Monday, October 15, 2012

The Queen's Speech

Halley's Comet appears approximately every three-quarters of a century.

Periodical cicadas (commonly known as the seventeen-year locusts) return, well, after seventeen years.

A more recently discovered (by yours truly) cyclical event is QEA (for Queen's English Anxiety), which seems to occur at intervals of a half-dozen years.

The first recorded occurrence of QEA was in the year 2000, upon the publication by J. Harrington, S. Palethorpe, and C. Watson of "Does the Queen Speak the Queen's English" in Nature magazine (the article itself being a popularization of the trio's findings originally published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association in an article entitled "Monophthongal vowel changes in received pronunciations: An acoustic analysis of the Queen's Christmas broadcasts." The following excerpt from the abstract of the Nature article explains what the trio did and what they discovered:
. . . we analyse[d] vowel sounds from the annual Christmas messages broadcast by HRH Queen Elizabeth II during the period between the 1950s and 1980s. Our analysis reveals that the Queen's pronunciation of some vowels has been influenced by the standard southern-British accent of the 1980s which is more typically associated with speakers who are younger and lower in the social hierarchy.
And that was the cue for the launching of QEA. Media from London to Los Angeles rose up to the full height of cutesy-sarkiness. Guardian (UK) editorial:
The Queen's English is modulating.
“My husband and I have had, y'know, a bituva tricky year, one way and annuvva. I mean, what with Chiles getting in all that hot wa'er about GM food and that, and then the flippin' Guardian sticking it to us with its, su'ov, anti-discrimination, Act uv Se'ulment thing. Anyway, bottom line: have a wikkid Christmas - plenty of turkey on the old plates, a few jars with your mates, you know the drill. You should all be well sorted.”. . . we suspect calculation here as well as mere social change. All today's most popular figures . . . speak mockney. The Queen is simply trying to get in on the act. They are nothing if not adaptable, these royals. Ain't that the truth, yer madge?
A story in the Los Angeles Times began:
Ho, ho, ho, Henry Higgins, the queen's [sic] English ain't wot it used to be.
And there basically the matter stood, as QEA tiptoed away to wherever cycles go to rest when they can no longer be observed by human witnesses. Until six years later, when Jonathan Harrington, one of the original trio of researchers, roused the QEA beast to wakefulness with an article entitled “An acoustic analysis of ‘happy-tensing in the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts” in the Journal of PhoneticsAs Mark Liberman reported at the time (
The papers have been buzzing with news about the Queen's English. These reports vary in tone and content, but many of them bang the drum for the decline of civilization.
Liberman went on to list a number of periodicals from across the globe that contributed to the QEA:
Roger Dobson, “Speaking the Queen’s English: Me ‘ubby and I, innit”, The Independent, 12/3/2006; 
Mark Prissell, “One’s voice ain’t that posh”, The Sun, 12/4/2006; 
Neil Tweedie, “How the Queen’s English has grown more like ours”, Telegraph, 12/5/2006; 
Catherine Jones, “One thinks one has lorst one’s posh voice”, Western Mail, 12/5/2006. 
Sajeda Momin, “How the Queen’s English has changed with the times”, Daily News & Analysis (India), 12/5/2006; 
Justin Lees, “Royal Vowels crossing Jordan”, The Daily Telegraph (Canada), 12/5/2006. 
“My word—the queen’s English is slipping”, UPI (reprinted in the Daily Indian, 12/4/2006);  
“Study: Queen Sounds More Like Subjects”, AP (reprinted in the LA Times, 12/4/2006).  
But as it became yesterday’s news, QEA slipped away to its place of hibernation.

Until 2012, when, six years having passed, it was time for its cyclical return. Not an academic this time, but a thespian aroused it—Helen Mirren. On September 21,The Daily Telegraph, the canary warning of the decline of all things not Tory in the coal mine of British civilization, headlined its report of an interview the actress conducted with the Daily Mail  (the other renowned canary which warns of the decline of all things not Tory in the coal mine of British civilization) as follows:
Queen's English no longer spoken by Queen, says Helen Mirren
The Queen's English has long been deemed the correct way to speak but, according to Dame Helen Mirren, even her majesty is slipping
Now to be fair to Dame Helen (who I admire enormously—see if you can find a copy of the BBC version of As You Like It; she positively glows as Rosalind disguised as Ganymede), she is not quoted in the Daily Mail saying the words that theTelegraph has put into her mouth. But for the Telegraph, Mirren’s actual words were enough to call forth a first rate Queen’s English Alarm:
Her voice has changed, and I can use that –she had a terribly posh voice when she was young. But now even the Queen, while she isn't quite dropping the ends of her lines –though her grandsons do! – there's a tiny bit of estuary [English] creeping in there.
It doesn’t take more than a few seconds’ thought for any intelligent being to recognize that the idea that the Queen’s (or King’s) English is the gold standard of the tongue is patently absurd. The Queen (or King) of England may be the head of state of the United Kingdom and the head of the Church of England (thanks to Henry VIII), but is not the head of the democracy of the English language. Can anyone argue that German-speaking George I was the determiner of “correct” English? Or the Dutchman William of Orange? And how about those Medieval centuries when first a Norman French clan and then a plain old French mob ruled the land? I suppose we can even toss in the Scotsman James I here. 

It is unfortunate, though, that so many people have been bamboozled by the belief that a catchphrase (the Queen’s English) is a rule of language.

Note: The Queen's English Society ceased operations earlier this year.