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So, what do these linguistic class codes tell us about Englishness? All cultures have a social hierarchy and methods of signalling social status: what, apart from our perhaps disproportionate class-consciousness, is distinctive about the English class system and its signals?

For a start, the linguistic codes we have identified indicate that class in England has nothing to do with money, and very little to do with occupation. Speech is all-important. A person with an upper-class accent, using upper-class terminology, will be recognized as upper class even if he or she is earning poverty-line wages, doing grubby menial work and living in a run-down council flat. Or even unemployed, destitute and homeless. Equally, a person with working-class pronunciation, who calls his sofa a settee, and his midday meal 'dinner', will be identified as working class even if he is a multi-millionaire living in a grand country house. There are other class indicators - such as one's taste in clothes, furniture, decoration, cars, pets, books, hobbies, food and drink - but speech is the most immediate and most obvious.

The importance of speech in this context may point to another English characteristic: our love of words. It has often been said that the English are very much a verbal rather than a visual culture, considerably more noted for our literature than for our art - or indeed music. We are also not particularly 'tactile' or physically expressive, not given to much touching or gesticulating, relying more on verbal than nonverbal communication. Words are our preferred medium, so it is perhaps significant that they should be our primary means of signalling and recognising social status.

This reliance on linguistic signals, and the irrelevance of wealth and occupation as class indicators, also reminds us that our culture is not a meritocracy. Your accent and terminology reveal the class you were born into and raised in, not anything you have achieved through your own talents or efforts. And whatever you do accomplish, your position on the class scale will always be identifiable by your speech, unless you painstakingly train yourself to use the pronunciation and vocabulary of a different class.

The sheer complexity of the linguistic rules reveals something of the intricate, convoluted nature of the English class system - all those layers, all those fine distinctions; the snakes-and-ladders game of social climbing. And the class-denial rules give us a hint of a peculiarly English squeamishness about class. This unease may be more pronounced among the middle classes, but most of us suffer from it to some degree - most of us would rather pretend that class differences do not exist, or are no longer important, or at least that we personally have no class-related prejudices.

Which brings me to another English characteristic: hypocrisy. Not that our pious denial of our class-obsessions is specifically intended to mislead - it seems to be more a matter of self-deception than any deliberate deception of others; a kind of collective self-deception, perhaps? I have a hunch that this distinctively English brand of hypocrisy will come up again, and might even turn out to be one of the 'defining characteristics' we are looking for.


Date: 2015-01-29; view: 2965

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