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:
Image © Netflix
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)
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 SSBE2 speakers 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 This is why some dictionaries and outdated pronunciation textbooks transcribe this vowel sound as /eə/.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.
1 a biopic is biographical film. The standard pronunciation is /ˈbʌɪəʊ pɪk/ “BIO-pic”, but lots of people say /bʌɪˈɒpɪk/ “bi-OP-ic”.
2 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).