You’ve all heard the phrase “plummy accent” and many variants of it.

I’ve been trying to find out how can this be called or described in more scientific and phonetic terms. So I bumped onto John Charles Herbert’s PhD thesis “Broadcast Speech and the Effect of Voice Quality on the Listener”. On page 121 he says:

Excessive pharyngeal tone is achieved by constriction of the palatal arches and raising the back of the tongue. This results in the voice quality that can best be described as 'plummy'.

On the other hand, John C. Wells in his Accents of English, on page 283 says:

The other obvious change I make involves voice quality: U-RP demands a ‘plumminess’ achieved by lowering the larynx and widening the oro-pharynx.

First, how do you consciously lower the larynx and widen the oro-pharynx?

Second, is there a name for the speech process he is describing? It doesn’t seem as if this is pharyngealization. I presume he would’ve put it that simply if it were.

Third, isn’t what he’s describing kind of even the opposite of pharyngealization?

When referring to “plummy accent”, two of the speakers that come to mind are Deborah Vivien Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire and Alec Douglas-Home. And also John Spencer-Churchill, 11th Duke of Marlborough. You can find the first two easily on YouTube, but for the third speaker you will have to dig a little.

As for deaffrication, is there an official name for the change in pronunciation from ˌbeɪ ˈdʒɪŋ to ˌbeɪ ˈʒɪŋ, something one of John C. Wells’s correspondents once named “yoghism”:


Perhaps “ezhism”? Or simply “deaffrication”?

  • Hi Joseph, if they are two separate questions you can always ask them ask separate questions, it will also be easier for the community to answer then – WiccanKarnak Feb 11 '18 at 9:56
  • I just didn’t want to take too much space, and it seemed convenient and the same if clearly titled and delineated. – Joseph Feb 11 '18 at 21:18

“Plummy” is not a term in phonetics, but at best in socio-linguistics. The Oxford English Dictionary qualifies it as “colloquial” and defines it as:

“Of a person's voice, speech, etc.: mellow, deep, resonant, and carefully articulated (in a way associated with the educated English upper classes); (hence) mannered, affected, posh, upper-class. Also occasionally: drawling; indistinct, as though hampered by plums in the mouth (cf. plum n. and adj.2 Phrases 1). Also in extended use.”

A ”plummy accent” is simply the way upper-class Southern English people speak, or rather how they used to speak.

  • Yes, I know that. But there is a phonetic process that results in such a pronunciation, and that is what I tried to explain and wanted to know. I don’t quite understand how I ended up not being clear. Is plumminess pharyngealition, probably coupled with at least one other way of speech production, or something else? – Joseph Feb 11 '18 at 21:17
  • I really don't think this has anything to do with phayngealisation. Listten to how the Queen speaks. Or to newsreels from the 1940s. – fdb Feb 11 '18 at 22:50

For such sociolinguistic characterisations of speech (especially one as culturally-specific as "plumminess"), one has to disentangle all its many possible features. These may vary between different speech producers; as Watt (2018) states:

"Plumminess" for one person may be manifested by a markedly velarized tongue body, minimal jaw lowering, a spread lip posture and low vocal pitch, for instance, whereas for another it might correlate with pharyngeal resonance/larynx lowering, a dentalized setting, and a wide pitch range.

Alternatively, even segmental features can contribute a "plummy" sound to speech; Arboleda-Guirao (2014) suggests it's not just vocal timbre:

Well try speaking with a small object in your mouth and you will find that as the front and central parts of your tongue and mouth are otherwise occupied, sounds will be produced further back in the mouth. Very back realisations of /u:/ /ʊ/ /ɔ:/ often sound quite old-fashioned, and in recent years these vowels are clearly moving forward.

Because "plumminess" has a strong cultural connotation in the Anglophone media, some study has been done on it the world of vocal pedagogy, whether it's approached from acting/dramaturgy, from opera/singing/music, or from speech pathology and the ENT medical arena. The studies on the last generally come from the perception that there is some sort of non-standard nasalisation, generally hyponasalisation, which might be indicative of physical medical problems.

As for the mechanics of "lower[ing] the larynx and widen[ing] the oro-pharynx"? According to vp's comment on this thread:


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