On the Ropes at Radio London

St. Mary-le-Bow Church, London

The phone rings during breakfast, and it’s the BBC. They want me on Radio London’s Breakfast Show, hosted by Vanessa Feltz, for a few minutes just after 9 a.m. According to two trashy tabloids (The Sun and the Daily Mail, September 29) BBC TV viewers are complaining about the speech of an announcer, Russell Evans. And it turns out interesting: Feltz is a feisty one, spoiling for a fight.

Russell Evans speaks the ordinary vernacular of the London area rather than the snootier English favored by the ruling class and traditional broadcasters. One viewer grumbled (on the record: The Sun names her as Sarah Morgan): “Listening to the announcer giving lottery results was painful. Firty, free, and fousand aren’t numbers I’ve ever heard of.”

Several key features identify vernacular London English. “L” sounds after vowels turn into a “w” sound (call is pronounced caw-w); initial “h” is dropped; “t” between vowels turns into a glottal stop (forty becomes for’y; “ng” on the end of the word is replaced by “n” (wedding is weddin); and the most stigmatized feature is that the initial dental sound “th” gets replaced by the labiodental “f” so that “thin” sounds the same as “fin.” I was well aware that what Radio London wanted from me was a defense of proletarian speech against an attack by snooty conservatives. I was up for that.

Feltz briefly reviewed the story, then introduced me and asked my opinion. I pointed out that London-area spoken English is like most languages in not having the dental “th” sound, which is very rare globally. You need a sharp ear to even detect the acoustic difference, so misunderstandings are extraordinarily unlikely. Very few pairs of words are distinguished solely by the “th”/“f” contrast: thin/finthree/freethread/Fredthrill/frill, thresh/fresh… and there aren’t a whole lot more.

So saying that you don’t want people on TV using the well-established “f”-for-“th” substitution has the same status as saying you don’t want to hear Manchester or Scots accents on the BBC: It’s just raw social prejudice.

And then Feltz came barreling out of her corner at me. “Wait a minute, professor” she said, “I think you’re being disingenuous.”

I reeled. When you get called professor on a radio show or in a courtroom, you’re already in trouble. My name is Geoff.

“You’re up there in Edinburgh, right?” (That, I had to admit, is where I currently live. But I knew she was playing the ethnicity card, implying that from faraway Scotland I was unqualified to comment — though in truth I grew up in the London area and speak its dialect quasi-natively.)

“Well, I was born within the sound of Bow Bells,” Feltz went on triumphantly. (Being born where you can hear the famous bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church is traditionally taken to define being a Cockney, the quintessentially authentic Londoner.) “So I’m a real Cockney, and I say for’y for forty, but I don’t say free fousand, I say three thousand, and I think saying free fousand is lazy speech and it’s wrong!”

I was on the ropes already. How does an ethnically discredited professor from the wrong end of the country rebut a native speaker who firmly asserts the incorrectness of something in her own native dialect? Contradict a native speaker?

Feltz dismissed my argument about lack of ambiguity by drawing a perfectly valid distinction: People weren’t claiming it was impossible to understand, she said, they were saying it was lazy and bad. And she crushed my typological argument about global rarity by simply saying: “We don’t care about that.” (A sound response to a rather weak point, I must admit.)

I fought back desperately: “You call me disingenuous. I’ll tell you who’s being disingenuous: the woman who claims listening to Russell Evans saying ‘firty-free’ is ‘painful.’ It’s ordinary, everyday London English, and I don’t think anyone is being truthful if they say it causes them actual pain.”

But this ad hominem point cut no ice with Feltz, and as she talked on, she casually activated the nuclear option, against which no talk-show guest can win. Confidently explaining more to her listeners about why she was right and the professor was wrong, she quietly pulled the plug, and the phone line from my breakfast table was no longer on the air. There was just a producer’s voice in my ear saying thanks, that was just great, bye-bye!

I lost this one, big-league. I got whupped!

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