How tongue-tied men o' pairts lose their Rs to the dark arts

Share this article

TOP Scottish politicians barely know their rolled Rs from their elbows due to the pressure of the Westminster hothouse.

A study of the speech of major political figures has shown that senior Scots at Westminster have changed their accents to sound more akin to their English counterparts - dropping their pronounced Rs and changing their vowels.

Those who have altered their speech include Prime Minister Gordon Brown, former Tory Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and Lib-Dem leader Menzies Campbell. However, the study shows that SNP leader Alex Salmond has not changed his accent, despite spending two decades in the Commons.

Scottish-born Philip Carr, Professor of English at the University of Montpellier in France, and Ins Brulard of the University of Toulouse, analysed key sounds which differ north and south of the Border. The pronunciation of the politicians was compared with large academic databases of Scottish accents and sounds to work out how much they had changed.

They found that Brown, Rifkind and Campbell had all adopted features of English accents, with Brown the least Anglicised and Campbell the most.

Brown's "mixed accent" saw him say words such as "bank", "long", "not", "after", "export" and "support" in Scottish style, but "start", "half", "all" and "workforce" with long English-style vowels. The analysts also found that sometimes he said "quarter" in a Scots style and sometimes in southern way.

Meanwhile, Rifkind, originally from Edinburgh, had more Anglicised sounds, saying "matter", "actually", "department", "vast", "before", "war", and "all" with English vowels but still saying "damaged", "past", "property", and "office" with a Scottish accent. Sometimes he said "of course" with a Scottish twang and sometimes with an English accent.

Glasgow-born Campbell was more Anglicised still, saying words such as "fact", "matter", "have", "Gaza", "party", "answer", "all", "war", and "course" like the southerners, while he showed his Scottish roots when he said words such as "before" and "moral".

By contrast, the experts cited Nationalist leader Alex Salmond as a politician who had held on to his accent.

They said: "[He has] robustly consistent Scottish Standard English speech, without any Anglo-English influences, despite having spent almost [his] entire career in the Westminster Village."

The study, carried out for Scottish Language, an academic journal which looks at the varieties of Scots, English, and Scots Gaelic both in Scotland and in Ulster, did not consider whether the politicians had actively tried to change or keep their accents, or why they had changed.

However, the current view among linguists is that a person's accent is fixed by late adolescence and only changes slightly from then on, but that most people do allow their voice to change in order to make themselves better understood or to fit it in to different social situations.

Experts believe that the study could give insights into the politicians' characters.

Derrick McClure, an expert in Scottish accents from the University of Aberdeen, who peer-reviewed the study, said: "There's no doubt that their accents have changed. I actually remember Ming Campbell from Glasgow University and he had a very different accent then from now.

"The extent to which people change their accents can vary very considerably from person to person and is linked to a host of different reasons, such as one's attitude to where they came from, how they feel about the new situation, and who they mix with.

"Gordon Brown would be mixing with party colleagues from all over the UK, but including a lot of Scots, while Malcolm Rifkind's party would have proportionally fewer Scots and Alex Salmond's colleagues would all be Scottish and at his party meetings he would be mixing with Scots."

Politicians, both English and Scottish, have traditionally either traded on their accents or sought to change them.

Yorkshireman Harold Wilson made the most of his North of England twang - along with his pipe - to cultivate his "reassuring" image, while Margaret Thatcher famously took elocution lessons to ditch her Midlands lilt in order to get on in the Tory party. As Prime Minister, Tony Blair was known for discreetly switching accent according to the audience he was addressing.

Miriam Meyerhoff, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Edinburgh University, said: "The extent to which your accent changes can be tied to how much you want to fit in, and to what extent you feel like an outsider, and that you are comfortable being an outsider."

Dr Dominic Watt, of Aberdeen University's School of Language and Literature, added: "We all change our accents to an extent so that we can be more easily understood. People who do change their accents do so early in their lives when they think it will be an advantage to them and that can be especially important to a politician who wants to make themselves more popular with a wider audience."

A spokesman for Salmond said: "This study goes to show that the First Minister is the authentic voice of Scotland, with a guid Scots tongue in his heid."

Rifkind said: "I have never been conscious of having changed my accent, but I suppose that most people find their accent changes over time. I have never tried to change it. Attitudes to accents have changed remarkably I think. There was a time when you felt that you couldn't get on unless you consciously changed to having a particular accent. But that's all changed now."

Brown refused to comment and Campbell was unavailable.