Wednesday, 1 July 2009

An Intact Sense for Class Distinction Helps to Keep the Language Precise and Beautiful

If one talks to Americans, the "stuffiness" of the English generally, but specifically of their language, is a target of frequent ridicule. Such a judgement, however, reveals an endearing lack of perception of a thing they know a fig about, but which still has a pull among the British, in spite of many strident assurances to the contrary: Class. One gets more often than not shrieks of disgust in return for mentioning the c-word, but as a matter of fact, it's alive and thriving and language is one of its main expressions.

There are, of course, other class indicators, for example at what time of the day one has what kind of meal, what clothes one wears, houses -- where and how, and whether one likes the late Princess Diana or not. The latter, in fact, managed to draw a sharply defined line between the middle classes, who adored Diana because she displayed ad nauseam all the maudlin and phoney values of which the middle classes are so fond, and the upper-classes, who hated her because she was, as "Private Eye" put it in a meanwhile removed article, "a neurotic, irresponsible and manipulative troublemaker who had repeatedly meddled in political matters that did not concern her and personally embarrassed Her Majesty The Queen by her Mediterranean love-romps with the son of a discredited Egyptian businessman".

The following (maybe, one hopes, not even apocryphal) joke puts it to a "T": Princess Diana visits the Queen Mother in hospital. Diana: [high voice] "I've come to hold your hand." Queen Mother: [even higher voice] "Piss orf!" Both, the very direct, unfussy linguistic approach and the pronunciation are proof of the old lady's impeccable pedigree.

Listening to Brits while making guesses about their social background is both, fun and revealing. The strongest class indicator of them all is the short little word "pardon". THE one big class divide between people who say "pardon" because they think (and, for the non-native bystander, quite understandably so) that it is polite, and those who consider it a horrible genteelism too unsmart for words. The latter will say "eh", "what" or "sorry" instead. Think a smoke-filled room full of crusty old colonels, all deaf, shouting at each other, hand behind ear, on the top of their voices: "EH? EH? WHAT did he say? EH? EH???" Then there is this only at first sight droll story about the little English boy who informed his teacher: "My Mummy says pardon is a worse word than fuck." Befuddled, I asked a friend, an Old Etonianin in his eighties, whether that is true, and after very short contemplation he was positive that there are occasions where a gentleman might say "fuck", but never, not to save his life, would he ever say "pardon".

So far my own fieldwork, and I have strong supporters:

Post-war Britain was much shaken by an article in the bulletin of a Finnish learned society. In a paper on "English Upper Class Usage” Professor Alan S. C. Ross of Birmingham University stated, it was in 1954, that it was "solely by its language” the upper classes were "clearly marked off” from the middle and lower classes. To prove his point, Ross listed the ways a "U-" (for upper class) speaker differed from a "non-U" speaker. For example: The former would say rich, false teeth, house, jam, jersey, and lavatory/loo the latter wealthy, dentures, home, preserve, jumper/pullover/cardigan and toilet; the former would pronounce, for example, forehead as forrid, power as par, the latter as fore-head and pow-er; and so on. "The lorst par of the British Empar" indeed! I once was asked in an upper class house (NEVER say ***shudder*** "home"!) whether I wanted to take a "shar" as the hot water supply was a bit erratic. It took me a few moments to realize that the host meant "shower".

What H.L. Mencken said 1921 in "The American Language" is still spot on:
The Englishman seldom tries to gloss menial occupations with sonorous names; on the contrary, he seems to delight in keeping their menial character plain. He says servants, not help. Even his railways and banks have servants; the chief trades-union of the English railroad men is the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. He uses employé in place of clerk, workman or laborer much less often than we do. True enough he often calls a boarder a paying-guest, but that is probably because even a lady may occasionally take one in. … He avoids displacing terms of a disparaging or disagreeable significance with others less brutal, or thought to be less brutal, e.g., ready-to-wear, ready-tailored, or ready-to-put-on for ready-made, used or slightly-used for second-hand, popular priced for cheap, mahoganized for imitation mahogany, aisle manager for floor-walker (he makes it shop-walker), loan-office for pawn-shop."
Obviously, an intact sense for class distinction helps to keep the language precise and beautiful.

However, whatever their merits, Ross’ "U versus non-U" observations would have remained in Finnish obscurity, had it not been for Nancy Mitford, who, in addition to being a brilliant novelist, was also (so Evelyn Waugh) "an agitator - agitatrix, agitateuse? - of genius". Mitford jumped on Ross’ concept and impishly developed it into an article called "The English Aristocracy”. Partly prank, partly accurate, the "U versts non-U" flap was eventually memorialised in Mitford's extremely witty and funny book "Noblesse Oblige", an eccentric analysis of aristocracy, Englishness and language. "Poetus Laureate" John Betjeman contributed the following poem where virtually EVERY word is socially stigmatised:
How To Get On In Society
Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?
The frills round the cutlets can wait
Till the girl has replenished the cruets
And switched on the logs in the grate.

