The Queen’s English

Claire Foy’s Accent in Netflix’s The Crown

 

The Crown is a biopic1 drama television series on Netflix, which tells the story of the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The first season depicts events from 1947 to 1955.

Actress Claire Foy plays the young Queen Elizabeth in the show and she adopts a old-fashioned British English accent to do so. Let’s look at how she does this:

The Crown Image

Image © Netflix

When writing about sounds, I will use the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol in slant brackets. For example, the “a” vowel in trap would be written as /a/. I may also refer to vowels by the lexical set name, such as TRAP. Further explanation of this can be found in the FAQs underneath my interactive vowel chart.

The TRAP Vowel /a/  –  “man” or “men”?

Listen to this audio clip from The Crown (it is played once at normal speed, then once slowed-down):

Is Claire Foy (as the young Queen Elizabeth) saying man or men?

 
(audio clips from The Crown and interviews are taken from trailers available on Netflix’s official YouTube channel)

She’s saying man not men.

Listen to how Claire Foy (as Queen Elizabeth) says the /a/ vowel in man and that (again once normal speed, then slowed-down):

 
Notice how it sounds more like the “e” vowel in men and debt (I will transcribe this vowel as /ɛ/).

Next listen to a clip of the actual Queen in 1947. This clip is taken from a speech given on the Queen’s 21st birthday. Listen to the /a/ vowel in manhood and that:

 
It’s certainly more of an /ɛ/ vowel sound too. In fact, it sounds like there is a diphthong (two vowels) in this case, and it could be transcribed [ɛæ].

Now let’s listen to a clip of Claire Foy speaking in her usual accent. Here she is saying had a massive responsibility. Listen to the /a/ vowel:

 
Now listen to the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciation of man and that:

 
In upper-class accents in the 1940s, the /a/ vowel was pronounced very close to /ɛ/. Nowadays (in a Standard Southern British English accent – or SSBE) it’s pronounced /a/.

The HAPPY vowel – /i/ or /ɪ/?

The way that people used pronounce the “y” endings of words has also changed. Listen to Claire Foy (as Queen Elizabeth) say unnecessarily:

 
Now listen to Queen Elizabeth in 1947 say opportunity:

 
Notice how the final vowel sound is similar to the /ɪ/ vowel sound in lid or tin. Nowadays SSBEspeakers pronounce it as the /i/ vowel sound in lead and teen. Listen to the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciation of opportunity:

 

The SQUARE vowel – /ɛː/ or /eə/?

This vowel sound used to be pronounced as two vowels (a diphthong). Listen to Claire Foy (as Queen Elizabeth) say aware:

 
Now listen to Queen Elizabeth in 1947 say heirs and declare:

 
Notice how you can hear the sound move between two vowels. This is why some dictionaries and outdated pronunciation textbooks transcribe this vowel sound as /eə/. However, listen to the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciation of heir:

 
In this recording of a contemporary speaker you’ll hear just one long “e” vowel. This is why I prefer the transcription /ɛː/ for this vowel. It’s a more contemporary pronunciation.

The GOOSE Vowel /uː/

An old-fashioned pronunciation of this vowel is made much further back in the mouth (similar to an Italian or German “u”, or a French “ou”). Listen to Claire Foy (as Queen Elizabeth) say who:

 
Next listen to Queen Elizabeth in 1947 say who:

 
Now listen to the Oxford English Dictionary pronunciation:

 
Notice that the contemporary pronunciation by the dictionary sounds a bit brighter – that’s because it’s made more forwards in the mouth. Most SSBE speakers will now use a more forward GOOSE vowel (which is why you may have heard the term GOOSE-fronting).

The above vowels are only a few ways in which Claire Foy changes her accent to sound more like the Queen. You’ll spot other interesting features if you listen carefully!

If you have any thoughts, then please comment underneath. Otherwise, why not spend some time exploring the vowels of SSBE on my interactive vowel chart.

a biopic is biographical film. The standard pronunciation is /ˈbʌɪəʊ pɪk/ “BIO-pic”, but lots of people say /bʌɪˈɒpɪk/ “bi-OP-ic”.

