With The Accent on Music

Some stories are so bizarre that they seem instantly believable. In a recent BBC4 programme entitled, “How The Edwardians Spoke” the focus on the era was on sound as opposed to the more usual image or written word. The programme was presented by Joan Washington a voice coach and British dialect expert. What was surprising was the origin of the sound archive.

Alois Brandl from Austria had long been fascinated by British dialect and accent – particularly rural ones where increasing urbanisation had not yet ironed out the many distinct differences. This is a passion he shared and discussed with Thomas Hardy and phoneticist Henry Sweet, thought to be the model for ‘Enry ‘Iggin’s in Shaw’s Pygmalion.

The outbreak of WWI forced Brandl to leave Britain and temporarily to abandon his studies. In Germany, he joined forces with Wilhelm Doegen, a recording enthusiast. Together they recorded speech and songs of hundreds of British POWs. Reassuringly, it was stressed that this was “the work of peacetime,” that participation was entirely voluntary and that no consequences would ensue from refusal to take part.

Having had access to the original recordings and permission to make copies, Joan Washington was able to explore the programmes two main themes: letting families hear recordings of their relatives from nearly a century ago; noting changes in accent and dialect where families had remained in the same location.

There were some emotional responses from family members upon hearing the voice of distant relatives. In one particular case the evident fear in the voice of the prisoner, coupled with the knowledge that the soldier concerned had never really recovered from his wartime experience, imbued his memory with a more focussed kind of sadness. Talking to this Macclesfield family, Washington noted that the recorded voice had by far the strongest local accent. The accent of the next generation had become diluted and that of the youngest generation contained more elements of a Manchester accent. When discussing this with the youngest girl, Washington referred to “your tunes.” I had never fully made the link between accent and music before – which is surprising as I have read many times that music is considered to be a luxurious extra thrown up by the evolution of language. It is puzzling, therefore, that quite a small percentage of any population would consider themselves to have a musical ear when everybody effortlessly picks up an accent of one sort or other. This is even more puzzling when you consider that the inflections in any given accent involve modulations of pitch far smaller than those in music. This makes me wonder if substantial development of a musical ear is only possible in youth. It is claimed that exposure to a pitched instrument during early years can result in perfect pitch (the ability to identify or produce a note without reference to another source). However, only 1 in 10,000 people end up with perfect pitch. Perhaps we are all born with temporary potential but lose it through lack of necessity. After all, most older people retain their original accent even when they relocate to somewhere with a strong, infectious accent.

There was one other idea in this programme which was both fascinating and entirely new to me – the effect of landscape on accent. In the Cheshire countryside, Joan Washington claimed that this open, contrasting farmland was worked with people whose vowels and consonants were decisive. The more whiny tones of Manchester with its high buildings and confined spaces were really alien to such a rural idyll. She also pointed out that most port towns have nasal accents e.g. Liverpool or New York. This is certainly a fascinating idea but omits entirely the undeniable effect of class on accent.

It is clear that distinctions in accent are less apparent than they used to be. I seem to remember, growing up in Haddington in the 60s & 70s, that the accent in Tranent (a mere 7 miles away) seemed quite different. Now, no doubt as a result of television, pupils across East Lothian sound like they come from the same part of America.

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