Sixty Years of Speech: A Study of Language Change in Adulthood

  • Bei Qing Cham Department of English Language and Literature Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences National University of Singapore
Keywords: lifespan change, intraspeaker variation, sociophonetics, Received Pronunciation


Research on language change has been complicated and hindered by the problem of obtaining quality data. In many cases, the large volume of time required to collect recorded speech at different intervals, as necessary in lifespan studies, is prohibitive. Researchers further risk having participants drop out, leading to a limited pool of data. One way to avoid this is to use recordings available in the public domain that have been recorded for other purposes. The BBC broadcaster Sir David Attenborough is one of the few people who have had occasion to be recorded regularly over a great span of their lives. In this study, a selection of clips from wildlife documentaries that he has narrated furnishes the data for a glimpse into the possibilities of language change in adulthood. Received Pronunciation, the accent that Attenborough commands, is in the spotlight in this study. Two features of speech, namely, the presence and degree of t-glottalisation and the TRAP/STRUT vowel distinction, are examined in Attenborough’s speech against a background of known changes in the general usage of Received Pronunciation. The aim of the study is thus to see if language change occurs within the speech of an adult individual, particularly one whose speech is almost iconic. His narration from the 1960s is compared with narrations from the 1980s and 2000s in a dataset spanning nearly 60 years with the aim of discerning any trajectories of change. Some patterns in his formant values for several vowels across the three year groups are also discussed to provide an idea of what sort of changes can occur in the course of nearly 60 years. The study ultimately finds limited change in level of t-glottaling and only a slight movement of his TRAP/STRUT vowels towards each other between the narrations of the 1960s and the 1980s, with no perceptible change thereafter. The changes in community use of Received Pronunciation seem to affect him little. In terms of the overall vowel space, the trend seems to be towards a centering of most of the vowels, particularly the front vowels. Some plausible explanations for the limited amount of change are discussed in the article, which include Attenborough being seen as a steward of the accent as well as its utility to him in his position as a renowned broadcaster. The article also brings up the need for more research into the interface of gerontology and sociolinguistics, as the quite pronounced centering of the vowels may suggest natural age-related pronunciation effects.


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How to Cite
Cham, B. Q. “Sixty Years of Speech: A Study of Language Change in Adulthood”. Lifespans and Styles, Vol. 2, no. 1, Mar. 2016, pp. 17-26, doi:10.2218/ls.v2i1.2016.1427.