Monday, August 07, 2017

Language, evolution and social class

It’s interesting how social stratification encourages people lower down in the scale not only to mock the accents of their superiors but to adopt them, with the result that in some cases the ‘refined’ version has become the standard for all:

From W G Elliot’s “In My Anecdotage” (1925)

Page 233:

Let me confess, there is one sort of person who is about still - though there were more before 1914 - whom I cannot bear. We all know the Cockney accent is hideous, and the Glasgow accent still worse, but the accent of some of the swagger and fashionable people takes the cake. They speak thus - men and women alike : “Shall we lunch heah or theah, were they have some first-class beah ? Heah ? - good - heah, heah !” This horrible accent is supposed to be a sign of one who “goes the pace” and consists, as I have shown, in turning word such as “here” into much the same pronunciation as “dear” or “Leah.”

Page 242:

I wonder if any of my readers have ever noticed that when two common people meet and one of them recounts a conversation of his with a “toff” he always reproduces the “toff’s” tones thus: “Ai saye, old cheap,  can you tell me how Ai can get to Ba-aker Street?” I suppose that, to them, the voices of the upper classes all sound the same, full of false refinement and artificiality, like that of the “refined” lady at the Telephone Exchange who, if you ask for “549 Gerrard” almost invariably answers” “Gerard faive four naine.” I thought this disgusting pronunciation was quite modern, but on turning up an old book of Thackeray’s stories written in the ‘fifties, I found that that he makes a middle class lady say to one of her husband's old brother officers when he calls there: “I’ll ask my husband to put the ‘waine’ upon ‘aice.’” My idea is that in some remoter period Society people used to talk with these mannerisms of speech and that they are now the property of some of the middle and lower classes.

From Maurice Baring’s “The Puppet Show Of Memory” (1932)

Pages 58-59:

A picturesque figure, as of another age, was my great-aunt, Lady Georgiana Grey, who came to Membland once in my childhood. She was old enough to have played the harp to Byron. She lived at Hampton Court and played whist every night of her life, and sometimes went up to London to the play when she was between eighty and ninety. She was not deaf, her sight was undimmed, and she had a great contempt for people who were afraid of draughts. She had a fine aptitude for flat contradiction, and she was a verbal conservative, that is to say, she had a horror of modern locutions and abbreviations, piano for pianoforte, balcŏny for balcōni, cucumber for cowcumber, Montagu for Mountagu, soot for sut, yellow for yallow.

My wife’s father (born in the early 1930s) would sometimes say “cowcumber” as a humorously self-conscious archaism. And her mother, as a child, would play “Chainies” with her friends, that is, dig up bits of old crockery and use them as imaginary Chinese tea-sets.

Samuel Pepys’s diary (25 September 1660) []:

“...afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.”

I suspect ‘tee’ was then pronounced to rhyme with ‘say’, as in modern German, and among the Irish until recently in English as well as Gaelic [].

I wonder if some professor of old languages such as Anglo-Saxon, if sent back undercover in a time machine to the period of his study, would be instantly spotted as an interloper as soon as he opened his mouth.


Demetrius said...

The world before film and radio, then TV was very different, as were the people. I knew quite a few born in the late 19th Century and am very wary of what is said about them by writers then and later. My memory is of people with remarkable vocabularies, structures and moderated accents and of all classes. You could not run a railway without it.

Sackerson said...

I remember watching a 50s/early 60s vox pop interview with teenagers and being struck by how carefully and correctly they spoke to the interviewer, obviously not in the way they would speak among themselves. Arguably, one advantage of class is that it sets standards.

And there were many working-class people who might have got much further in life but just didn't get the chances, either because of poverty or the disruption of war.

Modern meritocracy - if it works perfectly - means that the first, lowest layer that the customer has to deal with will be semi-morons.

Twilight said...

Interesting post - thank you! I recall that my maternal grandmother, born late 19th century in East Yorkshire would sometimes pronounce tea as "tay". I suspect her father had some Irish in him. She'd also refer to a naughty child as "a little fenian" - which used to puzzle me until "The Troubles" boosted my vocabulary. ;)

For sure your time travelling professor would find it hard to stay undercover. I believe that pronunciation in past centuries would have contained much more that was carried over - accents and words, by interlopers to Britain - Nordic/Scandinavian in the north and east for instance. I think much of the old East Yorkshire accent was coloured by that.

wiggiatlarge said...

The perceptions on how people in a particular area speak is not backed up by the facts.
I was raised in the East End of London and only left when I married, in all those years I can recall only once meeting someone who spoke with the stereotype cockney accent, certainly some phrases and words were included by many in normal speech, but cor blimey guv, no.
I had a very good friend who lived in Bethnal Green who could lapse into a very good interpretation of a cockney, it was his party piece and very funny, and that from someone who was more East End than anyone else I knew.

Sackerson said...

I recall reading of some research that said men tended to intensify their regional accents in the presence of incomers, whereas women would soften theirs. Territoriality?