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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

 

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

How English was Jane Austen’s Speech?

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ March 22, 2021

I’ll admit it. In preparing my video Jane Austen from Paradise to Portsmouth I did worry about my American accent. Would it be acceptable to English viewers? To American viewers, for that matter? Should I attempt to speak in cut glass “received” English? An endeavor at which I knew I would fail.

But then, what would Jane have sounded like, living in rural Hampshire 200+ years ago?

I consulted one of my favorite authorities Bill Bryson. In his book The Mother Tongue, he reported that:

Dr. David Ramsay, one of the first American historians, noted in 1791 that Americans had a particular purity of speech, the result of people from all over Britain being thrown together in America where they “dropped the peculiarities of their several provincial idioms, retaining only what was fundamental and common to them all.”

Bryson continues: “But that is not to suggest that they sounded very much like Americans today. According to Robert Burchfield [The English Language, Oxford University Press] George Washington probably sounded as British as Lord North. On the other hand, Lord North probably sounded more American than would any British minister today. North would, for instance, have given necessary its full value. He would have pronounced path and bath in the American way. He would have given r’s their full value in words like cart and horse. And he would have used many words that later fell out of use in England but were preserved in the New World.

Bryson says that “purely as a whim of fashion” in the eighteenth-century, the upper-classes in southern England suddenly began to pronounce such words as dance, bath and castle with a broad a, as if they were spelled dahnce, bahth, and cahstle.  It is a fashion which stuck.

The dialect blog quotes the “late-eighteenth-Century pronunciation guru John Walker” as advocating using the “broad a” in half, path, bath, and calf, but is less enthusiastic about “broad a” in danceprance, plant, and similar words. Although I [the blog writer] can’t say for sure, it seems likely that the split would have been somewhat inconsistent among England’s gentry in the early 19th-Century.”

All of which raises the question as to how “gentrified” was Austen’s speech? If she had remained distinctly rural during her growing-up years in Steventon, perhaps her r’s would have softened and her a’s broadened when she moved to Bath in 1801? We know she had a fine musical ear, so she undoubtedly would have been quick to pick up on the differences when she visited her more elegant family members such as her brother Edward at his estate in Godmersham.

I quickly learned the importance of using a broad a in Bath many years ago when staying in London and attempting to place telephone calls to the Georgian city. After repeated times of spelling the word to telephone operators who, when hearing my flat “Bath," helpfully offered to connect me with an international operator. I would be put through correctly and quickly when I changed my request from “Bath” to Bahth.”

For purposes of my video, I attempted to soften my a’s a bit—an undertaking at which I was partially successful at best. I was encouraged in my endeavor, however, by a kind viewer from Portsmouth who wrote: “[I]n some odd way I can’t quite quantify, your American accent actually adds to the authenticity – perhaps because it removes us from 21st Century Englishness.”

Thank you, Antony, and the other lovely viewers who sent me encouraging comments on my new project. Jane and I are hoping to do lots more.

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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