Sunday, 26 February 2017
There’s a daft joke, relying on a homophone, that I trot out from time to time. It goes: “I am happily acquainted with twenty-five letters of the alphabet... I just don’t know why.” Boom-boom. I’m sure with a little re-wording it could be adapted to draw attention to the plight of another letter, because today there is a great chance that a whole generation will grow up being entirely unfamiliar with the complexities of you.
One of the vocal affectations which separates north from south in spoken English is the pronunciation of this tricky letter. In the north it is hard and uncompromising, in the south its sound is often closer to a distorted ‘A’. Try saying bus; do you say U as in cushion [ʊ], or U as cup [ʌ]? This particular north/south divide is thought to date back around three hundred years and like the short or long A in grass, path and bath is an instant identifier of geographic origins.
As a teenager at university I came into contact with people who spoke as I had only previously heard on the television and perceived the soft bigotry of the confident southerner towards the lumbering backward northerner; in telly land, northern accents although by no means rare were nonetheless treated as a comical curiosity and often signalled, shall we say, a somewhat less incisive intellect. How you sounded your vowels, it seemed, might be the key to fitting in.
For New Zealanders this isn’t a problem; I have heard it said they only have the one, but that’s not true. I’ve definitely heard at least two. Mind you their antipodean neighbours do their best to compensate by cramming three or four into the single word ‘no’. And should the dying refrain from the theme song of Melbourne’s most famous show be fed into a sonic analyser I’m confident you’ll discover at least four vowel sounds in ‘friends’. They just don’t care, do they?
But over here it’s a minefield. One day, trying to sound sophisticated I walked [spoke] right into the classic trap; a bird in the hand is worth two in the, er, bʌsh. Everybody stopped talking and turned to look at me. The sky darkened, the room temperature dropped a few degrees and I swear a frost started to creep across the window pane. I thought I was to be banished from the Junior Common Room, except it wasn’t that posh a university.
Now, of course, such words present no problem at all, the uncertainty of how to pronounce words like bʊsh and bʊk are solved by the ubiquitous cop-out of using the anodyne ‘er’ rather than making the effort to get it right. Even on the BBC, former guardians of linguistic precision, I regularly hear discussion of ‘berks’ on ‘A Good Read’ and ‘bershes’ to be trimmed on ‘Gardeners’ Question Time. (I confess, I listen to Radio 4 a lot.) I suggest you all bookmark howjsay and use it whenever you feel the need to ‘go Kiwi’ and resort to a universal, neither-here-nor-there, nondescript, beige grunt instead of making the effort.
And while I’m about it, who made the decision to drop the longer sound of ‘the’ when preceding a vowel? ‘Thee’ apple, ‘the’ boat; it’s not so hard is it? Now, off you go and have a lovely Sunday. Read a book, trim your bush and have a nice cup of tea.