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.