If the Queen’s governess were still alive today, she may have noticed a few discordant notes in her charge’s formerly crystal clear diction. OK, she ain’ exactly droppin’ her Ts and her Gs like Russell Brand, but linguists have nevertheless found that her enunciation today might have been considered a little, well, common in her youth.
Her Majesty is by no means alone in this. The cut-glass accent of the upper class – the soundtrack to period dramas like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs – has become a little rough around the edges over the last few decades, as more and more people adopt a kind of aristo-cockney hybrid.
Decrying the fall of the aristocratic accent may seem like a symptom of the peculiarly British obsession with class, but the fact that even the Queen no longer speaks the “Queen’s English” of days gone by offers us a fascinating insight into the forces that shape our voices.
The idea of a “proper” accent only emerged fairly recently in the history of the English language. As Jonnie Robinson, a sociolinguist at the British Library points out, Samuel Johnson chose not to suggest the pronunciation of words in his Dictionary of the English Language, as he felt there was little agreement about the correct way to articulate his terms. “If you go back to the 18th Century, even the gentry, the educated and wealthy would have spoken with something like a local voice,” Robinson says. Doctor Johnson himself was famous for having a Lichfield accent.
It is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished, since they are neither cleaner, richer, nor better educated than anybody else – Nancy Mitford
It was the increasing popularity of boarding schools that began to change the way the elite spoke, Robinson says, as they began to promote an accent that more closely resembled the sounds of the South East of England (where many of the schools and universities were based). Soon, the accent itself became a marker of class and power, an association that only became exacerbated when the BBC adopted this so-called “Received Pronunciation” for its first broadcasts (you can watch an example below). “It was a voice that everyone in the UK and across the world associated with authority,” says Robinson.
By the middle of the 20th Century, the class system itself had become a little more fluid; now, accent was one of the few ways to mark out those who had inherited their wealth from those who had earned it. As the novelist, essayist (and aristocrat) Nancy Mitford ironically expressed in the book Noblesse Oblige: “It is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished – since they are neither cleaner, richer, nor better-educated than anybody else.”
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before that linguistic divide would begin to close too. As more and more people of working class background have begun to occupy positions of power – some characteristics of more regional southern English accents have started to creep into the crystal tones of Received Pronunciation. “There are now those who speak a more modern form that verges on ‘estuary’ English, which is a mixture of RP and cockney,” says Jonathan Harrington at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
In the past, for instance, RP speakers may have said “poor” and “moor” with a diphthong – a combination of two vowel sounds – so that it sounds something like “poo-uh”; today, they are more likely to pronounce the words so that they sound identical to “paw” and “maw”. Conversely, the Ys at the end of words like “really” and “very” have become longer, and less clipped than in the past (when they sounded closer to the E in “pet”). Similarly, the As in “the cat sat on the mat” were once produced with a smaller mouth opening on the vowel, so it was pronounced something like “the ket set on the met”.
Some younger speakers may even use glottal stops in place of the Ts in phrases such as “it is” or “that is”, Robinson says. To Mitford’s ears, these changes would have sounded like Pygmalion in reverse, as if Professor Higgins had taken the season’s debutantes and turned them into cockney flower girls.
Kate speaks a little more conservatively than William – perhaps an ironic consequence of the snobbery surrounding her lowlier origins
As a sign of just how prevalent this is, Robinson points out that even Princes William and Harry can be heard talking this contemporary RP that is verging on “Estuary English”. Indeed, at the time of the Royal Wedding, Robinson noticed that Kate (now the Duchess of Cambridge) spoke with a slightly more polished, conservative RP accent than her husband – perhaps an ironic consequence of the snobbery surrounding her lowlier origins, and her nerves at appearing on public display. “If you move up a social set you have to try harder to use more prestigious forms,” he says. If you watch the clip below you may see what he means.
It’s not so surprising that younger people might adopt some of the tones they hear on the streets – perhaps as a reaction against their upbringing. “There are these things we might do to seem cooler and trendier, but which we would drop when we get older,” says Robinson.
Just listen and you might be able hear a subtle but noticeable difference. Compare, for instance, how she pronounces “my own family often gather round (or, to approximate the way it sounds to my own working class ear, “my own femileh awften gether rownd”) in the first televised Christmas Broadcast of 1957…
… with the way that she says “I have been warned I may have Happy Birthday sung to me more than once or twice” in the 2015 Christmas Broadcast.
Even the simple phrase “very, Happy Christmas” at the end of the broadcasts reveals a shift with time. Here she is rounding off that 1957 broadcast:
And here is the way she finished it in 2015:
Harrington is sceptical that the Queen took some kind of elocution lessons in a conscious effort to sound less upper class. His analyses of the Christmas Broadcasts suggest the vowels slid slowly, almost imperceptibly from year to year – whereas if she was deliberately trying to emulate her subjects, then you would expect to hear a more abrupt shift.
Instead, he thinks an answer comes from some interesting recent psychological studies looking at the art of conversation. Various experiments have found that each time we speak to someone, our accent moves very slightly to match theirs, perhaps an unconscious effort to build rapport. There is also some evidence that it improves your comprehension of what they are saying. Importantly, the effects lingered after the subjects had said their goodbyes. “If you measure their speech you often find that they sound very slightly more like each other after the conversation than they did before,” says Harrington.
What’s fascinating is that despite her prestige, the Queen seems to have been making the same unconscious gesture of solidarity that we all make
Harrington points out that at the start of the Queen’s reign, she may not have come into contact with many commoners on a regular basis, but with the greater social mobility of the 60s and 70s, people with a less upper-class accent would have slowly entered positions of power. “Think, for example, of the prime ministers. In the 1950s, they were from aristocratic backgrounds, then in the 60s and 70s you have prime ministers who aren’t from that background at all – Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, and Margaret Thatcher.” That’s not to mention members of her staff – and eventually, her own children and grandchildren – who may have all brought different voices to her ears.
In fact, he thinks you can see that broadcasters such as David Attenborough have been subject to the same forces, when you look back at his first documentaries. “This spontaneous subtle imitation is one of the main drivers of sound change,” says Harrington.
What’s fascinating is that this subtle mimicry had previously been observed among subjects in the laboratory, not a reigning monarch. Yet despite her prestige and wealth, the Queen is still making exactly the same tiny, unconscious gesture of solidarity that we all do, meaning that each conversation has left its imprint on her speech. In a single vowel, we can therefore find a trace of all the people she has met, a sign of the changing voice of 21st Century Britain.
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on twitter.
Join 500,000+ Future fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram. This story is a part of BBC Britain – a series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.