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Hendbegs and Hets

On English pronunciation.

My whole life has been deeply affected by the letter A. In Britain, so much depends on how you pronounce it that it is odd that there has never been an attempt to regulate its use. In my remote infancy, now so long ago that it is fading from history into legend, many people in my class (the lower-upper-middle), would say “ebsolutely” and “stend beck!” without a trace of embarrassment. Many used this accent to fit in. Others just used it because they had grown up speaking it. Where this rather affected style of pronunciation came from, I do not know. It is very likely that George Orwell, who went from Eton to work in a colonial police service, spoke in this way, though no recording of his voice has ever been found. Its supremacy did not last long. And if it was an attempt to sound grand, it was not very effective. English landed aristocrats of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries spoke in an utterly different way—a gruff, dismissive upper-class Cockney, saying “Oi” for “I” and “yer” rather than “your.” You can catch fading traces of this in Winston Churchill’s recorded speeches, and in the abdication statement of King Edward VIII. The departing monarch’s pronunciation of “I” in “as I would wish to do” cannot easily be expressed in writing.

I have (for the moment) lost the tape recordings in which my late father sent an annual audio message to his sister’s family in South Africa, sixty years ago. The “Hello!” with which it begins comes straight from the wardroom of a pre-1939 British navy cruiser. It sounded something like “Hilloah.” Yet my father did not naturally talk like this. He had been brought up in a modest part of Portsmouth, speaking with the beautiful, soft, rolling Hampshire burr which has almost entirely disappeared, but which was once one of the strongest accents of Southern England. Try saying the phrase “Thou lummocky lurden,” rolling the R as far and as hard as you can, and you may get some sense of its cadence. It sounds very slightly Irish. In another lost tape, my grandfather could be heard reciting a poem called “Two Buckets in an Ancient Well,” also in broadest Hampshire. His other children, my aunt and uncle, kept traces of it in their voices till they died, though it only became strong in moments of heightened emotion. But local accents of any kind would never have done for an officer in Her Majesty’s Navy, a gentleman afloat, such as my father became. Alas, not long after he retired he had to learn yet another way of speaking, for his officer-class vowels were increasingly mocked and even despised in a Britain which was genuinely becoming less class-ridden, thanks to a brief period of good free education. Something similar happened to me. In the early years of my secluded private schooling, we all talked like Her Majesty the Queen with her “hendbegs” and “hets,” and almost all had absurd fluting, high-pitched upper crust voices to match. When exactly did we lose them, or rather put them aside, and how? I must have done this. But while it was deliberate, my adaptation was certainly not conscious. The easiest way to disguise such origins was to deepen your voice, which happened at puberty anyway. But I cannot remember any moment at which I decided to change the way I spoke. My experience was totally unlike that of so many children of the 1940s and 1950s, who actually took elocution lessons to change the way they talked, and sound more like me in my private school days.

But we, with our expensively-acquired cut-glass voices, just became gradually aware, in the middle to late 1960s, that the way we spoke was no longer current, could get us nasty looks in certain places, and was better toned down. An acquaintance of mine was once actually warned by a police officer that his loud accent might be upsetting other people on the subway train he was riding.

There is now a sort of truce on accents in Britain. A miserable thing called the “Estuary Accent” has now become the normal speech of millions in England’s crowded South-Eastern corner. Young, rich, privately educated people adopt it. Broadcasters use it. I doubt whether there are any elocution teachers left alive. You have to travel far from London before distinct local accents appear. Many have been obliterated, though an astonishing record of their variety and beauty was made in 1916 by Wilhelm Doegen, a German linguist who systematically recorded the accents of prisoners of war from throughout the British Empire. The archive survives to this day and mainly tells us how much has been lost since T.V. made everything bland.

But there is still a sharp North-South distinction, which has many aspects. The North is supposed to be more hard-working, more virtuous, more gritty and realistic than the supposedly soft, indulgent South. It is partly true and partly rubbish, like so many such clichés. One of the greatest anomalies in England used to be the existence of coal mines in the southern county of Kent, supposedly the “garden of England” famed for its pretty villages and hop fields. It was as incongruous as it would have been to find a Haute Couture house establishing itself and its models amid the pithead baths and waste-heaps of Barnsley. And yet it existed. Still, the North is undoubtedly different, and the letter A helps to define that difference. All my young life I thought “castle” rhymed with “parcel.” But not in the North, where it rhymes with “tassel.” When the southerner first hears these things, he thinks the northerners are putting it on for effect. During my first Trotskyist attempts to infiltrate working-class Yorkshire, especially while visiting coalfield villages, I discovered that people said “baby” to rhyme with “tabby” and “water” to rhyme with “batter.” I listened in utter amazement, convinced to begin with that they were joking. And then I grasped, in a great explosion of discovery, that in this case it was I and my drawling vowels that were the joke. Also, what rule could possibly support my habit of rhyming “water” with “porter”? There was no sense in any of it. I suppose this is how deep-cover spies would get caught out, if they tried to operate in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Later in life, I remember a newspaper colleague, who came from the north of England, mocking me for saying “bath” to rhyme with “hearth.” Like everyone in the English North, and millions of others in the English-speaking world, he rhymed it with “Cath.” “Why don’t you say ‘rarbit’ instead of ‘rabbit’?” he jeered.

But in the Wiltshire town where we both worked, we did not know the half of it. I expect it has died out now, but in those days in that part of that lovely county, people pronounced “gas” to rhyme with “farce.” I have never heard this in any other part of Britain. This usage was driven home by my daily sessions in the magistrates’ court, keeping an eye on the local petty crime. Five or six times a day people would be had up for stealing from their “garse meters,” according to the clerk of the court, a stern, cadaverous, and obviously well-educated man who cannot have been making fun of us. It made me wonder what other variations there might be. But all that got lost when, in my last real attempt to grapple with the mysteries of language, I tried to learn Russian in three months. Here, with relief, I discovered that vowels changed their pronunciation all the time, according to whether they were stressed or not. But how could you tell where the stress fell? There was no discernible rule for it, in a language where a frightening number of words contained four or more vowels (e.g., diplomatichesky). This was so much so that a Russian friend agreed with me that nobody in the capital was sure how to pronounce the name of Moscow’s obscure fourth airport. Was it it “Bikohva,” “B’ikava,” or perhaps “Bikavoh”? But then again, it was so little used (I arrived at it once, having been diverted) that nobody needed to find out. And as I grappled with this, an ancient memory came of me and my brother as children, playing the fool with words we knew well, by changing the stress on them—and being amazed by how quickly the familiar could be made to sound outlandish. Everything in the world, once you look at it closely, is astonishing, fearfully, and wonderfully made.