Chapter Twenty: International Pronunciation and Accent 

The disintegration of empires, the movement of nation-states towards confederation, the rise of transnational corporations and global institutions, and the proliferation of electronic media, have also brought the unifying process to bear upon language. Firstly, half a millennium of printing has harmonised different dialects within primary language areas until there are now few verbal expressions, apart from regional or national token-words or phrases, which are not the common currency of all. Moreover, in this age of the electronic media the speech coming from all parts of the world is challenging the value of former standard pronunciations and accents. For example, the images of wealth and status crowding the T.V. screen from America and Australia have undoubtedly had an effect on British English, if only by diluting its affective value.

Indeed, the very accessibility of radio and T.V. as passive entertainment is altering the perception of modern peoples to language itself, compared to earlier print-oriented generations. Thus, even as the printing-press, through the circulation of books of international interest, such as the Bible, scientific works, great novels etc., embraced most dialect variations within the English-speaking world, the electronic media have contributed to the harmonisation or internationalisation of pronunciation: in other words, to an utterance that is globally acceptable as a result of its clarity, euphony and general comprehensibility. One evidence of this trend may be heard by comparing old films with modern ones of an equivalent quality. The clipped British accents of yesteryear have obviously absorbed international tonal elements. It has also been observed that young people in Britain are now more inclined to end sentences with the interrogative intonation characteristic of Australians.

But demonstrating that the best "national" pronunciation is clearly internationally comprehensible is quite different from claiming that it also represents a suitable standard pronunciation upon which to base a unified global spelling. Distinct national variations in pronunciation obviously remain, even within speech of the highest broadcast quality. It is evident that another means for determining a standard pronunciation for the orthography will have to be found.

The traditional method employed by nations which have decided to reform the orthography of their language has been to appoint a panel of experts, who have used statistics to obtain a closer match between spelling and an established national norm. This is the way in which language planning has progressed in Ireland, Norway, Russia, China, and other countries during the past hundred years. Even in the case of national languages, where publishers and lexicographers are closely associated with media / literary / educational establishments, the method is difficult enough; any attempt to repeat it on the global scale would of course be considerably more so.

Within a national language area it is usually fairly evident what the normalised or "notional" pronunciation should be; but a more scientific, statistically-based procedure would have to be used internationally for the same purpose. Thus the representative panel of linguists officially selected to construct the language, having access to all the statistics concerning the global distribution of preferred diaphones for the standard phonemes, would be able to derive and ascribe a "notional pronunciation" for the international standard, based upon a precise allocation of phonemes to letters of the alphabet. This phonemic representation would be abstract, rather than exemplified by a given speaker, though a voice actor might be found to portray it.

Attempts have already been made to define this standard speech. The late Professor A C Gimson suggested a decreolised but rhotic Caribbean speech for this role within the English-speaking world. South African speech, in which the [r] has a rolled or trilled pronunciation, has also been advocated. To mention a few verbal examples, a suitable pronunciation according to international norms might have "vee-uh" rather than "vie-uh" for "via"; likewise "fin-ance" rather than "fie-nance"; "dee-alect" rather than "die-alect"; "anti-bee-otic" rather than "anti-bie-otic"; "Iran-ian" rather than "Eye-rayn-ian" etc.. Words with "long vowels" might have two pronunciations - current English, and a normalised "continental type" associated with the international dialect e.g. "make" might be pronounced as "maak": closer to the spelling (and an older pronunciation). Consonants [c, g, j] might be "hard", i.e. "okean, gem (not /dzhem/), yoint". These sounds might be brought about by the orthoepic effect of the written form.

Suitably qualified linguistic experts for the international language committee would really need an actual mastery of the entire global phonology, an equal regard for different national vocabularies, an understanding of the logic behind every grammar, and an aesthetic appreciation of the various kinds of script. No single individual could be expected to possess this degree of knowledge, or to be entirely free of linguistic presuppositions, but a properly-constituted and well-chosen committee, acting in consultation with all interested parties, would command the necessary expertise.

Many linguists around the world are already studying and codifying morphemes and phonemes, the building-blocks of language, with the idea of an international auxiliary very much in mind. Computer-linked, and with huge databases of information, they are more or less abreast of language development - and are keenly aware of the linguistic imperative of a global tongue: the need to harmonise vast differences in both phonology and script. The inauguration of the international language committee would inevitably catalyse a vigorous interaction between ideas for orthographic reform and a mass of research data.

But there is a drawback inherent in the essentially reactive nature of the scientific method. This could easily be seen in the past when the manual collection and collation of data could scarcely keep up with linguistic change. However, although modern recording and I.T. equipment may reduce the time-lag, e.g. by using phoneme-recognition programs on a population pro rata basis, the result will always be a step behind events. The safety-first objective approach avoids being bound by the dubious prognostications of experts, but also loses the inspired predictions. A related problem is that of data selectivity: in this case concerning the types of "national" speech chosen to go into the computer.

