I had been irritated by this myself when I read Michiko Kakutani’s review of A.A. Gill’s The Angry Island (and let me add that Kakutani is the most consistently irritating reviewer I know): “he delivers a finely observed monologue on English accents from ‘Received Pronunciation’ (the sound of the classic novel and the King James Bible) to the increasingly popular Estuary (“flat, unimaginative, diluted Cockney”), adopted by the young who think there is nothing cool about ‘sounding like a character from “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”‘” This may be stupider than anything William Safire ever wrote, and I do not use such a comparison lightly. Received Pronunciation is the public-school accent that used to be de rigueur at the BBC; it has nothing to do with “the classic novel and the King James Bible,” and I find it hard to imagine how Kakutani thought it might. Anyway, I had meant to gripe about it and forgot, but Mark Liberman at Language Log reminded me, so thanks, Mark, and anyone who wants to know more about RP should go to his post and follow his links.


  1. Richard Hershberger says

    That is indeed quite silly, but I am sticking with my assessment that the most annoying reviewer is Christopher Hitchens. He is best known for his politcal commentary, but I first became consciously aware of him through non-political review pieces. He caught my attention with irrelevant asides that didn’t quite make sense, but sounded very erudite if you didn’t think about it too much. In other words, I noticed that he was bullshitting.

  2. Google Books has a couple of occurrences of the phrase “received pronunciation” in the 18th century. Not with that precise meaning, but in the general sense of the right way of pronouncing.
    A bunch of books have cropped up in there recently, too, with dates that are complete garbage (less than 1000), making such searches even more annoying.

  3. How can a translation on paper “sound” like anything? Most Americans think the KJV “sounds” American, because that’s how we hear it when it’s real aloud. It’s not written in dialect (per se). One could sound like a character in Huck Finn, or (I guess) Tess…, but not the Bible (unless you’re quote the Street Bible, which I think must be read in dialect).
    How distinctly odd. Maybe this is meant as a metaphor?

  4. Diffidently I suggest that you and Mark are making too much fuss about this. Costume dramas (often based on classic novels) are notorious for having everyone who isn’t a servant or an American speaking RP, no matter how anachronistically (it’s refreshing to hear a non-RP accent from Robin Hood), and Scripture readings from the pulpit in KJV days were surely also in RP and its immediate predecessors. Saying that written texts have a “sound” clearly can’t be meant literally; it must reflect an association of ideas.
    (Various people are now thinking that this is a typical example of my invariable attempt to assume the best of people, even Old Bill Safire. So it is.)

  5. marie-lucie says

    Obviously Kakutani is not familiar with the history of English pronunciation, so I agree with John Cowan that what she means by RP is the way classic novels and the KJV are normally read in public (including movie and TV adaptations, etc), not the way they would have sounded when read aloud at the time of their composition (it is hard for most people to believe that their language has not always sounded the way it does now). Note that she did not mention Shakespeare, where some attempt is made to use a different pronunciation (though not to replicate Shakespeare’s) in theatrical productions.
    I saw the British series “I, Claudius” on TV a few years ago. The upper-class Romans sounded more or less liike upper-class Britishers, and the common soldiers (when they had speaking parts) like lower-class ones. The point was to emphasize the class distinction, which did exist in Latin at the time, although it would have hardly been possible to do the show in Latin – and even if it had been, such linguistic distinctions would have been lost on the audience.

  6. But in America when the KJV is read aloud, it’s read with an American accent so Kakutani’s comment still makes no sense. In fact to me the KJV “sounds” like Martin Luther King.

  7. Michiko Kakutani is an American; when she reads “classic novels” or the KJV, she presumably hears them in her head in her own voice (unless she’s such a snob she hears them in the voice of an imagined BBC announcer). And why should “classic novels” be English? When I think of “classic novels” I think of Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, and Invisible Man. Goddammit.
    Scripture readings from the pulpit in KJV days were surely also in RP and its immediate predecessors.
    No, scripture readings from the pulpit in KJV days were in early-17th-century English, which was nothing at all like RP — it would sound like some vulgar Irish accent to a present-day snob. I am willing to consider attempts to salvage Ms. Kakutani’s reputation (so broad-minded am I), but I haven’t heard anything yet that convinces me.

  8. marie-lucie says

    Of course, the RP of the 17th century was not the RP of today, but I think the point was that there must have been an equivalent (although perhaps not so distinctive as today’s). About the origin of “received” in this context, I seem to remember that it meant “received at court” (“the King’s/Queen’s English”) or “received in the best society” – anyone speaking differently need not apply.
    Kakutani (a person I was not familiar with) is writing in the NYTimes but reviewing a book written by a Scotsman about England, and she is presumably summarizing some of what the author says. Has anyone here read the book? The author may be referring to what I was mentioning, the reading of the KJV, the adaptations of classic British novels (e.g. Jane Austen), etc. with an RP accent in England. He is not writing about the US or Australia, whose “classics” began at a later date.

  9. All sound is beautiful. Those who have any preference one way or another, are simply pathetic,
    utterly deluded affect-fetishists. It’s as simple as that. The corsetting of the human tongue by grammar, accent, any prescriptional in a few more centuries
    will be seen as something akin to chinese foot-binding. I think it’s delightful we have such a marvelously kinky specie, but meme-noise is noise,
    and if any ape thinks he knows any better, that ape may find an alternate form of ideational prosthesis headed for that ape’s skull at a rapidly increasing rate.
    Some of us are happy in blur and shag
    and don’t need
    a fascism of tongue corsetting
    or logic, or grammar..
    There have been several sociological studies
    to the effect of ‘prescriptive speach’ causing
    alienation in families, for any of you breeders
    who need a proper emotional / social reason..

  10. Cum grano salis says

    “complete garbage” Rearlee ol chappee, surhly it be rubbish, me ol bean, no I mean china. Pore ol auntie Beeebe.

  11. but I think the point was that there must have been an equivalent
    Not necessarily. Regional accents were perfectly acceptable at court. Walter Ralegh and Francis Drake (admittedly a generation older) both spoke broad Devon, and there’s no reason to imagine that a Yorkshire gentleman of the time, for example, would have had qualms about his Yorkshire accent.
    The King’s English of the time was, of course, Early Modern Scots. But that’s another story.

  12. I wonder if she may have been grasping for a reference and mistook Received Pronunciation for the Textus Receptus that was the basis for the KJV.

  13. Oh, don’t get me started…
    Kakutani is both a snob and a celebrity worshipper, a very annoying combination. If you’re a billionaire McAuthor like J.K. Rowling, she’ll bend over backwards to prove your literary worth. She’d compare Dan Brown to Chesterton if it would increase her readership. For poor schmucks who don’t sell ten million books, she uses an entirely different set of standards.
    Like a lot of professional literary critics, she makes the mistake of either attacking or championing everything she reads. She must have learned early in her career that this was the easiest and quickest way to draw attention to herself. An extremely strong and confidently presented opinion can easily be passed off as taste. But Michiko’s taste is all in her mouth.
    I knew she was a contemptible pseudo-intellectual poseur, but before I read this, I didn’t realize she was a complete ignoramus. Somehow it isn’t a surprise.

  14. I found Leslie Epstein’s (I nearly said “Goldkorn’s”) attempt to romance Kakutani (in connection with his last Goldkorn book) to be both hilarious and wonderfully gross.

  15. I forgot to add this to the World Scriptutes post back when it was open to comments. But I was reminded today when walking past the empty building on Bromfield Street. Going in on foot to buy a Bible in Apache still seems perfectly reasonable to me.

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