Throughout her 70-year reign, the Queen regularly used language and public speaking to engage with, unite, and reassure her people. In times of uncertainty and upheaval, the Queen stood before the British public, embodying that famous ‘stiff upper lip’.
As such, it stands to reason that her speeches played a role in shaping the relationship the public had with the monarch for over 70 years, and will undoubtedly be closely associated with her legacy throughout the years to follow. Here we take a look at how the Queen’s accent changed, and how the stars of Netflix hit series The Crown have tried to adopt the voices of the Royal Family in the latest season. Ted Mentele, Editor in Didactics at leading language learning app Babbel, shares insight on the importance of ‘public’ language and speeches for the Royal Family.
A quick guide to ‘Heightened RP’
/æ/ - Words which contain this phoneme involve an ‘ah’ sound, which in received pronunciation is formed with a high tongue. This means that words like ‘man’, ‘bat’, and ‘tan’, should sound more like ‘men’, ‘bet’ and ‘ten’ when attempting a royal accent.
/uː/ - This phoneme produces the sound ‘oo’. In received pronunciation, words containing this phoneme (such as fruit, music, and new) should be pronounced with a high back tongue and rounded lips - making the ‘oo’ sound more swallowed, in the back of the throat. ‘Froot’, ‘moosic’ and ‘noo’ are what these terms will sound like with RP.
/əʊ/ - This phoneme is a dipthong, which means it is a vowel phoneme made up of two sounds which transition seamlessly from one to the next. When pronouncing words that contain this dipthong - such as goat, road, and show - the mouth should be kept unrounded and open. This means that o’s should be pronounced less harshly, and that the words should seem fluid.
Imelda Staunton as the Queen
Imelda Staunton’s predecessors on The Crown, Claire Foy and Olivia Coleman, have been praised for their recreation of the Queen’s voice - largely thanks to their portrayals of exaggerated, heightened RP (Received Pronunciation) - known colloquially as the ‘Queen’s English’. This season, Staunton was tasked with recreating a more seasoned Queen than those presented in seasons past, who is under stress due to trying to maintain a united front amidst the domestic chaos unfolding behind closed doors (and increasingly, in front of them).
When studying real-life footage of the Queen during this era, it seems her stress manifested itself as a higher pitched voice, with one example arising in the famous annus horribilis speech, which Staunton has supposedly recreated. While the higher tone could indicate Elizabeth II’s attempt to appear more feminine or vulnerable, it could also be a reflection of the personal strain she experienced throughout this era, and act as an attempt to combat criticism from the press and public.
How does Staunton’s voice compare to the Queen?
When we draw parallels between Staunton’s speech in The Crown to real-life footage of the Queen, Staunton seems to have a slightly deeper voice. Staunton may do this intentionally, to better match modern public opinion of the Queen, however it could also occur naturally, as a deeper voice denotes maturity and happens naturally with age. Within the show, Staunton’s deeper voice may also help to emphasise the Queen’s authority over the younger Diana and Charles, who were often a source of chaos during this period.
Interestingly, we briefly hear Staunton’s voice become higher-pitched during an argument with Charles. This could suggest the Queen worked hard to ensure her emotions and vulnerability remained private, thus making a big distinction between her public and personal personas - a sentiment that many other Royals did not uphold around this time.
Dominic West as Charles
In the trailer for this season, Dominic West’s Charles pleads for a “modern monarchy which reflects the world outside” - and it seems that West’s accent seeks to embody this desire. This is a departure from past actors who have leaned into the nature of Charles’ accent in previous seasons.
In fact, when we take a look at the real Charles’ voice during this era, it seems that West has softened his accent for The Crown as he doesn’t emphasise RP, especially when compared to previous actors portraying Charles. West’s adaptation may reflect Charles’ efforts to win back the British public, who gravitated towards taking Diana’s side in the divorce.
Elizabeth Debicki as Diana
Elizabeth Debicki perhaps had both the easiest and hardest job in recreating Diana’s voice, considering that there is a wealth of recorded materials for the public to scrutinise when comparing her performance to that of Diana in real-life. For example, many will reflect on Diana’s infamous 1995 BBC Panorama interview, which was teased in this season’s trailer, and will likely drum up a lot of chatter as the public compares reality with performance, side-by-side.
Interestingly, Debicki’s predecessor, Emma Corrin, found fame for her careful recreation of Diana’s ‘alright’, as she spoke in breathy tones to emulate a young, doe-eyed Diana. Corrin explained how she would force her words down at the end, so as to always sound a ‘bit sad’.
However, Debicki’s Diana seems to have shed this breathy voice as she seeks to represent a Diana who has found her strength. While Debicki certainly recreates the soft, resigned tone of Diana’s 1995 speech, we also glimpse a conversation between Philip and Diana - in which we witness a defiance in her voice as she asks if Philip wants her to ‘remain silent’.