Accents in the Historical Period Drama Television Series Downton Abbey, focusing on H-Dropping and T-Glottalisation

Term Paper, 2017

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Theory
2.1 Language and Social Class
2.2 Social Class in Downton Abbey
2.3 Differing Features in Northern Accents and RP
2.4 Language and Social Class in Film

3 Analysis
3.1 Methodology
3.2 Comparison of Lady Mary and Daisy
3.3 Mr. Carson

4 Conclusion


Primary sources

Secondary sources

1. Introduction

In the film Pygmalion, the phonetician Mr. Higgins is able to tell where the flower girl Eliza Doolittle comes from just by hearing her utter a few sentences. By listening to her use of language he can pinpoint the street in London where she was born ( Pygmalion , 0:04:45 – 0:08:38). The way somebody speaks often says more about a person’s background, than how they dress or act. Different pronunciation, vocabulary and syntax gives information not just about the region somebody comes from but also about their age and social class (Trudgill 2000: 23f). Although not everybody is as perceptive as Mr. Higgins and can point to the exact street where somebody was born, most people have a general idea of different dialects and where and when they are spoken (Hodson 2014: 3) This knowledge is used by many film makers. Certain characters speak in such a way that the audience can deduce information about their background. By doing so, information about a character does not have to be explicitly given, as the audience can guess it by listening to the way the characters speak (Hodson 2014: 5). Dialects therefore play a large role in films and yet, little research has been conducted on dialect in films (Planchenault 2017: 271). However, research by Jane Hodson (2014) and Gaëlle Planchenault (2017) in the past years has shed some light on the role of dialects in films.

This paper will therefore analyze the various accents in the historical period drama television series Downton Abbey created by Julian Fellowes. The main research question is whether the social class of the series’ characters is reflected in their accents and how these accents mirror their personality. To do so, this study will primarily analyze t-glottalization and h-dropping. I predict that a character’s social class will become apparent through their accent which also relates back to their personality.

The paper will begin with a short theoretical background on how social class and language are linked before giving a brief overview of Downton Abbey and how social class plays a major role in this series. It will then give an overview of features that distinguish class accents, focusing on differences between Received Pronunciation and Northern English accents as Downton Abbey is set in the north. Afterwards, previous research on social class in film by Hodson (2014) will be illustrated. Next the methodology and the analysis will follow. First the accents of the two characters Daisy and Mary will be compared by counting the frequency of t-glottalization and h-dropping and the results will be examined. Afterwards, I will look at the same features in Mr. Carson’s pronunciation and interpret the results. Finally I will summarise the findings of this paper.

2. Theory

2.1 Language and Social Class

In order to understand the way social class is represented through language in Downton Abbey , it is important to understand the way language indicates social class. In the following section, the relationship between social class and language will be discussed. Every society has a hierarchical order and this order is determined by factors such as wealth, power and status. This order is termed social stratification (Trudgill 2000: 25) and this stratification is not neutral but implies inequality (Kerswill 2009: 358). In most western societies, the groups of society take the form of social classes, which are groups of individuals with similar economic and social standing (Trudgill 2000: 25). The way somebody speaks can give information about their social class (Trudgill 2000: 23).

In Britain, the way in which people in the upper class speak varies only very little from speaker to speaker. Upper class speakers from different regions speak largely in a similar manner. The amount of regional variation within classes increases as one looks further down the social scale. The lowest class therefore has the greatest variation in their language (Trudgill 2000: 30). This phenomenon is applicable to both dialect and accent. Whereas the term dialect describes different uses of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, the term accent focuses solely on differences in pronunciation (Hodson 2014: 2). When looking at the variation in accent, there is close to no variation in the highest class.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure (1): Social and Regional Accent Variation (Trudgill 2000: 32)

The people who form part of the highest class all adopt Received Pronunciation (RP), which is the standard accent in Britain (Trudgill 2000: 32). The term Received Pronunciation was coined by Alexander J. Ellis in the 1860s (Mair 2009: 162). Also known as public school pronunciation, it was used to describe the accent that was used in families of Southern England, whose men have been educated in public boarding schools (Mair 2009: 163). Throughout the twentieth century, RP was adopted by a growing number of the population. Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, RP was a class accent and a sign of prestige (Mair 2009: 169ff). Trudgill’s diagram shows that while the highest social class speaks almost solely in RP, lower class speakers speak with a wide range of regional accents. This means that speakers with a low social status reveal more about their regional background than upper class speakers. The variety in which people speak can have an effect on how they are perceived. Whereas RP is usually associated with intelligent, confident and ambitious people, speakers of many local dialects are often seen as more friendly, warm and trustworthy (Hodson 2014: 33).

2.2 Social Class in Downton Abbey

Social class plays a central role in the television series Downton Abbey. The period drama is set around the time of the First World War. The first series starts with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The plot revolves around a country estate in the North of England named Downton Abbey , which is also the title of the television series. The house belongs to Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, who he lives there with his wife Cora and three daughters, Mary, Sybill and Edith. The story is about the life of this family and their domestic servants, who clean the house, cook and serve the food and help the Crawley family dress themselves. Throughout the series, the residents of Downton Abbey experience many historical events that have great impacts on their lives. Although the aristocratic family of Downton Abbey treat their servants with respect and kindness, a clear separation between the two classes exists. This becomes apparent in the way they go about their daily lives, their different rooms and the way they dress. Although the exact place where Downton Abbey is set is never explicitly mentioned, the whereabouts of the estate can be guessed by the places that are mentioned throughout the series. There are several references to places such as Easingwold, Ripon and Thirsk; this suggests that the fictional estate Downton Abbey is in Northern Yorkshire.

