Wednesday, July 25, 2007

There is nothing vibrant about Estuary English

One of great hurrah words amongst the Guardian-reading classes is "vibrant".

For instance, urban comprehensive schools are always described as vibrant. Even if this is not just another way of saying "ill-disciplined", you can't help thinking that if you are trying to study then calmness may sometimes be a more useful quality than vibrancy.

There is also a spot of racism in there somewhere - the variety that sees the native British as irredeemably dull and anyone from an ethnic minority as inevitably possessed of an exciting, colourful culture. It's the sort of dumb but well-meaning view that talked about "calypso cricket" in the 1980s when the West Indies were the most ruthlessly professional team in world sport.

I spotted a new use of the word "vibrant" in the Guardian yesterday. Lyn Gardner wrote about the difficulty the BBC is having in casting an adaptation of the 1930s-set Ballet Shoes because it is hard to find nicely spoken middle-class children any more.

Gardner welcomes this, comparing the rise of Estuary English to the emergence of actors like Tom Courtney and Albert Finney. But this is nonsense. The realist films of the 1960s greatly expanded the range of accents to which we were exposed. The curse of Estuary English is that it makes everyone sound the same.

One reason the Guardian is always apologising for printing "bored of" rather than "bored with" is that its younger staff pronounce "of" and "with" almost identically.

So it was extraordinary to see Gardner write:
My own children's less-than-perfect vowels are far more vibrant than mine, and I enjoy sitting on the top of buses and listening to the banter of teenagers whose patois often has the rich inventiveness of anything written by Shakespeare.
Because Estuary vowels are anything but vibrant.

In the mean time, if you see a woman sitting behind a group of teenagers on the top deck of a bus with a soppy grin on her face, it is probably Lyn Gardner.

1 comment:

Autolycus said...

Where I live in London, I hear a Cockneybanglaribbean accent all the time. Vibrant or not (any noise is "vibrant", it all depends what you do with the vibrations), it isn't particularly imaginative in what's expressed or how it's expressed. Catherine Tate's Lauren and her friends have it about right: and my worry is that laissez-faire in this area is going to restrict these youngsters' career options. If you don't know how to adjust your speech to meet a wide range of expectations, you won't be able to speak convincingly to as many people.

Which is the point of the original observation: actors of all people should be able to do so. And I've certainly been irritated more than once by actors whose idea of RP is pitched distinctly further down the vocal scale than would have been the case in the period they're acting. And these are not children, they're 30-somethings.