model of correctness’, Richard Sambrook, ex-director of the BBC World Service and Global News, states unequivocally: ‘Being a guardian of the language is not a responsibility that I want to take upon my shoulders.’