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One cannot talk about English conversation codes without talking about class. And one cannot talk at all without immediately revealing one's own social class. This may to some extent apply internationally, but the most frequently quoted comments on the issue are English - from Ben Jonson's 'Language most shows a man. Speak that I may see thee' to George Bernard Shaw's rather more explicitly class-related: 'It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate him or despise him'. We may like to think that we have become less class-obsessed in recent times, but Shaw's observation is as pertinent now as it ever was. All English people, whether they admit it or not, are fitted with a sort of social Global Positioning Satellite computer that tells us a person's position on the class map as soon as he or she begins to speak.

There are two main factors involved in the calculation of this position: terminology and pronunciation - the words you use and how you say them. Pronunciation is a more reliable indicator (it is relatively easy to learn the terminology of a different class), so I'll start with that.


The first class indicator concerns which type of letter you favour in your pronunciation - or rather, which type you fail to pronounce. Those at the top of the social scale like to think that their way of speaking is 'correct', as

it is clear and intelligible and accurate, while lower-class speech is 'incorrect', a 'lazy' way of talking - unclear, often unintelligible, and just plain wrong. Exhibit A in this argument is the lower-class failure to pronounce consonants, in particular the glottal stop - the omission (swallowing, dropping) of 't's - and the dropping of'h's. But this is a case of the pot calling the kettle (or ke'le, if you prefer) black. The lower ranks may drop their consonants, but the upper class are equally guilty of dropping their vowels. If you ask them the time, for example, the lower classes may tell you it is ”alf past ten' but the upper class will say 'hpstn'. A handkerchief in working-class speech is "ankercheef', but in upper-class pronunciation becomes'hnkrchf'.

Upper-class vowel-dropping may be frightfully smart, but it still sounds like a mobile-phone text message, and unless you are used to this clipped, abbreviated way of talking, it is no more intelligible than lower-class consonant-dropping. The only advantage of this SMS-speak is that it can be done without moving the mouth very much, allowing the speaker to maintain an aloof, deadpan expression and a stiff upper lip.

The upper class, and the upper-middle and middle-middle classes, do at least pronounce their consonants correctly - well, you'd better, if you're going to leave out half of your vowels - whereas the lower classes often pronounce 'th' as 'f' ('teeth' becomes 'teef', 'thing' becomes 'fing') or sometimes as 'v' ('that' becomes 'vat', 'Worthing' is 'Worving'). Final 'g's can become 'k's, as in 'somefink' and 'nuffink'. Pronunciation of vowels is also a helpful class indicator. Lower-class 'a's are often pronounced as long 'i's - Dive for Dave, Tricey for Tracey. (Working-class Northerners tend to elongate the 'a's, and might also reveal their class by saying 'Our Daaave' and 'Our Traaacey'.) Working class 'i's, in turn, may be pronounced 'oi', while some very upper-class 'o's become 'or's, as in 'naff orf'. But the upper class don't say 'I' at all if they can help it: one prefers to refer to oneself as 'one'. In fact, they are not too keen on pronouns in general, omitting them, along with articles and conjunctions, wherever possible - as though they were sending a frightfully expensive telegram. Despite all these peculiarities, the upper classes remain convinced that their way of speaking is the only proper way: their speech is the norm, everyone else's is 'an accent' - and when the upper classes say that someone speaks with 'an accent', what they mean is a working-class accent.

Although upper-class speech as a whole is not necessarily any more intelligible than lower-class speech, it must be said that mispronunciation of certain words is often a lower-class signal, indicating a less-educated speaker. For example: saying 'nucular' instead of'nuclear', and 'prostrate gland'for'prostate gland', are common mistakes, in both senses of the word 'common'. There is, however, a distinction between upper-class speech and 'educated' speech - they are not necessarily the same thing. What you may hear referred to as 'BBC English' or 'Oxford English' is a kind of'educated' speech - but it is more upper-middle than upper: it lacks the haw-haw tones, vowel swallowing and pronoun-phobia of upper-class speech, and is certainly more intelligible to the uninitiated.

While mispronunciations are generally seen as lower-class indicators, and this includes mispronunciation of foreign words and names, attempts at overly foreign pronunciation of frequently used foreign expressions and place-names are a different matter. Trying to do a throaty French 'r' in 'en route', for example, or saying 'Barthelona' with a lispy Spanish 'c', or telling everyone that you are going to Firenze rather than Florence - even if you pronounce them correctly - is affected and pretentious, which almost invariably means lower-middle or middle-middle class. The upper-middle, upper and working classes usually do not feel the need to show off in this way. If you are a fluent speaker of the language in question, you might just, perhaps, be forgiven for lapsing into correct foreign pronunciation of these words - although it would be far more English and modest of you to avoid exhibiting your skill.

We are frequently told that regional accents have become much more acceptable nowadays - even desirable, if you want a career in broadcasting - and that a person with, say, a Yorkshire, Scouse, Geordie or West Country accent is no longer looked down upon as automatically lower class. Yes, well, maybe. I am not convinced. The fact that many presenters of popular television and radio programmes now have regional accents may well indicate that people find these accents attractive, but it does not prove that the class associations of regional accents have somehow disappeared. We may like a regional accent, and even find it delightful, melodious and charming, while still recognising it as clearly working class. If what is really meant is that being working class has become more acceptable in many formerly snobby occupations, then this is what should be said, rather than a lot of mealy-mouthed polite euphemisms about regional accents.

Date: 2015-01-29; view: 2556

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