Affected speech impediments: is this a uniquely English phenomenon?

Last night, having read a fantastic essay (pdf) by the great historian of revolutionary and pre-revolutionary America Bernard Bailyn, I made my way to the lecture series in honour of Isaiah Berlin where there were plenty more interesting lectures. In any event I’ve known of J.G.A Pocock since I studied early modern European and British History so I bookmarked his lecture to listen to as I went to sleep. He’s a very thoughtful fellow, but until then I had thought that the extraordinary speech impediment that Antoine has in the wonderful TV series of Brideshead Revisited from 1981 was rather amplified for dramatic effect.

But no. That speech impediment really does exist in the wild – at least for as long as JGA Pocock remains in the wild. Which leads me to my question. This is a quite obviously affected speech impediment, and a particularly ridiculous one. I found this one so intrusive and so irritating in the Pocock lecture I couldn’t bear the dissonance it produced listening to it and stopped listening. Fortunately the lecture is also recorded in print if I need to find out what’s in it.

A more common affected speech impediment is the one in which “r”s are pronounced as “w”s as is the case with Fwank Muir on the old BBC program My Word and Dave Edmunds who is co-pwesenter on Philosophy Bites. Anyway the thing is that these speech impediments don’t turn up in other versions of English. They don’t turn up in Australian, Irish, Scottish, American or New Zealand English – at least to my knowledge.

Is this right or am I missing something? Are there any learned speech impediments in Australian or other Englishs? And are there other affected speech impediments in English English? And what FFS is going on?

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10 Responses to Affected speech impediments: is this a uniquely English phenomenon?

  1. Slim says:

    Although not strictly speech impediments we also enjoy ‘plees’ by police force members and ‘medsin’ from the medical fraternity – required affectations for ingroup signification.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Yes, not similar. That’s accent, not impediment.

  3. Wilful says:

    I’m not sure there’s a bright line between accent and impediment, but moving on… The “braahton” accent that a small number of very rich underemployed women in the nice suburbs of Melbourne use does actually exist and is a learned affectation.

  4. MD says:

    What about the disappearing letter l, notable in NSW politicians: millions = miyons, New South Wales = New Souf Wowse ?

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I know someone who knows she has a slight speech impediment in pronouncing the sound “L” usually stands for. Bill Lawrie has the same thing when you listen closely to his cricket commentary. But a lot of people like the sound of ‘miyons’ like they like the sound of “vunerable”. Can’t see how it’s posing as a speech impediment.

      There’s also the case of the Spanish Lisp where (as I’ve heard the story anyway) it, a Spanish King spoke with a lisp and lots of people joined in and so some Spanish accents incorporate the lisp – making them Thpanish I guess.

      • Marks says:

        Yes, but isn’t that what you mean by “affected speech impediment”?

        How is “miyon” thus pronounced because somebody likes it, and “fwank and fearless” thus pronounced for the same reason different?

  5. Conrad says:

    I think to some extent you are talking about 3 things that can be separate — phonological change, speech articulation disorders, and speech representation disorders (depending on the change and the speaker — i.e, language as a whole, things that are hard to say, and things where you hear something different to everyone else).

    In terms of an articulation/representation problem you get commonly in kids and less commonly in adults, one is:
    ‘Th’ said as ‘f’ (I fink it’s great). This goes across all varieties of English.

    In terms of “r”, it is unsurprising how variable it is across speakers given different forms of English treat it quite differently (e.g., rhotic -r as in the ‘r’ on the end of e.g., Far in US/Irish vs. Aus English)

    In terms of phonological changes across many words in Melbourne English (and Southern Brit speakers and some more Northerly Aus speakers) words like Poll vs. Pole (O with an L after it) are often considered homophones (with a short vowel) — and I can’t even say words like Golf with a long vowel.

    Another one is the number of syllables we use. Many Melborune speakers use two for grown (Grown-in) but most of the English speaking world uses one.

    There are also differences on specific words. We use long vowels for pasta and yoghurt but Standard Brit English (Received Pronunciation) speakers use one. Apparently this is only used in what I’ll call snob English in the UK.

    Of course, speaking of snob English, the queen also knows the difference between Paw, Poor, and Pour, but only so many other speakers do.

  6. conrad says:

    That should be “short vowel” and not “one” for pasta and yoghurt.

  7. R. N. England says:

    Pocock’s use of the uvular “r” in English could be due to a congenital inability to curl is tongue. Perhaps there is a gene for it that was common among the Franks. Alternatively, I can imagine him working hard at it when learning French and German, and after being teased for succeeding by his Anglophone classmates, resolving to remind his fellow countrymen of their arrogance and laziness, in every second word that he spoke. The pan-European experiment has failed with respect to arrogant and lazy Britain. But if it had succeeded, the English of 2100 may have used a uvular “r” in uniformity with French or German.

    I think Pocock is right about there being no “The” Enlightenment”. The main schism in it has developed into C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures. One side has given birth to capitalism and the crack-pot left, both worshiping freedom and dignity; and on the other side is science which includes Darwinian evolution and radical behaviorism. Unplanned use of science has resulted in so much human activity that life on earth is being destroyed at an almost unprecedented rate. But only science offers us the means of planning a future in which the extinction of humanity and most other species is delayed.

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