views updated

BBC ENGLISH A non-technical term for the speech of newsreaders and presenters of the national and international English-language programmes of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The phrase refers especially to the accent known to phoneticians as RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION (RP) and sometimes informally referred to as a BBC accent. The term is used in at least three ways: neutrally, in the sense of English as heard on BBC news; positively, as the exemplary English of BBC announcers; negatively, as the accent of privilege imposed on the nation by a monopolistic and allegedly patronizing state institution. In recent years, while RP and near-RP accents continue to dominate BBC newsreading and presentation, they are no longer exclusive for announcements and continuity on radio and television. Reasons include the limited numbers of RP speakers available for training as broadcasters, the rise of local radio and TV stations with a demotic style in which RP might be a handicap, a gradually increasing national use of speakers with other accents in tandem with a degree of social levelling, and changes in the nature of RP itself, including forms blending with some southern accents: see ESTUARY ENGLISH. The use of RP remains strong in the World Service, and for many overseas listeners the traditional BBC voice is equated with good English.

The BBC and spoken English

The BBC was founded in 1922 and in 1924 its managing director, John C. W. Reith, a Scottish engineer, published the book Broadcast over Britain. In a chapter devoted to ‘The King's English’, he observed:
We have made a special effort to secure in our stations men who, in the presentation of programme items, the reading of news bulletins and so on, can be relied upon to employ the correct pronunciation of the English tongue. … I have frequently heard that disputes as to the right pronunciation of words have been settled by reference to the manner in which they have been spoken on the wireless. No one would deny the great advantage of a standard pronunciation of the language, not only in theory but in practice. Our responsibilities in this matter are obvious, since in talking to so vast a multitude, mistakes are likely to be promulgated to a much greater extent than was ever possible before.

The Advisory Committee

To implement and supplement his language policy, Reith established in 1926 an Advisory Committee on Spoken English. Its chairman was Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate and a founder of the Society for Pure English, and its honorary secretary Arthur Lloyd James, a Welsh phonetician at the School of Oriental and African Studies, U. of London. Its other original members were Daniel JONES, Professor of Phonetics at U. College London and compiler of the English Pronouncing Dictionary (1917), the actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, the naturalized American scholar Logan Pearsall Smith, and the Irish playwright and critic George Bernard SHAW. The committee's task was to make recommendations on policy and on the pronunciation of contentious words, both native and foreign, decisions being reached by majority vote.

Recommended pronunciation.

Reith sought ‘a style or quality of English that would not be laughed at in any part of the country’. It was generally agreed that the most appropriate medium was the accent which Jones at that time referred to as Public School Pronunciation and shortly afterwards began to call Received Pronunciation. The committee considered that PSP would convey a suitable sense of sobriety, impartiality, and impersonality. A necessary implication of the decision, however, was that posts as announcers would only be filled by men of a certain class and type. The committee's recommendations on the pronunciation of individual words were mandatory for announcers and newsreaders. To some extent, the presence of phoneticians on the committee ensured that the strict prescriptivism expressed by Reith in 1924 was to some extent mitigated. In the foreword to Broadcast English I (1928), the first booklet of recommendations (covering 332 words), Reith wrote: ‘There has been no attempt to establish a uniform spoken language. … The policy might be described as that of seeking a common denominator of educated speech.’ Lloyd James noted in the BBC Handbook (1929) that recommending certain pronunciations to announcers ‘is not to be regarded as implying that all other pronunciations are wrong: the recommendations are made in order to ensure uniformity of practice, and to protect the Announcers from the criticism to which the very peculiar nature of their work renders them liable’. There was from the earliest years an element of tension and disagreement among those responsible for shaping language policy as well as among the listeners, some of whom took BBC usage to be authoritative while others did not.

Recommended pronunciations.

Pronunciations of individual words agreed by the committee were not written in IPA symbols but in a respelling system (with an acute accent marking stress) that would be more readily intelligible to the BBC's staff. Early recommendations that had no long-term effect include allies and mishap stressed on the second syllable, immanent as ‘immáynent’, to avoid confusion with imminent, pejorative as ‘péejorativ’, and quandary as ‘kwondáiry’. The membership of the committee grew over the years, until it was over 20 strong. Bridges died in 1930 and Shaw became chairman; new members included Alistair Cooke because of his work with the American Dialect Society, the OED editor C. T. Onions, the dialectologist Harold Orton, and the lexicographer Henry Cecil Wyld. It was not easy to agree on the pronunciations of many words: in 1928 the committee recommended the pronunciation ‘gárrazh’ for garage, in 1931 changed to ‘gárredge’, then in 1935 returned to ‘gárrazh’. In the same year, under the leadership of Lloyd James, it published its recommendations for place-names and family names in six volumes that served as an internal BBC standard for many years. Words whose recommended pronunciation has stood the test of time include Auld Lang Syne (‘sign’, not ‘zine’), centenary (‘sentéenări’, not ‘-tenn-’), controversy (stress on the first syllable), and machination (‘mack-’).


In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, the committee was suspended. Lloyd James and Jones remained as advisers for the rest of their lives and day-to-day work was taken over by Miss G. M. Miller, assistant secretary to the committee, with the title of Pronunciation Assistant, and Miss E. D. Anderson, both Scots and graduates of London U. trained in phonetics. After the war, the committee was not reactivated and at an uncertain date in the 1940s the group became known as the BBC PRONUNCIATION UNIT, whose brief was to give guidance to newsreaders and announcers on the pronunciation of place and personal names.

Reithian broadcasting

From 1926, newsreaders and programme announcers were required to wear dinnerjackets when on duty in the evenings. In his memoirs, Stuart Hibberd observed:
Personally, I have always thought it only right and proper that announcers should wear evening dress on duty. After all, announcing is a serious, if new, profession, and the wearing of evening dress is an act of courtesy to the artists, many of whom will almost certainly be similarly dressed if they are taking part in a programme from 8 p.m. onwards. There are, of course, certain disadvantages. It is not ideal kit in which to read the News—I myself hate having anything tight round my neck when broadcasting—and I remember that more than once the engineers said that my shirt-front creaked during the reading of the bulletin (This—is London, 1950).Informality was forbidden, as were impromptu additions and statements of personal opinion. However, when the newsreader Frank Philips, after the late-night shipping forecast, said to sea captains, ‘Good night, gentlemen, and good sailing’, listeners approved of it as a pleasant and worthy departure from the norm.

Changes in policy

Although the official voice of the BBC continued after the war to be that of the public school and Oxbridge, in some kinds of broadcasting non-RP speakers were used, such as weather forecasting, sports commentating, discussions of gardening, and drama and entertainment. In the 1950s, the BBC's approach was challenged by the more demotic style of new Independent Television. The BBC began to use some announcers and commentators from regional stations on network current affairs, especially for sport. The new radio networks in the 1960s led to a further relaxation, and in 1979 the retired newsreader Alvar Lidell complained about declining standards in an article in The Listener. A committee was set up to monitor the situation, one of whose members was Robert Burchfield, editor of the OED Supplement. In a booklet called The Spoken Word (1981), he stated that although standards had in some respects become more relaxed, there had been no decline. Radio 3 and the BBC World Service continued the RP tradition, but in 1989 the World Service announced a new policy of using announcers and newsreaders with a more representative range of accents. The process of relaxation continues and is especially noticeable in local BBC services throughout Britain.