Don’t scratch your head if you find that what I say in this entry seems to contradict what I said in the last.
When I was in Secondary Two, a film came out, which became an instant blockbuster among students in Hong Kong. It was called My Fair Lady.
Now phoneticians won’t accept that some languages by themselves sound more pleasant than others. According to phoneticians, all languages are equal. If we find a language more pleasant or refined to the ear, it is because we have been socialized into thinking so. Hence, if French sounds beautiful to us, it is because we have been taught that France is a highly cultured country. If an African dialect sounds ugly to us, it is because we have been led to think that Africans are uncivilized. Phoneticians maintain that no single language intrinsically sounds more beautiful than others.
Here is the message in My Fair Lady. Received Pronunciation belongs to the elite and the well educated; it is beautiful and exquisite. Cockney belongs to the working class; it is distasteful.
I was in Secondary Two, and I immediately and completely bought into the concept. I began to work painstakingly on my pronunciation, looking to Received Pronunciation as the only model. At the same time, it was the golden age of folk songs (e.g., Peter, Paul, and Mary), and pop music (e.g, the Beatles). Music became my pronunciation training ground, as I sang hour by hour, day by day.
After Rex Harrison, who was Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, I soon became a fan of other British actors who were trained in stage drama, such as Peter O’Toole, and Richard Burton. I continued to find ‘standard British English’ beautiful and elegant, and I began to take pride in my own pronunciation. Listening to Received Pronunciation, and speaking it, was a great source of enjoyment to me.
Many years later, I found in the phonology literature that only 3% of British people spoke RP on a daily basis. I was shocked. Then phoneticians said that the ‘standardardness’ of RP is simply socially engineered; there is nothing intrinsically standard about RP. I was demoralized.
But deep down, I knew the phoneticians were right.
Why don’t I find my mother tongue, Cantonese, particularly musical (despite its many tones)? Ask a French woman whether she finds French sexy. Ask an African whether he finds his dialect coarse.
Once your ear has become deeply tuned to a language, it becomes just speech sounds. When we learned our mother tongue, it was just a tool for communication. However, when we learned a second language later in life, it came with all the social judgments associated with that language.
Do I still find “standard British English” beautiful today? Well, I guess not as much as I used to. But to me, it represents a set of speech sounds that I still have a special fondness for, especially when compared with my mother tongue. I enjoy listening to English songs more than Cantonese ones. I derive more pleasure from reading aloud an English poem than from a Chinese one. Today, hearing British actors like Hugh Grant and Jude Law is still sheer enjoyment to me. (All my favourite British actors in terms of speech are men: interesting!) Picking up an English poem or article and reading it aloud is enough to cheer myself up for a couple of hours.
Of course, I now realize that it is also voice work and enunciation that are working behind the speech of my favourite British actors, not just their accent. But that’s another story. (Compare Chris Patten with Gordon Brown, both British politicians, and you’ll understand why Chris Patten’s speeches are so much more compelling, although they both speak Received Pronunciation. Then listen to the Queen, who would read out any speech equally mechanically, and you’ll understand why there’s nothing queenly about “Queen’s English”.)