SSBE stands for the Standard Southern British English accent. It is a contemporary “standard” accent, also known as a modern version of RP.

If you are particularly interested in the Queen’s speech, you might want to take a look at how the Queen’s accent has changed over time in this journal article: Monophthongal vowel changes in Received Pronunciation: an acoustic analysis of the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts by Jonathan Harrington et al. (2000, Journal of the International Phonetic Association 30: 63-78).

2017-05-11T15:53:22+00:00

12 Comments

  1. Charlie 14 December, 2016 at 11:36 AM - Reply

    This is fascinating! Thank you! x

    • Luke Nicholson 20 December, 2016 at 1:20 PM - Reply

      Thanks, Charlie 🙂

  2. Joe 15 December, 2016 at 3:26 PM - Reply

    I think one area where Claire Foy doesn’t pull off a mid-century British accent was with the STRUT and COMMA vowels. Her pronunciation sounded much more contemporary to me than Elizabeth’s pronunciation of those vowels in the 50s. I haven’t really listened to a recording, however. It was just my impression when listening to the only episode I saw.

    • Luke Nicholson 20 December, 2016 at 1:19 PM - Reply

      Hi Joe

      I actually found these reasonably accurate as they sounded more back and open to me compared to a modern SSBE accent. Other aspects I found that she did well were less aspiration of /p, t, k/ in stressed syllables, and the CLOTH and CURE lexical sets. Even though I mentioned her use of TRAP and HAPPY vowels above, her pronunciation of these vowels does vary in the programme. Regardless, I think she does a great job overall – especially because thinking about the accent is only one of many things an actor has to concentrate on in performance.

  3. Tarquin 4 July, 2017 at 2:45 AM - Reply

    If only one could reprogramme one’s own speech to permanently speak like that

    • Luke Nicholson 4 July, 2017 at 8:50 AM - Reply

      Well, it is possible to change the way you speak. Different people will have different degrees of success depending on their ability and the training they receive.

      On a side note, some actors will stay in the character’s accent for the entire time they are shooting a film (regardless whether they are on set or not).

  4. Constance G Konold 13 December, 2017 at 7:40 PM - Reply

    Thank you! This is so interesting, especially as it’s become apparent in The Crown that the accents are immensely important. Prince Philip’s accent sounds a little strange so I assume it is to make us understand that English is not his mother tongue and that the British actor Matt had to modify his speech (?).

    When you say “modern” accent, are you referring to “received” as it’s taught (I suppose) in most schools?

    • Luke Nicholson 14 December, 2017 at 11:04 AM - Reply

      I’m glad you found it interesting 🙂

      When I say “modern” I’m referring to what linguists call Standard Southern British English, which is spoken in the South East of England. RP (Received Pronunciation) has a lot of baggage and I like to avoid that term.

  5. Pat 16 December, 2017 at 2:22 PM - Reply

    Thanks for this, very interesting indeed. One thing I got from this is that we Americans have retained the older “goose” vowel. Of course we have many other older versions of speech as well, but that’s a different story and also variable by region. I feel like the goose vowel is consistent amongst all speakers of American English, and Canadian as well most likely..

    • Luke Nicholson 17 December, 2017 at 9:38 AM - Reply

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Actually, there is variation of the GOOSE vowel in North America and some GOOSE-Fronting among younger speakers. Have a listen!

  6. Andrés 26 December, 2017 at 11:31 PM - Reply

    Extremely interesting. For us foreigners, the old-fashioned sound for “who” sounds easier, as we can relate it to the French “ou”, the Spanish, Italian, German, (etc) “u”, whereas the modern “who” sounds less clear, not precisely brighter, as you say, but as a mixture, with a little bit of “ü” (German) or “u” (French). I for one, was convinced that this sound wasn’t standard, but rather a feature of the Northern Irish accent, where they pronounce “house” like “heüs”, almost like the Dutch translation “huis”!

    • Luke Nicholson 27 December, 2017 at 11:17 AM - Reply

      Yes, the old-fashioned “who” does sound similar to Spanish “u”, French “ou”, German “u’, etc. Glad you found it interesting!

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