BBC English

An interesting series  from @nick_kapur that explains how BBC English came about and a bit about how it evolved. I have changed it to more readable text.

Today we speak of “BBC English” as a standard form of the language, but this form had to be invented by a small team in the 1920s & 30s.

Which coincides with when the BBC was set up (in 1922).

It turned out even within the upper-class London accent that became the basis for BBC English, many words had competing pronunciations.

Thus in 1926, the BBC’s first managing director John Reith established an “Advisory Committee on Spoken English” to sort things out.

The committee was chaired by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, and also included American essayist Logan Pearsall Smith, novelist Rose Macaulay, lexicographer (and 4th OED editor) C.T. Onions, art critic Kenneth Clark, journalist Alistair Cooke, ghost story writer Lady Cynthia Asquith, and evolutionary biologist and eugenicist Julian Huxley.

The 20-person committee held fierce debates, and pronunciations now considered standard were often decided by just a few votes.

Examples included deciding “garage” would rhyme with “carriage” rather than “barrage” and “canine” (the tooth) sounding like cay-nine.

In 1935, there was a crisis over what word BBC radio should use for “users of a television apparatus” (whom we now call “viewers”).

To solve this conundrum, a 10-member “Sub-Committee on Words” was set up, chaired by the American, Logan Pearsall Smith

Funny, an American chairing the BBC English sub-committee.

The Sub-Committee came up with the following list of possible new words for the users of the television apparatus:


The Sub-Committee ultimately chose none of these, settling on “televiewer,” which was shortened by the main committee to just “viewer.”

Emboldened by this early “success,” the Sub-Committee on Words began to run amuck, inventing new words willy-nilly out of whole cloth.

In particular, Sub-Committee chair Logan Pearsall Smith wanted to beautify English and “purify” it of foreign influences.

He also disliked words with too many syllables and preferred English plurals to foreign plurals (eg. hippopotamuses over hippopotami).

Some of the new coinages were reasonable and have survived. For example, “airplane” replaced “aeroplane” and “roundabout” was invented to replace the then-common “gyratory circus.”

Similarly the word “servicemen” was invented to describe members of the armed forces, and BBC radio was instructed to stop saying “kunstforscher” and instead say “art researcher,” which has since become “art historian.”

If they pronounced the German version properly it shouldn’t have been a problem. But that word doesn’t seem to be in common use in Deutsch now, if it ever was. Kunst does mean art, and Forscher means researcher, but perhaps they have moved to KuntsHistoriker.

Other ideas were…less successful. E.g. Smith proposed the BBC call televisions “view-boxes,” call traffic lights “stop-and-goes,” and call brainwaves “mindfalls.”

Other members of the Sub-Committee also came up with bizarre new words.

Edward Marsh devised “inflex” to replace “inferiority complex,” and Rose Macaulay wanted “yulery” to replace “Christmas festivities.”

BBC English is also known as Received Pronunciation (RP), apparently.

No language remains static, especially a language as widely used as English. Looking at language history and variances in usage is fascinating.

I remember the poncy accents here on the radio, on Movietone News and later on television. I think they were trying to sound like BBC English.


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  1. I love BBC English. I lament the return to non standardised regional accents in general. I cannot stand sloppy speech, lazy or broad accents anywhere. Give me a BBC, Home Counties or a cultivated NZ accent any day.

    • Gezza

       /  June 28, 2017

      Oh yes. Jolly good Old Girl. Rather❗️ 👍

  2. patupaiarehe

     /  June 28, 2017

    I reckon it would be quite entertaining, to bring someone from Dunedin, or Wellington, together with someone from the far north, for a ‘Battle of the accents’. Obviously both would need a GSOH, and the ability to deflect cutting criticism of their opinions, with their own wits…
    Shit! Don’t we do that here already?!?

  3. Corky

     /  June 28, 2017

    Lindsay Perigo talked of being taught ‘correct English’ for television presenting. If I remember correctly he spoke of Marama Martin( 65-75) being one of the first presenters to give us our own unique voice.

    I would have loved to have been called an Auralooker. My neighbour is one. He owns a $3000 Kirlian photography unit. I would love to put Blazer under it. My guess, an aura filled
    with black, with red streaks permeating throughout. A sure sign of angst and envy.

    • Blazer

       /  June 28, 2017

      translation needed…Corque.

      • Corky

         /  June 28, 2017

        The neighbour has a machine that photographs the energy field around your body.
        Auralooker was one of the names proffered for naming television viewers.

  4. duperez

     /  June 28, 2017

    I remember when the BBC was some sort of gold standard. The gravitas is gone, time does that. My familiarisation with the BBC now is not through cultured voices but through written words.
    Comments to articles from readers I saw last weekend after the All Blacks beat the Lions included (a couple of times) words to the affect that NZ is good at rugby because there are no other sports here. While they weren’t the views of the organisation itself, for me they were indicative of how far the BBC is from being the arbiter, the benchmark and what we in this far flung dominion should aspire to.

  5. patupaiarehe

     /  June 28, 2017

    I must admit to a ‘guilty pleasure’. Hearing a British woman speak, with that lovely accent, really ‘sets me off’. Not in a sexual way (I’m too old for that!), but just in the way that I love to hear it.

    • Gezza

       /  June 28, 2017

      I don’t like Theresa’s accent – it’s too poncy-plummy for my taste, but I do like the BBC one.

  6. It is easy to criticise RP but at least virtually everyone can understand it (indeed its very purpose). When I was a young Royal Navy Midshipman on Fishery Protection patrol in the North Sea the Captain had to have an interpreter on the bridge every time an Aberdeen trawler skipper called on the radio.