I recently spoke with a young person from abroad who had been studying postgraduate phonetics at an English university. As we chatted, I couldn’t stop myself trying to list the characteristics which together made up his strong foreign accent. Quite high on the list was the SQUARE vowel pronounced as [eə]. Despite his being a phonetician, and despite his having lived for years among native speakers who use the contemporary [ɛː], he’d kept the old RP diphthong which I imagine had been taught to him by non-native schoolteachers, and which continues to be transcribed as such in textbooks and dictionaries.
I don’t of course have a recording of this speaker, but here is a parallel example that recently caught my ear, from the celebrity language teacher Michel Thomas. Thomas was born in Łódź, Poland in 1914 and died in 2005. He was fluent in a number of languages but his English had a thick, and to my ear charming, foreign accent. Here he is teaching Italian, and using [eə] in prepare:
This kind of pronunciation hasn’t been common in the more prestigious kinds of native British English for a long time. Here is King George VI in 1948, saying “It gives me much pleasure to declare the Kingston power station open.” His declare with [eə] sounds very old-fashioned to native ears today:
I have to confess that my heart sank as he attributed monophthongal [ɛː] to “younger people”. For many of Radio 4’s traditional listeners, attributing a trait to “younger people” is liable to equate it with wearing your pants low enough to expose your rear. And some non-native listeners may have inferred that [ɛː] is a youthful fashion, not a recommendable standard pronunciation.
What is the age below which [ɛː] is used? Evidently over sixty, since it’s used by Jeremy Paxman (61), the presenter of BBC TV’s Newsnight – a speaker so conservative that he still has [ʊə] in poor:
Here he is again, saying if he becomes mayor [mɛː]:
Of course, as I pointed out in my post on smoothing, centring diphthongs like [eə] are relatively well preserved in lower-class speech. This was exemplified in yesterday’s radio programme, when presenter Michael Rosen (65), who had told us “I talk Estuary English”, later asked Am I getting there? with [ðeə]:
But anyone who stayed with Radio 4 after the programme heard the (standard BrE) continuity announcer telling us about a following programme hosted by Eddie Mair, and pronouncing Mair just like Paxman’s mayor, [mɛː]:
The factors of age and/or social class are illustrated by a pair of adverts currently playing on television. One is for the Belgravia Centre, which specializes in hair loss and scalp care, the other is for BUPA care homes for the elderly:
The [eə] pronunciation is now so old-fashioned that highly-trained actors are either unwilling or unable to use it even when playing period characters who would have had it. Here is the fictional Lady Mary from TV’s Downton Abbey, supposedly speaking during the First World War, a time when the real-life Daniel Jones was busy codifying the accent of her class as “Received Pronunciation”:
(That brief clip is a compendium of divergences from the old-fashioned RP of the dictionaries: no [eə], no [ɪə], no [ʊə], no [æ], no [ʌ], no [uː], etc.)
John Wells (ageless) discusses here his decision to preserve the old [eə] in his dictionary transcriptions:
People do increasingly use a long monophthong for this vowel, rather than the schwa-tending diphthong implied by the standard symbol. What used to be a local-accent feature has become part of the mainstream. There are millions of English people, however, who still use a diphthong. To produce the distinction in pairs such as shed — shared EFL learners generally find it easier to make the square vowel diphthongal ([eə]) rather than to rely on length alone.
On the first point, my view is that the millions of [eə]-users in the Estuary area are perhaps not the best British English model for foreign learners. It’ll be interesting to hear, over the coming years, what happens to higher-class [ɛː] and lower-class [eə]. I’m going to bet 20p that [ɛː] will spread even further, on the grounds that centring diphthongs are less natural and less stable than long monophthongs.
On the second point, there must be a lot of experience behind John’s argument about EFL learners. But I’m not persuaded. There are many languages in the world with contrastive vowel length, but precious few with centring diphthongs. And what about aural competence? Do we teach students to produce [eə] while warning them that BBC announcers and journalists generally say [ɛː]? Anyway, my students tend to be higher-level learners, and I can’t bring myself to teach them a vowel that’s too archaic for “younger people” like Jeremy Paxman, and makes foreigners sound foreigner still.