“Twenty-five years ago, my grandfather broadcast the first of these Christmas messages. Today is another landmark because television has made it possible for many of you to see me in your homes […] It’s inevitable that I should seem a rather remote figure to many of you, a successor to the kings and queens of history, someone whose face may be familiar in newspapers and films but who never rarely touches your personal lives […] but it’s possible for some of you to see me today is just another example of the speed at which things are changing all around us.”
What you just heard was Queen Elizabeth II’s first televised Christmas message on the BBC. You will probably have realised how very unusual her accent is. The cut-glass pronunciation sounds more like the kind of English spoken by the British upper classes in the 1940s and 1950s and is sometimes called ‘Conservative Received Pronunciation’. Almost nobody speaks like the Queen anymore, except perhaps her son Charles. Although in recent years the Queen’s pronunciation has become a little more relaxed, it’s still an accent that many ordinary Britons find alienating. Is this the accent that Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, will be hearing from her husband, Prince Harry, and from her royal in-laws William and Kate?
Harry’s generation of British royals tend to speak using received pronunciation – or RP –, the standard form of British English pronunciation, based on educated speech in southern England. This modern form of RP has dropped most of the “posh” vowel sounds used by the Queen and older royals. But although Harry, William and Kate speak mainly RP, not many people, even royals, use pure RP anymore. Harry, especially, tends to adapt his accent to suit his audience; if he’s speaking to teenagers from a deprived neighbourhood, his accent gets less formal. And he definitely mixes in elements of Estuary English at times. Estuary is a relatively new accent that combines informal London speech with RP. It comes across as more accessible and less posh than RP.
The BBC, too, has changed its pronunciation. Whereas RP used to be the only accent you would hear from radio and TV presenters on the BBC, from the 1960s the corporation began accepting presenters with regional accents. Today, instead of trying to be a guardian of high-status RP, as it was in the past, the BBC actively promotes the inclusion of different accents.
The aim is to reflect the way real people in Britain speak, not encourage everyone to speak in the same way.
Should Meghan speak more like the Queen?
In the year since Meghan Markle married Prince Harry and became part of the British Royal Family, every aspect of her behaviour has been under under scrutiny, including her American accent. Should she be trying to sound more British, more royal? This is Meghan speaking at a United Nations conference in 2015:
“Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I am tremendously honored to be UN women’s advocate for political participation and leadership. I am proud to be a woman and a feminist [...] Women make up more than half of the world’s population and potential so it is neither just nor practical for their voices, for our voices, to go unheard at the highest levels of decision-making. We cannot implement change effectively without women’s political participation. It is said that girls with dreams become women with vision. May we empower each other to carry out such vision, because it isn’t enough to simply talk about equality: one must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to simply believe in it, one must work at it. Let us work at it together, starting now.”
Sounding British Stateside
Now that Meghan is part of the British royal family, will she start trying to use RP? Probably not. She’s already made it clear that she has no intention of changing her American accent. And although tabloid journalists have tried to manufacture stories about how her accent is becoming more British, there really isn’t much evidence. Remember that Meghan is a professional actor, who is aware of her voice and how to control it.
Accent and class
But why would anyone want to change their accent? George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1916: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” The way a British person spoke certainly used to be a clear indicator of their class background, and for a country obsessed with class, that labelling was fundamental. But attitudes are changing, fortunately. While RP is still seen as a high-status accent, it’s certainly not the requirement for professional success it once was. Business people and politicians have realised that if being yourself means using a natural regional accent or laid-back Estuary English, that’s sometimes the best way to make a connection with people. And Meghan has already proved she doesn’t need elocution lessons to do that!