Thursday, November 10, 2005

At the first stroke...

News today that Pat Simmons, the voice of the speaking clock from 1963 to 1985, died recently aged 85. Who? What? Did you even know there was a speaking clock? Well, there is, though I'd vaguely assumed it had gone the way of directory enquiries and was now spoken by someone in Timbuctoo on a premium rate line costing several arms and a few legs. But, hey, I've just dialed 123, the number that's been used for this purpose since 1936, and there it is, still pipping away.

The current voice is that of Brian Cobby, and I find it deeply reassuring both in its deep rich tone, and its almost anachronistic Received Pronunciation. It's not strongly marked RP but listen very carefully to his long /ai/ sounds, as in 'five' and 'precisely' and you'll know what I mean. You can either dial 123 (though it is 10p a go) or you can click here if you've got QuickTime installed on your PC:

Brian Cobby speaking clock clip

If you click below you can also hear Brian Cobby doing the Thunderbirds countdown. Hard to believe it's the same guy, really, but it's him alright, doing an American accent. Can you hear the /r/ in 'four' that Labov also used as a variable in his New York Department Store Study?...

Brian Cobby Thunderbirds countdown clip

But anyway, back to Pat Simmons, who was the voice before BC, and if you listen carefully you can hear a more marked form of RP, much more common in earlier decades of the twentieth century. What differences can you hear?

Pat Simmons speaking clock clip

This is clearly interesting from a language change point of view, but there are other curious dimensions to this. One is the way that a particular variety of English has been selected for this authoritative, institutional function. That variety, RP, used to have a very high level of prestige, but that's changed considerably as society, and our attitude to formal authority, has changed. When both minor royals and Prime Ministers are said to have been spotted using features of Estuary English on occasion, and the main news programme on the BBC is read in a Welsh accent, it comes as something of a surprise to find the speaking clock hasn't followed suit.

Except that it has on two occasions. In 2003 a Scottish schoolgirl (with a Scottish accent) got to be the voice of the clock for a week, as did Lenny Henry (West Midlands accent) also in 2003. Both occasions were charity fundraising events, the former for Childline, the latter for Comic Relief. There's a whole interesting thing going on there - about only letting traditionally less prestigious accents into the bastion of chronological authority for specially licensed 'fun' fundraising... perhaps also about the value to charity fundraisers of using speakers with regional accents because they sound more friendly, more like someone you'd want to give your hard-earned cash to, rather than some posh geezer who already has a shedload...

Tantalisingly, The Mirror article says that Pat Simmons lived for 47 years in the same flat in the East End. Now I SO want to know more about this woman. Did she always talk like her speaking clock voice, or did she have a Cockney accent too? Someone needs to find out and publish her story in this weekend's papers - now there's an Original Writing coursework idea for you...

'Speaking Clock' Pat Simmons dies

Pip-pip to our polite speaking clock Pat

The BT Speaking Clock

Schoolgirl is new Speaking Clock


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