Did Austen Speak Posh?

In our last blog, we heard how Shakespeare’s English much more resembled the accents of the provinces than the “proper” English favored today by actors and newscasters, the latter being an accent called “Received Pronunciation” or “RP.”

Jane Austen had knowledge of and appreciation for Shakespeare. There are parallels between her social comedies and his, Willoughby reads “Hamlet” in “Sense and Sensibility,” and Edmund Bertram discusses Shakespeare in “Mansfield Park.”

Austen has other passing references to the Bard, one of which, Sonnet 116, is given prominence in Emma Thompson’s screenplay for “Sense and Sensibility,” as explained  here (with some additional theorizing).

Seeing that Austen, like Shakespeare, is considered one of the masters of impeccable English, the question naturally arises as to whether the speaking language in her sitting rooms was closer to RP or to the “Original Pronunciation” or “OP”–a rich, earthy, older dialect similar to Scottish, Irish, and American English.

Austen’s novels are set in different counties in south England. Each dialect would have varied somewhat, but there would have been many similarities. To pick one county to stand for all, let’s use Hampshire, Austen’s home for most of her life.

Tony Grant, a scholar from Hampshire, says the county’s sound “is a warm, gentle sort of accent with a soft burr to it … You could not mistake somebody speaking with a Hampshire accent … as coming from anywhere else but Hampshire.”

According to Grant, the famous first proposal by Darcy to Liz in “Pride and Prejudice” would have sounded much different if rendered in the Hampshire speech that Austen herself likely used. First, here is Austen’s graceful prose:

“In an unhurried manner he immediately began an inquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. … He came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began: ‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’ ”

Once she overcomes her astonishment, Liz responds:

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. … If I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. … ”

Darcy’s plea and Liz’s response is transformed thus:

“Ize a bin struggling wi meslf, Lizzie. It won’t do nay more. Me feelins will not be [reprezz’d] nay mar. Yee mussle allowz me t’ tell yee ’ow, wi some power’ul emotion me admires and loves ee.”

“In sich as this, it is ’stablished thing t’express a sense a obligati’n fer the sen’imen’s avowed, ’owever unequalz they be. … If ay could feel grat’tude, I’d now thank ee. But ay can’t – I’ve ne’r wannered yer good thoughts like, and yee’ve cert’nly bin unwillin’ aven’t ee.”

Grant admits that this accent is exaggerated; he says he mixes in other accents from farther west. In addition to changing the pronunciation he also modifies much of Austen’s formal language to Hampshire colloquialisms. Even so, the dialog should make it clear that Liz would have spoken much differently than most of us assume. If she were to break into that dialect in a BBC episode, we would likely be as astonished as Liz was at Darcy’s unexpected proposal.

It does not appear that anyone has done a recording of Austen’s work in a Hampshire dialect. For comparison, though, here is a recording of a local Hampshire man born in 1898. The Austen accent, from eighty to a hundred years earlier, would have been at least as thick and likely thicker (one might say, “richer”).

Here is another one from the county, a woman born in 1920. In just one generation, the accent has become less distinct, but it’s still noticeable. To an untrained American ear, the woman’s accent sounds like the maid Rose from the series “Upstairs Downstairs” rather than from one of the gentry upstairs.

It would be fascinating to hear how the use of Austen’s native tongue might change the speed, rhythm, and emphasis of the dialogue. There is a very noticeable difference in Shakespeare plays, as comparison. The original accent is faster, spoken from the belly rather than the vocal cords, and brings out more puns in the text.

The International Dialects of English Archive includes accents from other locales in which Austen set her scenes. None of the accents resembles the posh English of today’s Shakespeare plays and Austen movies.

Both Austen and her characters would have been immediately recognized as being from the country when they went up to London, which then as now has its own distinct sound. Locals would not necessarily assume they were bumpkins; the country had too many regional accents to allow discrimination by sound; one could tell the “right sort” of people by their wealth and manners.

It was, however, during this time that the speech of the well-to-do in and around London began to assume its modern form. A major change was the loss of ‘rhoticity’—the ‘r’ sound after a vowel, so that “park” became “pahk.” There’s a chance that Londoners—and perhaps Darcy—would have begun to pick up the distinct RP accent that the modern listener associates with upper-crust England.

That accent is relatively easy to learn, according to a young woman who promises to teach us how to speak like Hermione from “Harry Potter.”

But what is posh is a matter of fashion rather than linguistics. At least one young London woman considers “RP”—as spoken by Dowager Countess Grantham in “Downton Abbey”—to be an accent that can be used credibly only by old people. She distinguishes between old-fashioned RP and modern “standard,” in which people are allowed to maintain their natural accents.

Under this definition, Jane Austen’s Hampshire accent would be perfectly acceptable because she always wrote proper English, no matter how she spoke it.

Note and tip of the hat: I came to the article about Austen’s accent through a long interest in Shakespeare’s tongue, which led to the previous blog post here. As I was working on both of these blogs, Vic at Jane Austen’s World published the blog by Tony Grant, which I cite here. I independently came upon several other links included in that blog. Jane Austen’s World is a lovely website, and I encourage everyone to visit it.