Jane Austen had an accent…

It’s true.  She would have had.

She was born in a tiny, that is to say miniscule, hamlet in North Hampshire–Steventon–at a time when hamlets and villages were entities unto themselves.  Going to the next village in those days, 200 years ago, was a full day’s journey oftentimes.  People didn’t travel much.  Her family were local to North Hampshire too.  And she was educated at home, so she hadn’t the exposure that a few years in a ladies’ academy in Bath might have brought her.

So, she would have spoken with a North Hampshire accent, which would have been much stronger than that heard in North Hampshire today.  Remember, 200 years ago, there was no radio or television to flatten that local accent. 

And what might you ask does the North Hampshire accent sound like–if indeed she didn’t speak as do the heroines in all those trememdous BBC dramatisations of her works? 

Well, the accent of which I’m writing is the beginning of the West Country accent, with the rhotic r, as it’s called, but it’s very much softer, and it has its own specific inflections and idioms.  And it does still substitute words like summat for something.  It’s exceeding pleasant, I think.  But it’s very far from a mouthful of plums. 

Indeed, recent scholarship has proven that she spelled with a local accent too. 

Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University has had this to say:  “she wrote ‘tomatoes’ as ‘tomatas’ and ‘arraroot’ for ‘arrowroot’ – peculiarities of spelling that reflect Austen’s regional accent, Prof Sutherland explained.  “In some of her writing, her Hampshire accent is very strong. She had an Archers-like voice with a definite Hampshire burr.”

The Bennet sisters would have had a local Herefordshire accent–which would have marked them out as different from the Bingleys and the Darcys of their world, too.  And such things, 200 years ago, told people not just your county of origin, but also a great deal about your material wealth and indeed your class and education.

But imagine that.  Jane Austen spoke with an accent that many Americans might find very difficult to follow.  And in a way, our standardisation of her works on radio and television, our standardisation of pronunciation has robbed her of her voice. 

Just something to think about, isn’t it?


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