The Weakening of Status Accents in the UK

A closer look on the correlation between social change and language change using the example of the royal family

Term Paper, 2013

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Sociolinguistic Background

3. Class accents
3.1 Does the Queen Speak ‘Queen’s English’?
3.2 How Did the Perception Change?
3.3 Changing the Public Presentation of Royals
3.3.1 The Tried and Trusted
3.3.2 A Breath of Fresh Air

4 Discussion

5 Conclusion



1. Introduction

Today, English is one of the most spoken languages in the world and has a huge impact on the everyday life of millions of people. As a lingua franca, English is the world’s widely used language and is spoken in 101 countries all over the world[1], each of them adding their own flavour to the mixture. So exposed to influences of all kinds, the English language seems to be constantly changing. The one thing that unites the huge amount of varieties, and therefore people, has to be the root of the language they share, which is English as it is spoken in England by the family of the English society and especially by the Queen, Elizabeth II. But as the monarchy seems weakened through social changes, ‘the Queen’s English’, which is often put on a level with Received Pronunciation (RP), is no longer as popular. So Britain is a current example of language change in times of globalisation and democratisation, which shapes language ideology. In this context, it might be interesting to take a closer look at what ‘Queen’s English’ stands for and why it changes by reference to studies over a longer time period, to draw inferences with regard to social reasons.

2. Sociolinguistic Background

There is nothing like the language, which gives a country its unique character for what it is recognised in the world. And in every country the guideline of the national standard is given by governmental institutions and is grounded in the education system. In Britain the situation is similar with the speciality of the constitutional monarchy. Though the British monarchy has rather representational duties, it is remarkable that it also shapes the English language as the term ‘Queen’s English’ illustrates. This special variety of English qualifies as standard language and paragon of language ideology. The most important woman of Britain functions not only as a teacher in terms of norms and values, but might also acts as a prototype of proper speech. By implication, the prestige towards her might be linked to the attitude towards standard English.

The term ‘standard’ can be associated with mostly positive terms (like ‘normal’, ‘equal’, ‘correct’) and is described by the OED as “[a]n authoritative or recognized exemplar of correctness, perfection, or some definite degree of any quality“ and ‘[a] rule, principle, or means or estimation; a criterion, measure” (cf. OED Inline, 2013). This description defines ‘standard’ as something worth striving for. In concrete terms, ‘standard language’ is listed in the following way: “Applied to that variety of a spoken or written language of a country or other linguistic area which generally considered the most correct and acceptable form, as Standard English, Standard American etc.; Received Standard = RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION n“ (cf. OED Online, 2013). According to those three examples, ‘Queen’s English’ is a criterion for perfect speech every other variety has to compete with. But despite this assumption, ‘talking standard’ has a negative connotation, when it is treated equal as ‘talking posh’ (cf. Coupland, 2009: 36). In this case, ‘correctness’ and ‘perfection’ are turned into ridicule, as the meaning changes. So there must be a decisive factor, whether a person’s association is positive or negative, which might be linked to the speech style and thereby to the institution of monarchy by itself. It depends on the perspective. The Queen is at the same time ruler and servant of society, even if it is just in a representative way. So one might assume that the monarchy changes, as society does and that they are interacting (cf. Coupland, 2009:27). To understand the connection of language change and social change, it is important to look at the reasons, as they are discussed in sociolinguistics. The linguistic usage changes and, to this point in time, the ‘best language’ loses its position, as other speech varieties establish (cf. Kristiansen, 2009). This often comes hand in hand with a weakening of social values, since there is a totally new access to social space. This phenomenon is also known as ‘destandardisation’ and emphasizes the idea of weakening and/or abandonment of the ‘standard ideology’. According to Kristiansen, there is also ‘demotization’, in which case the idea of a ‘best language’ changes, but is not abandoned. So the ‘standard ideology’ is still relevant “while the valorization of ways of speaking changes” (cf. Kristiansen, 2009). So it is interesting to take a closer look, how the ‘Queen’s English’ changes.

Klaus J. Mattheier observed a decline of prestige as related to standard language (1997: 1) and a transformation of speech. As the obedience to authority in general becomes weaker, people are also less interested in the way, upper class members think their language should be like. An opening to colloquial language takes place (Mattheier, 1997:1-2). This is especially the case in England, where Mattheier notices a multi-layered range of variation. This development is pushed by the younger generations (Harrington, Palethorpe, Watson, 2000: 7) might be applicable to the English youth, too, as will be shown later on. It seems like the significance of the norms taught in school is questioned and as such sometimes ignored. Teachers are no longer an embodiment of what is ‘right’ or ‘true’, as their authority shrinks (cf. Coupland, 2009: 32-33). This leads to a shift in communication and written language does no longer define spoken language. In fact quite the reverse might become true (cf. Mattheier, 1997: 8), when colloquial speech starts to be accepted in written form as well. In this case, social change leads to ideological change and therefore a change of language ideology. It is only a matter of time, until this concatenation becomes noticeable and “…we have to ask how pervasive and persuasive standard language ideology actually is.”(cf. Coupland, 2009: 32). That starts with the terminology:

…the terms ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ are themselves ideological value-attributions. Yet sociolinguists often take them to be primes, as if we can identify what a ‘standard’ variant is, independently of social judgments that are made about its use or its users. (cf. Coupland,2009: 31).

In this case the use of language is linked to the speakers status, which decreases, as the deviation from ‘standard language’ increases. The standard language, being the ‘best language’, downgrades any other way of speaking. The classification of language goes hand in hand with the classification of people, which is no longer suitable to the current situation (cf. Coupland, 2009: 34). In times of strict social stratification, the features of a person’s speech style might have indicated his class-affiliation. But this defined concept of class “nowadays fails to divide groups politically and ideologically.” (cf. Coupland, 2009: 35). Coupland explains this progress:

The social categories that varationists have mainly relied on are argued to be becoming unreliable; identities are more contextualized and ephemeral, more amenable to agentive construction – the social through the linguistic (cf. 2009: 28).

He also names possible reasons, which influenced the social change in Britain like the decline of Establishment, falling trust in professional authority, a shift from group-based to individual-based rights and obligations, the growth of middle class, the accentuation of the rich/poor and some blurring of the distinction between private and public spheres (cf. 2009: 30), to name only a few. All these phenomena share the character of softening, as things become generally less fixed to an extent, where old definitions must be reconsidered. Coupland’s theory is that


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The Weakening of Status Accents in the UK
A closer look on the correlation between social change and language change using the example of the royal family
University of Münster  (English Department)
Seminar Linguistic Variation - From Old English to Standard English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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628 KB
weakening, status, accents
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Lisa Blanke (Author), 2013, The Weakening of Status Accents in the UK, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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