Another problem with theoretical speech, formed by computer modelling, is that it might resemble no known pronunciation. In view of this, one suggested programme of English reform would be both orthoepic and minimalist, with spellings kept much the same as T.O. while international pronunciations according to this spelling became established. Listening to radio or television interviews from around the world, it is obvious that interviewees often pronounce words as they are written according to international norms, rather than like Britons or Americans: e.g. "the house in Austria" might well be said as "tea hoce in Owstria". Likewise, it is evident that Russians, Germans and Japanese speak Russian, German and Japanese English, respectively. These Englishes have their own national characteristics, but they also share features of syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary which do not derive from the English of Britain and America. Such varieties of linguistic preference would have to be accommodated in the fabric of the coming common language.

One advantage of the latter approach is that it would allow the notional pronunciation to gradually take concrete shape. But the world would wait a long time for a consensus to establish itself through this process. The accents in the media might well be converging, as might be discovered by comparing sound recordings from different decades and places, but it is happening so slowly that the demand for a common orthographic standard might not wait for it. Hence an alternative would be to anticipate the convergence of accent in some way. For instance, most people are quite capable of differentiating a "national" accent from a "regional" one; indeed, this is generally regarded as much easier than distinguishing a regional accent from a local one within that region. But this capability has only arisen due to the emergence and partial realisation of the national or racial idea, expressed through national politics and broadcasting institutions, and consolidated in reaction to other states.

In the same way, significant developments in international co-operation during recent decades (such as the publication of "Agenda 21" in 1992), by demonstrating the possibility of global initiatives supported by the great majority of nations, have testified to the dawning awareness of humanity as a single society which is accountable for the interests of all its peoples. As with the development of the national idea, there is every reason to suppose that this global consciousness will be expressed by a corresponding fusion of speech elements, if such is not happening already. Thus, an attempt to determine the most internationally-acceptable accent, as embodied by an individual on hand to record it, might become increasingly feasible. Such an enterprise might well reinforce the notional pronunciation - which itself could never be more than an approximation due to the inherent limitations of the scientific method.

The standard accent might be determined by the official auxiliary language committee drawing up a sizeable shortlist of internationally-known public personalities and media figures from different parts of the world - any one of whom would be a suitable exponent of it - Sir Peter Ustinov is a contemporary example. The standard speaker would then be elected from this shortlist, perhaps by a world-wide telephone poll, or an extra ballot at elections.

By personalising the issue, this kind of election would be excellent publicity for the international auxiliary language, and would also be a realistic prospect since media broadcasts are beginning to span the globe. International satellite T.V. is well-established and trans-continental optical-fibre connections are gradually being laid, which also mean that the vagaries of short-wave radio reception can be replaced by crystal-clear sound coming from the other side of the world by satellite or cable. The practical facilities are thus being set in place for what could become a periodic election of the best, clearest, and most internationally-comprehensible English-speaker.

Briefly, the chosen speaker would read a list of words or a text containing the full range of phonemes, and would be carefully recorded doing so. The script would then exactly describe the accent portrayed by the selected speaker. This would be the global standard accent upon which, when beneficially combined with the international notional pronunciation, the comprehensive orthography / orthoepy would be based: a standard that would be referred to for a designated number of years - until change in the linguistic centre of gravity demanded a new election.

This exercise should produce a result very close if not identical to the notional pronunciation formulated by the language committee; and if not, the enquiry into the discrepancy might well perform the service of revealing a procedural inadequacy on either side, if not both. Taken together, these two approaches should powerfully reinforce and complement one another. In fact they should permit a speech / script relationship for orthographic purposes to be established with such exactitude that almost any kind of speech - such as authentic dialogue in plays or novels - might be precisely signified on the page. For most practical purposes it would obviate the need for the International Phonetic Alphabet. An author writing dialogue would simply need to check an aural copy of the global standard accent against its transcript, and vary his own script accordingly.

Such a thing would be impossible in Chinese, and hardly less so in English, as G B Shaw and other playwrights and writers of dialogue have testified; an orthographic link scarcely exists between the script and even one of the varieties of Standard English (such as British Received Pronunciation). Ironically, it couldn't even happen in Esperanto because, as a consciously international auxiliary language, there are no non-standard accents and dialects by definition - since they would betray a sub-international mentality!

It must be firmly emphasised that the international standard would exist solely for the purpose of allowing various accents, dialects, and even foreign languages, to be represented orthographically on the page; in other words, to permit the operation of both the orthographic and orthoepic principles on a unified global scale around a single script. It should not be regarded as an "elocution standard", or as any indication as to how people should speak.

                       NEXT                      Return to Contents

Home ][ Sacred Writings ][ Bulletin board
Primary sources ][ Secondary sources ][ Resources
Links ][ Personal pages ][ Other sites

Google distinguishes accents, e.g. "Babi" and "Bábí"
return different results. See more search tips.