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Dictating to the MobThe History of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English$

Jürg R. Schwyter

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198736738

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198736738.001.0001

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(p.230) Appendix III Statement by the Chairman of Governors, BBC, to the Advisory Committee on Spoken English, 29 January 1937 (R6 / 201 / 2, pp. 42–5)

(p.230) Appendix III Statement by the Chairman of Governors, BBC, to the Advisory Committee on Spoken English, 29 January 1937 (R6 / 201 / 2, pp. 42–5)

Dictating to the Mob

Jürg R. Schwyter

Oxford University Press

Statement by Chairman of Governors, B.B.C., to the Advisory Committee On Spoken English—January 29th, 1937

It is now more than ten years since the Corporation decided to seek advice on pronunciation of the English language, and to invite a small body of scholars to determine the pronunciation to be used by Announcers of the countless words the pronunciation of which was doubtful. The original committee was composed of Mr. Robert Bridges, by whom the idea of establishing such a Committee had been enthusiastically supported, Mr. Bernard Shaw, Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith, Sir Johnston Forbes Robertson, Professor Daniel Jones and Mr. Lloyd James; and later (in 1930) Professor Lascelles Abercrombie and Dr. C. T. Onions also joined the Committee. Mr. Bridges was the first Chairman, and the Corporation will always have cause to be grateful to him for his wise counsel in those early days. On his death in 1930 Mr. Shaw was unanimously elected to succeed him in the Chair, and it gives us great pleasure to express the high appreciation which the Corporation has of this service so willingly rendered by one so eminently fitted to render it.

We do not propose to review the history of the Committee in detail; but it is, however, necessary that the story be brought briefly up to date.

(p.231) In 1934 the Corporation felt that the time had come for the Committee to be reconstituted to include a larger body of authoritative opinion over a wider range of scholarship. At the same time a revision of procedure was made, by which the preliminary research conducted before each meeting was entrusted to four specialists, who would submit the results of their enquiries, with further suggestions, to the larger Committee.

This enlarged Committee has been in existence now for two years, and has held four meetings. We welcome this opportunity of expressing to all of you the Corporation’s gratitude for the valuable work you have done.

Now the reason that led the Corporation in 1926 to seek advice was first and foremost their desire to give authoritative rulings to Announcers on words of doubtful pronunciation, and particularly on those for which alternatives existed. The use of different alternative pronunciations by different Announcers was in the early days the cause of much public criticism, and listeners, who were naturally not familiar with the intricacies of English pronunciation, constantly sought advice as to which was the ‘right’ pronunciation of this word or that. The Corporation formed the view that it was advisable to ensure, as far as possible, that all Announcers should use one agreed alternative, not so much because greater merit might attach to that alternative as merely that there should be uniformity of practice. It was repeatedly stated, in the public Press, in Corporation publications, and in the first publication of the Committee itself, ‘Broadcast English I’, that these recommendations were for the benefit of the Announcers alone, that no special merit attached to the alternative selected, and that it was not the intention of the Corporation to endeavour to impose its view on pronunciation upon the public. These decisions were published, said the Corporation, in order that people might know that the pronunciation used by the Announcers had been approved by a body of scholars fully competent to collect evidence of usage and to make such recommendations.

(p.232) In the early days the responsibility of collecting evidence rested with the Secretary: the Committee then discussed the evidence and made its decisions usually without very much difference of opinion. But even then, in the days of the small Committee, there were cases where it was almost impossible to agree on any one alternative, and the question had to be put to the vote. Some decisions, e.g. ‘garage’, ‘Conduit’ (St.), were so violently criticised in the Press when they were publicly announced, that they were withdrawn.

Nothing that the Corporation did could prevent the idea growing up that these recommendations were national injunctions rather than domestic regulations; and it became evident that the responsibility thrown upon the Committee by the public was far greater than that with which it had been invested by the Corporation.

It was the realisation of this fact that led to the expansion of the Committee in 1934, and to the reform of its procedure. The collection of evidence was entrusted to four experts, and the assessing of such evidence to a wider body of experienced scholars. But whatever have been the advantages of the new system, there has emerged one fact: it is that unanimity of opinion upon the choice of pronunciation for the purposes of broadcasting is no more easily attained under the new dispensation than under the old. Decisions have often to be arrived at by majority vote, even the casting vote of the Chairman having at times to be used. Moreover, many scholars have had to confess that, whatever their competence in other fields, the spoken word is a matter of human behaviour in which few have had that scientific training that alone makes possible calm and dispassionate judgments. The larger committee is naturally more swayed by diversity of opinion than the smaller committee, merely because it is more widely representative of current thought. The question arises, and has indeed been put very pertinently by the Chairman, as to how far the Corporation is entitled to publish as recommendations—in view of the importance attached to them by the public—the decisions that often hang upon a (p.233) small majority vote. It is for this reason that the recommendations made at the last meeting have not yet been published.

The Corporation has given serious thought to this problem and now proposes that, since the public persistently misunderstands its motive in publishing a list of pronunciations recommended for the use of Announcers, it should no longer necessarily publish them in the ‘Radio Times’ and in the daily Press as a matter of routine. Acceptance of this proposal would involve a slight change of procedure, whereby the report of the smaller Committee, together with the main Committee’s comments on it, would be passed to the Corporation by the Secretary. The Corporation would then give private instruction to the Announcers in the light of the advice contained in these reports. The Corporation hopes that it may have the Committee’s assistance in the future as it has in the past.

The Corporation has also read with interest the minutes of the Sub-Committee appointed to make recommendations as to the framing of new words. It feels that it must define more closely the extent to which it can accept the advice of the Sub-Committee. Such advice will be sought by the Corporation when new words have to be found for its own purposes—as in the creation of vocabulary of television terms. The Sub-Committee, however, has recommended the introduction to the public of new words for general use (e.g. ‘halcyon’, ‘stop-go’). This responsibility for modifying the English vocabulary is one which the Corporation feels it cannot accept.