Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Way They Sounded

I have heard it said that the French Canadian accent - at times lampooned by the French - somewhat resembles the way in which the early French colonists themselves spoke. I'm by no means an authority on the subject, but it provides a nice lead in to my topic today - that is, the nature of spoken English during the eighteenth century.

One does not gain an entirely favourable impression of Georgian London and the language of its inhabitants from Monsieur Pierre-Jean Grosley's 1770 account of his brief sojourn in the city. For one thing, he never did manage to see the Apothecaries' Garden (or the Physics Garden) in Chelsea owing to the fact that none could understand his pronounciation of Apothecary (he found later that it was incongruously pronounced 'Potticary'). As a result, he wrote the following scathing attack on the English language:
The English Language as generally spoken seems to consist entirely of monosyllables...the first [syllable] is pronounced with emphasis and the rest, being half suppossed, dies away with the may be easier here to speak to a horse than a fellow human being.
He noted also the idiosyncratic discrepancy between written and spoken English using as his example that surgeon, whilst pronounced as it is today, was written 'chirurgeon'.

The most admired speaker of the Georgian age was most probably the actor David Garrick (pictured above with his wife), but the fact even he also was guilty of obscure pronounciation (he was said to pronounce 'firm' and 'girth' as 'gurd' and 'furm' and apparently "his example was followed by many of his imitators on the stage...who could do well to correct this impropriety") is evidence that there was a comparable variety in the way in which words were pronounced in London alone as there is today with the regional variations of the British accent.

Dr Samuel Johnson remarked that in London, 'gold' was pronounced 'goold' and 'Rome', 'room' and that 'Ea' in combination with two or more consonants (such as in the world 'earth') should be pronounced as in 'realm', similarily, 'Au' in words should be pronounced as a sharp 'a' as in 'cat'. Dr Johnson seemed to concur though with M. Grosley, asserting:
Our speech [is] copious without order, and energetick without rules...[our vowels] are so capriciously pronounced and so differently modified by accident or affection.
In 'The Complete Letter-Writer' of 1768, it is noted that many words contain letters which are not pronounced 'but must be wrote'. It uses as its examples 'devil' and 'venison' which both omitted an 'i' in pronounciation and 'Bristol' which apparently then was pronounced without an 'l' - indeed it appears in some Georgian maps as 'Bristow'.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Perhaps a good example of singular Georgian pronounciation is the 'Cavendish drawl' or the 'Devonshire House drawl' - an odd form of pronounciation employed by the Cavendishes - notably the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and their inner circle. According to Georgiana Cavendish (the Duchess of Devonshire)'s biographer Amanda Foreman:
Hope was written and pronounced as 'whop'; you become 'oo'. Vowels were composed and extended so that cucumber became 'cowcumber', yellow 'yaller' and spoil rhymed with mile. Stresses fell on unexpected syllables, such as bal-cony and con-template. By the middle of the next century, all Whigs would speak in the Drawl...but in Georgiana's time, it remained the Circle's own patois
Pronounciation was not the only hurdle foreigners like poor M. Grosley had to overcome. In her book, 'Dr Johnson's London', Liza Picard provides us with an excellent list of the some of the curious terms prevalent in the Georgian vernacular:

Bingo: brandy
bread: employment
chatter broth: tea
crack: prostitute
fireship: prostitute with venereal disease
homely: plain
honey month: the first month after marriage
looking glass: not a mirror, but a chamber pot
louse ladder: dropped stitch in stocking
mob: a term coined by the elites from mobile vulgas, the fickle crowd
niffy-naffy fellow: a joker; a wit
old hat: a woman's genitalia
rhino: cash; bills of money

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