It's ever so close in the lounge dear,
But the vestibule's comfy for tea
And Howard is riding on horseback
So do come and take some with me

Now here is a fork for your pastries
And do use the couch for your feet;
I know that I wanted to ask you-
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Milk and then just as it comes dear?
I'm afraid the preserve's full of stones;
Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doileys
With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.
Even after almost 50 years and in spite of all passionate pledges to the contrary, the social dimension of language is still considerable. In more recent times, the as observant as funny journalist and writer Jilly Cooper started all over where Mitford stopped and cultivated those class pranks to an art form in her novels.

The bottom line is, that certain features of language are still used to put people in their place and to keep them there. Although a clever parvenu might learn "received pronunciation", as Eliza Doolittle did from 'enry 'iggins, he (or she) won't have an easy life, as the snags are many.

A biblical example of language as a gatekeeper is given in Judges 12:
4 Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, "You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh."
5 The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead asked him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he replied, "No,"
6 they said, "All right, say `Shibboleth.'" If he said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.
As a result of this sad story, the word "shibboleth" is used to describe a linguistic marker that distinguishes one group from another. But it's not only "U" versus "non-U", it's the other way round as well. It was George Bernard Shaw who said that it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without being hated or despised by another Englishman (or words to that effect) and people still object to people "gentryfying" their voices like Mrs. Thatcher ironing out her lower-middle class vowels or, the other way round, "plebifying" them. Jilly Cooper tells in her hilarious appraisal of British society, "Class", the as funny as sad anecdote of working class hero and heir to the Wedgwood billions, Lord Stansgate (now "Tony Benn") "yer-knowing folksily all over his electorate". "Don't call me Sir, my good man" he was heard ticking off some unhappy Labour supporter in a pub.

The bottom line is that the more precise, direct, short, simple, Anglo-Saxon (as opposed to Romanic), non-politically correct, less explanatory or unsentimental the choice of words is, the more likely it is that one is talking to a "U"-speaker. Scent, not perfume (words that come from a Huntin', Shootin', Fishin' background are obviously very "U"), jam, not preserve, cake, not gateau, to pee (or - if you like - to piss), not to urinate, house, not home, racing, not horse racing. Talking about horses… of course one "rides" not "horse rides" or, (heavens forbid!) "horse back rides". One is "rich" not "well off", "puts down" an old dog and don't "put it to sleep", has an "affair" not a "relationship", "dies" and doesn't "pass away". And one does definitely NOT EVER use "cute-isms" like "doggie" or "horsey" and NEVER NEVER platitudes like "pleased to meet you" or "Cheers"!

I don't quite agree with some of the learned people above who claim that the vocabulary distinguishes the upper from the middle and lower classes. I remain adamant that there are certain important and characteristic similarities between the upper and the working classes. The concept behind this, I think, is that the upper AND lower classes are oblivious to public opinion and, both for their own obvious reasons, not interested in social climbing and thus less pretentious and less interested in "education", whilst notions like "getting on in life", social advancement, and the impression one might make on others ("what WILL people say!") are typically middle class and thus lead to a more pretentious, explanatory, euphemistic, politically correct, long-winded, perceivedly "educated" sort of speaking. And as all this is happening in a society that is more and more identified by arrivistes from the (lower) middle classes, this way of speaking is on its way to become more and more the "normal English", presumably just to prove the Americans right.

Oh yes, the Americans! As a (non-native) English- (as opposed to American-) speaker, in the course of my modest fieldwork I found that the implied premiss of my little piece here, i.e. "English can be stuffy depending on the class of the speaker", ought to be amended by "and Americans are the last ones fit to be judges of that". In the course of more than ten years in the Internet, complimented by a bit of travelling, I have found that virtually ALL of the lower-middleclass, pseudo-refined, Romanic abominabilites mentioned above are common American usage. In fact, there are Anglo-American dictionaries on the web to help the desperate.

So we know there are linguistic dividers, but what is the fascination of those Frenchified euphemistic earsores in the first place?

I think there are three main reasons. First it's to make emotionally difficult or potentially embarrassing situations more tolerable ("the loved one" vs "the dead"). Second to bestow status to the undeserving ("sanitary engineer" vs "garbageman") or acceptability to the unsavoury ("landfill" or "recycling center" vs "dump"; "pre-owned car" vs "used car"). Third, and this is the worst part of it, to make the, sadly not always avoidable, icky "facts of life" bearable. While we can attribute the first two to a general lack of taste and discernment, which comes with any preponderance of lower middle class values, the third one is additionally owing to the moral bludgeon American middle class women, whose prissiness is only topped by their ruthless self-absorption, are swinging to keep society clean from what they are perceiving as unpleasant. Anybody who is able to manipulate millions of American-English speakers into re-naming rape-derived cooking oil into the "inoffensive" sounding "Canola" just because they don't like the sound of the former, is dangerous and potentially capable of ANYthing or at least so I think.

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