2Accent as a Social Symbol



For Samuel Johnson, drafting his Dictionary in the late 1740s, accent was already densely polysemous. It could denote patterns of intonation and the prominence given to certain syllables in pronunciation; antique, he noted, “was formerly pronounced according to the English analogy, with the accent on the first syllable; but now after the French, with the accent on the last” [my emphases]. By poetic license, accent could also signify language or words per se. “How many ages hence| Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er,| In states unborn, and accents yet unknown”, states Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in an illustrative citation that Johnson included under this sense. In more general terms, accent, as Johnson confirms, could indicate “the manner of speaking or pronouncing, with regard either to force or elegance”. Supporting evidence from Shakespeare already, however, suggests its potential for qualitative discrimination in this respect, as in the “plain accent” used to describe the forthright speech of Oswald the steward in King Lear or Rosalind’s “finer” accent in As You Like It: “Your accent is something finer than you could purchase in so removed a dwelling.” As Puttenham had indicated in his Arte of English Poesie (1589), reference models for speech are not to be located in the “ill shapen soundes” of craftsmen or carters or, he adds, “others of the inferiour sort”. Even at this point, preference was given to other ...

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