Patriots and language guardians rejoice: any perceived threat to our mother tongue from pervasive Americanisms â€“ at least as far as our accents are concerned â€“ seems largely without substance.
New research by the British Library has revealed that English pronunciations are standing firm (if not static), despite our â€˜special relationshipâ€™ with across-the-ponders â€“ and even more special relationship with their television programmes, films and video games. Over 10,000 English speakers around the world have added their voices to an audio map as part of the Libraryâ€™s exhibition, Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices.
The researchers were able to directly compare typical American and British (as well as Irish and European) pronunciations. Volunteers all read out either the same extract from childrenâ€™s story Mr Tickle or a list of six words which can be pronounced in different ways.
The results showed that there are still many marked differences between speakers in the US and in the UK and Ireland. For example, â€˜garageâ€™ is often pronounced by British and Irish to rhyme with â€˜marriageâ€™, instead of â€˜mirageâ€™. And Americans favour intoning â€˜controversyâ€™ with the emphasis on the first syllable, while Brits often land more heavily on the second.
Putting aside the question of whether we actually fear for our languageâ€™s purity to the extent the press may sometimes make out, itâ€™s interesting to note that itâ€™s the Brits who are more prone to abandoning standard pronunciations. Meanwhile, the majority of American volunteers opted for versions (like â€˜garageâ€™ to rhyme with â€˜mirageâ€™, or â€˜sconeâ€™ to rhyme with â€˜boneâ€™) given first listings in the Oxford English Dictionary.
As we tend to stress the second syllable of words like â€˜controversyâ€™ and â€˜harassâ€™, in some ways our great-grandparents would be less accustomed to our intonation than to that of most Americansâ€™. â€˜This method of pronunciation will be unfamiliar to an older generation,â€™ says Jonnie Robinson, curator of sociolinguists at the British Library. â€˜British English, for whatever reason, is innovating and changing while American English remains very conservative and traditional in its speech patterns.â€™
And anyone inclined to do so can probably stop worrying about future generations universally speaking like characters out of Glee. They are much more likely to pick up the habits of the real people in their lives. â€˜People are much more influenced by those they interact with than was previously thought,â€™ says Robinson. â€˜They are much more likely to adopt the speech patterns of friends, family and workmates rather than copy what they see in a film or television programme.â€™
Thereâ€™s no guarantee they wonâ€™t start begging you for singing lessons, though.