‘Auk’ or ‘Orc’: Some people just don’t know their R’s from their elbows

Confirms a stubborn English belief that the right way is the way things are done in the southeast of UK

 Pointless Celebrities: Richard Osman. Photograph: Drew Gardner

Pointless Celebrities: Richard Osman. Photograph: Drew Gardner

 

It’s time to address the bias towards non-rhotic pronunciation on British quiz shows. Most of you don’t know what I’m talking about. The small percentage that does is at least as furious as me about this atrocity. Your walls will be stained with the remains of teatime spaghetti hoops thrown inaccurately at Pointless and Only Connect. I sympathise. 

A few examples. Last year, on University Challenge, Jeremy Paxman asked students to unearth mutually homophonic synonyms for “a sea bird” and “a beast from Tolkien” (or words to that effect). The answers were, apparently, “auk” and “orc”. Fists were waved all over Scotland, Ireland and western England.

Sausage rolls hurtled past the Panasonic. Only Connect once suggested that “Donner” and “Stellar” sounded the same as certain girls’ names. Come on! I’ll have to hurry you. Yes, they were going for “Donna” and “Stella”. A recent answer on Richard Osman’s House of Games triggered the current fury. Last week the large man told us that “taramasalata” and “Jimmy Carter” rhyme. They just don’t. Does the presence of an “r” or two mean nothing to you? 

We will smugly point out that the vanishing “r” is a relatively recent phenomenon

 This doesn’t matter much. But . In truth, such non-rhotic pronunciation is every bit as regional an eccentricity as the Irish hardening of “th” or the Canadian “aboot” for “about”. Yet nobody at University Challenge will expect contestants to view “hearth” and “heart” as homophones. Nor should they.

While admitting there is no right or no wrong regional proclivity, we will smugly point out that the vanishing “r” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the early 18th century, rhotic pronunciation (that’s to say, sounding the “r” in every word) was heard across all corners of Britain, Ireland and the emerging colonies.

The habit of dropping the “r” when it immediately follows a vowel and is not followed by another vowel spread rapidly over succeeding decades. Its malign growth continues. Rural parts of the English Northeast were still rhotic in the 1950s, but subsequently gave away the “r” without a fight. The good people of Bristol, Gloucester and Somerset stand firm for rhoticity. We salute them.

A few accents in the United States – Massachusetts most famously – tend towards the non-rhotic, but the more general upper-class inclination in that direction withered after the second World War. The most populous Anglophone nation is, for the most part, unlikely to confuse its orcs with its auks.

The posh Anglo-Irish accent, despite other leanings eastwards, does not dither with effete non-rhoticity. Those speakers sound the “r” in loud solidarity with the citizens of West Belfast and South Cork. Oddly, the most fecund Irish sites of non-rhoticity are in Cavan and Louth. My friend says this confirms people from those counties are all big Brits who love the Queen. But I don’t agree with that.

The inadvertent arrogance is unmistakable

At any rate, the compunction to rhyme “stellar” and “Stella” remains a minority habit among Anglophonic humans. Good luck trying to convince the relevant English this is the case. Because I’m a grown-up who keeps minor outrages in proportion, I posted a spittle-flecked tirade about the taramasalata/Jimmy Carter confusion on Twitter. The replies were educative. I was not deluged with English people arguing that their habit of ignoring “r” should be viewed as standard. The most common response was complete bafflement. They couldn’t grasp the argument being made. 

The critic and novelist David Quantick quipped (in reference to Arrested Development): “NARRATOR: they did rhyme.” Someone else wondered: “How the f**k is he pronouncing taramasalata?” I am still puzzling over Quantick’s comeback. “Ethnically. But also HE’S assuming that ‘Carter’ is pronounced in an RP British fashion ah ha ha I have you there Moore,” he wrote back. What? I generously took “ethnically” to reference the word’s Greek origins rather than my own Irish background, but the tweet still makes no sense whatsoever. The issue is how some English people pronounce “Carter,” not how most Irish people (or Greeks) pronounce taramasalata.

The inadvertent arrogance is unmistakable. Paddy Duffy, broadcaster, quizzer, author and – importantly for this conversation – Donegal man has been a researcher and question-setter on University Challenge. He too feels the pain. “I think we’re all hyper-aware at the moment of the unconscious wars the English wage on anything outside their front yard,” he told me. “Thus, things pronounced differently to received pronunciation/estuary are either ‘not correct’, or not even considered as a viable alternative.”

His further advice should be tattooed onto the foreheads of every toiler in the quiz-show mills. “The onus should always be on setters making things work for everyone, rather than a few people having to alter their very inner monologue to get points.”

This is exactly what I shout before hurling the spaghetti hoops.  

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