We had eight of them or at least we have had eight of them so far in England. I'm talking about kings who went by the name of Henry. Everyone knows the last one because he managed to acquire six wives. Not at the same time of course but in succession. And he had two of them beheaded. But it's Henry 11 that I want to talk about (1133-1189). He donned the crown in 1154 and as he had been ruler of Normandy in France, he spent time in both countries. One of his biggest problems was maintaining law and order and his main dispute was with the head of the English church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called Thomas Becket.
It was really a question of who wanted to be top dog (in charge) as far as the law was concerned. Thomas never gave in and increasingly became a real pain in the neck for the king. In an unguarded and rash moment our Henry completely lost it and not watching his language, yelled out: "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" To anyone listening, this clearly meant he wanted someone to kill Thomas, the priest who was always causing trouble. But then a more rational approach was to take what he said "with a pinch of salt" --
not take it too seriously. But there were four enthusiastic and not very intelligent knights who thought they would take it seriously. At the time Henry was with his court in Normandy and this was the starting point for our four intrepid and not very bright knights. Crossing the channel and hotfooting it from Dover to Canterbury on horseback, loaded down with swords and with murderous thoughts in their minds was quite an undertaking. Admittedly they tried to reason with Thomas when they first met him, led by their leader with the glorious name of Reginald fitz Urse - translating as Reginald son of the female bear but he probably kept quiet about that. In the end they agreed to sleep on it and after a full English breakfast they had another go at persuading Thomas to make up his differences with Henry even resorting to dragging him out of the Cathedral. He resisted but was struck down by Reggie and his mates and murdered there and then. Henry was horrified to hear the news, became the first pilgrim to visit the tomb and very soon afterwards Thomas was named as a saint. Ever since that time there have been many pilgrimages to Canterbury. If you visit the tomb today you can see the hollows on the steps on the way up to it made by the thousands of pilgrims as they climbed the stairway on their knees.
It was Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) known as the Father of English Literature, who used this theme in his famous Canterbury Tales, which describes how a group of people bound for Canterbury meet in a London inn and travel down together telling each other stories to pass the time on the journey. Here are a few lines from the beginning and I'm sure you can understand the meaning despite the fact that the English is more than 500 years old:
"Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrims were they alle."
Let me help: There was a company of almost twenty-nine people of different types, who by chance formed themselves into a sociable group, all of whom were pilgrims. They travelled on horseback and proceeded at a respectable gentle speed or as they used to say: they canterburied. This has now been modified as a word and appears in the language as "canter".
There has been some lively discussion on our forums recently about which is the preferred accent to adopt if you are learning English. Interestingly enough in Chaucer's time when English was struggling to assert itself as a "cultured" language and fighting a battle with Latin and French, his preferred accent was akin to what today we'd call Midlands English, approaching northern English. It was a time when there was no trace of snobbishness or one accent being better than another. All variations were simply accepted as easily as the differences in the landscape from one part of the country to the other. Shakespeare, a couple of centuries later, spoke with a Warwickshire accent, what today we'd call rural. But people didn't get hot under the collar (irritated and angry) about it. A far cry from the 20th century with its obsession with so-called "Oxford" English, "BBC English". Why, in the early days of broadcasting in the UK BBC newsreaders (men only) were obliged to wear black bow ties, white shirts and black dinner jackets and nobody could see them because this was radio! It was in the 18th century that the belief in the importance of the way you spoke was developed and people took lessons in "improving" their accents. At the end of the 18th century with the French Revolution there was fear and panic in certain quarters of Britain that the same might happen here. Thomas Sheridan (1719-1788)
believed that education would unify the different sections of society and prevent the breakdown that happened in France. He claimed that elocution (a correct and clear way of speaking) was the answer. He ran courses for those who wanted to be regarded as being what in my youth people would quaintly call "nicely spoken". And it was a big earner for Sheridan, one of whose courses would probably earn him in excess of what in today's money would be £150,000. This interest in and respect for a "proper" accent grew in the 19th century when wealthy industrialists built their own schools (so-called public schools) in which their sons could be educated separately from the barely adequate state schools. In fact Daniel Jones (1881-1967) the phonetician, wrote a book called Public School Pronunciation, describing PSP as follows: "That most usually heard in everyday speech in the families of Southern English persons whose menfolk have been educated at the great public boarding schools." In 1926 he adopted the expression Received Pronunciation (RP), in other words the pronunciation handed down from one "public school" generation and received by the next generation. As we moved into the 20th century the exclusivity and separateness of this accent led to many expressions ridiculing that way of speaking: posh - cut glass --
speaking with a mouthful of marbles --
toffee nosed --
stiff upper lip. That last one is worth trying providing you're not half way through a bowl of breakfast cereal.
And today? Well, most recently there was "estuary English" a sort of dumbed down version of RP used by people living around the estuary of the Thames and not wishing to sound too "posh", often used by politicians to show that they're like the rest of us! I suppose we're in a process of change when people are confused about how to speak and how to write. Children taking school exams are writing answers using mobile text spellings, putting apostrophes where they aren't needed and in speech adding an "h" in front of a word because dropping an "h" is considered uneducated so that words where the "h" is silent such as in "heir" and "honour" suddenly acquire an "h" sound. Most interesting is the case of the wretched letter itself. The latest development in television technology is called "high definition" or "HD" for short and I have been visiting several shops recently with a view to buying a new TV and nine times out of ten I have been advised to buy one that's "haitch d" ready. I am delighted to say that the young assistant I eventually bought mine from knew all about when to drop the "h" sound when describing the set.
My only advice as to which accent to adopt would be to use the form you're happiest with mindful that clarity is the watchword. Oh and by the way, whenever you speak, make sure you know who's listening to you. Remember King Henry and what happened to poor Thomas.
I'm sure you liked Alan's essay and as usual we look forward to hearing your feedback regarding the newsletter here on the forum
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