2.3 Differing Features in Northern Accents and RP

There are several features that distinguish northern accents from the standard accent, RP. Both the pronunciation of vowels and of consonants differs greatly between the two. Regarding vowels, RP speakers use a lengthened [ɑː] before voiceless fricatives and certain consonant clusters with initial /m/ or /n/ in words such as bath or dance , whereas northern speakers use a shortened version instead (Beal et al 2012: 20). Similarly, speakers of northern accents do not differ between the phoneme in words such as put and putt (Hughes et al 2005: 59). In both cases, they employ the [ʊ]. In contrast, speakers of RP use [ʊ] for words like putt and [ʌ] for words like put . Furthermore, the pronunciation of the vowel in words like plate differs in the two varieties. RP speakers would say [ei] while speakers with northern English dialects would use [eː]. The latter also tend to employ [oː] in words like boat , where RP speakers would use [ou] (Hughes et al 1979: 89). There are also many differences in the way consonants are pronounced. Northern English speakers often drop consonants. Word final /t/ is replaced by a glottal stop, words ending with <ing> are pronounced [ɪn] instead of [ɪŋ] and word-initial /h/ is dropped (Hughes et al 1979: 90).

The features listed above distinguish RP from northern accents in modern day English. It is possible that the way people spoke at the time when Downton Abbey is set differed slightly from how people speak today. Nevertheless, when comparing it with an English pronouncing dictionary showing the RP pronunciation of 1917 (Jones 1924), the same variants that were mentioned above were used in RP then and it is likely that the same features served to distinguish the upper classes from the lower classes at the time Downton Abbey is set in.

2.4 Language and Social Class in Film

As mentioned in the introduction, there has been very little work on analysing language in films (Planchenault 2017: 271). There are, however, some works that deal with this topic. One of them is the book Dialect in Film and Literature (2014) by Jane Hodson. In one of her chapters, she focuses on the film Howards End and analyses the role dialect plays in this film. The film is about the link between social classes in the twentieth century (Hodson 2014: 43) and the scene Hodson focuses on displays the two characters Jacky and Leonard. Both characters are members of the lower class and are in a relationship with each other (Hodson 2014: 44). Hodson compares the language of the two characters in the scene, regarding pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (Hodson 2014: 45). She discovers that Jacky speaks in a London accent and uses several colloquial phrases as well as some non-standard grammatical forms such as double negatives (Hodson 2014: 46ff). On the other hand, Leonard’s speech is closer to RP (Hodson 2014: 46) and his vocabulary and grammar is also closer to standard English (Hodson 2014: 47f). When he is upset, however, his old speech habits come back and he also then features of London English (Hodson 2014: 46). Hodson claims that their different ways of speaking reflect a gulf between them and their different aspirations. Whereas Jacky does not try to change her way of speaking, Leonard evidently tries to sound like the middle class and neither character attempts to adapt their speech towards the other person’s (Hodson 2014: 51-52). This paper will differ from this analysis as it concentrates purely on accent and will base its results on mainly quantitative and not qualitative analyses. Nevertheless, it will also deal with the issue of social class and how it is represented in a film through the use of language.

3 Analysis

3.1 Methodology

The television series Downton Abbey was chosen for this paper because social class is a central issue in this series. There are only few films where the social class divide between the different characters is so clear cut as in Downton Abbey. As analysing the entire series would go beyond the scope of this paper, I concentrated on data derived from the very first episode. It was chosen because it is the first time that the audience is introduced to the different characters, their personality and the way they speak. It is also comparably longer than all other episodes.

The method used in this paper is mainly quantitative. The two variables (h) and (t) were analysed for three different characters. In the first section, the two characters Daisy and Lady Mary, who represent two different social classes, are compared regarding their pronunciation. Afterwards, Mr. Carson’s accent is examined more closely.

3.2 Comparison of Lady Mary and Daisy

As a first step, Lady Mary and Daisy’s speech was analysed as they are at two different ends of the social ladder. Lady Mary, as the eldest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, is part of the aristocracy. On the other side, Daisy is a servant. She works under Mrs Patmore, the cook, as a kitchen maid and belongs to the lower working class. Both characters are fairly prominent figures in the series. In addition, they are both female and part of the younger generation. Therefore, social variables besides social class such as gender and age do not distinguish the two characters.

As mentioned before, the variables that were focused on, were (h) in the initial position and (t) in the word final position. In both cases, speakers of RP would pronounce these phonemes whereas speakers of Northern dialects would drop the /h/ and use a glottal stop (Hughes et al 1979: 90). The different variants of the two variables were counted for each character. The expectation was that Lady Mary, as a member of the aristocracy would generally speak RP, which would mean pronouncing both /h/ and /t/. Daisy, as a member of the lower class, was expected to speak in a local dialect and show evidence of h-dropping and t-glottalisation.


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Accents in the Historical Period Drama Television Series Downton Abbey, focusing on H-Dropping and T-Glottalisation
University of Augsburg
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ISBN (Book)
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Linguistics, Downton Abbey, Accent, Pronunciation, TV, Series, period drama, English, H-Dropping, T-Glottalisation, Social Cass, RP, received pronunciation
Quote paper
Teresa Schenk (Author), 2017, Accents in the Historical Period Drama Television Series Downton Abbey, focusing on H-Dropping and T-Glottalisation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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