Time to tackle the most important issue of the day, the pronunciation of scone. Do you say scone so it rhymes with ‘gone’ or ‘stone’? There is nothing perhaps more likely to cause an argument over pronunciation down the pub than that particular word. Why saying the name of a cake should have become quite so controversial and perceived to be a good linguistic marker for social class is lost in history.
The map below comes from research By Adrian Leemann of Lancaster University I interviewed Adrian while researching my book Now You’re Talking. Working with others, he developed an app to ask people about accent and dialogue and included a question about the pronunciation of scone. If you come from an area in dark red like Scotland, that means most people say scone so it rhymes with ‘gone.’ In contrast, areas in dark teal like southern Ireland rhyme the word with ‘stone.’ Incidentally, there is no correct way of pronouncing the word because both are in common usage.
Accents portray our identity and when we hear a voice we evaluate whether that person is a member or not of our group. Accents and dialects afforded an evolutionary advantage by helping us to identify friends to cooperate with or potentially dangerous strangers to be wary of. When we hear someone say scone in a way different to ourselves, we think ‘they come from a different tribe.’ In Britain identities are strongly tied to class, so the pronunciation of scone is used as a class identifier.
But this is the strange bit, the pronunciation of scone is a really bad signifier of class. A YouGov survey examined how the pronunciation varies with age, gender, location and class. The graph below shows the split between two socio-economic groups, ABC1 (‘middle class’) and C2DE (‘working class’). As you can see there isn’t much difference between the groups. In fact if you do a stats test on this you’ll find no significant difference.
It seems that whichever way you say the word, it seems people assume that the other pronunciation is wrong and signals someone of an undesirable social class, whether
that is too posh or too common. What I’d really like to know is why this has arisen, because it is wrong. Maybe it has something to do with an association with rich people taking afternoon tea? Maybe the split in pronunciation was different in the past. Any ideas?