Tuesday 23 September 2008

David Miliband: man of the peepaw?

Voice coach Luan de Burgh wonders what's happened to David Miliband's voice:

At this year's Labour conference he sounds like Rory Bremner doing Tony Blair. Or, to put it technically, the heir to Blair has abandoned the "dark L". That's not some sinister Labour faction plotting against Gordon Brown but the sound we make when pronouncing words with an "L" towards the end, such as "people".

Listening to a clip from 2002, Miliband is very clear and articulate. Back then, the foreign secretary used all of the consonants. Now, in a speech at the conference and elsewhere, as well as dropping the dark L - so the "L" sound at the end of "people" becomes a "w" sound - he is also dropping "t" from the end of words.

Take "government". In 2002, Miliband pronounced it with three clear syllables and the little "n" - gov-ern-ment. In 2008, Miliband has joined those who replace the "t" on the end with a glotteral stop: it becomes something like "guv-mund".

I don't wish to brag, but you read about it here first. Back in June 2007 I wrote this about Miliband:

There's only one thing I find irritating about him, and that's his habit (copied from his mentor Tony Blair) of affecting an Estuarian tinge to his otherwise copybook RP/Oxbridge accent. This manifests itself most obviously in what we might call 'the nob's glottal stop.' Some years ago, The New Statesman ran a regular feature on 'the nob's pronoun': public figures saying things like 'He told my wife and I' - which were intended to sound extremely correct but were in fact deeply ungrammatical.

The nob's glottal stop has the opposite intention: of making middle-class speakers sound like 'ordinary' folk. So we get hyper-educated politicans like Blair and Miliband talking about the repor' they've just read - all righ'?

De Burgh thinks Miliband is trying too hard to sound like a man of the people (peepaw?) :

These changes are often subconscious but can also be chosen. People often adopt an accent that says, "I'm one of you." I might do it too if a plumber is giving me a quote so they don't assume I'm wealthy. But Miliband risks over-egging the pudding, as you can hear on radio phone-ins such as the Jeremy Vine Show in July, when he said: "We 'ave a role to play."

Of course, trying to sound like members of your audience is a game at which all politicans are adept. During the recent US primary campaign, it was noted that when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traveled to southern states, their accents also tended to drift southward. But in Britain there's a particular class dimension which means that this kind of imitation risks coming across as condescension. As I wrote last year:

I think it irritates me because I find middle-class people pretending to be working-class affected and patronising, and perhaps because (coming from a working-class background) I spent my childhood being told not to speak like that, if I wanted to get on. If I had to try hard to speak proper, why shouldn't they?

Much as I like the man, it's difficult not to concur with Luan de Burgh's closing words of advice to Miliband: he should be himself - not another Tony Blair.

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