So which linguistic criminals are to blame? The Americans? Nope. They may have been guilty of savagely stealing the U from honour, colour and glamour, and ruthlessly usurping poor S from its position among realise, organise and their lexical brethren so they could replace it with the rather radical Z, but we can’t pin this one on the English-speakers across the pond. If we want to uncover who really put the R in bath we need look no further than England’s great capital.
London, home of the Queen and the apparently “proper” English speakers, is actually to blame for the mutated pronunciation. According to an expert at the British Library, the Telegraph reports today, the R sound in words such as laugh and bath only came about 150 years ago when Londoners adopted the trend into their speech. Apparently, the entire nation used the bath and "laff" pronunciations about 250 to 300 years ago – a tradition which is still alive and kicking in northern England. The south gradually adopted an “aa” sound which, over time, became the familiar “barth” of the ubiquitous London and Home Counties drawl of today.
So this in effect suggests it is northerners – often ridiculed for their flat-sounding vowels, overlooked as newsreaders for not speaking in a way the general population (well, the population south of Watford) can understand, and stereotyped as being poorer and somehow intellectually inferior because their paths, laughs and baths lack the pedigree of the mysterious invisible R – are actually speaking in what is historically the nation’s true voice.
As a northerner in London I have to say the phonetic grass (not grarse) definitely gets greener as you head up the M1. London may have slowly eroded the northerly twang from some of my words; I now drink Coke, not Cerk, and think ice is cold, not curled, but you will never find an R in my bath. And the British Library research shows this phonetic northern identity shall remain. This week it launches a website dedicated to accents and dialects – Familiar Voices – charting the evolution of the “a” sound across Britain. It has found the “ar” is spreading among the accents of southern England as Londoners move out of the capital, but it is highly unlikely to venture much beyond that due to a near-impenetrable dialect boundary which runs from Birmingham to The Wash.
The changes are attributed to more fluid movements of people within Britain. And, whereas historically southerners were slightly more fickle in their dialect trends, those in the north have been steadfastly loyal to their A sounds.
Will this mean elocution pedants will re-evaluate their curriculum to incorporate the traditional, phonetic sounds spoken by northerners? Will the BBC replace its plummy-voiced breakfast presenters with down-to-earth tones of Yorkshire, Geordie or Scouse accents? And will this finally bring an end to the barth or bath debate once and for all? I suspect northerners will defend their accents as vociferously as they always have done – and southerners will still insist they are speaking “the Queen’s English”. But with more than 300 years of history behind an R-free bath, only one question remains: “Who’s larfing now?”
What do you think? Do northerners or southerners win the pronunciation battle?