Monday, February 06, 2012

Class in Britain?

In 1963 I left these shores for an extended stay in the British Isles--in London, of course. Before setting out, I had been informed that the most important feature of the British national character was their all-encompassing class system, so different from our looser American version. After living in London for four years--with excursions elsewhere, and careful monitoring of the press--I became convinced that I did not know what the British class system was. Neither did anyone else, as far as I could tell.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before setting out, I had adopted a basic guide, the notion that there is a fundamental contrast between U and non-U English usage, with U standing for upper class, and non-U representing the aspiring middle classes in the sociolects of 1950s. One should be clear. The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the British working classes which, curiously enough, oftentimes used the same words as the upper class. For this reason, the vocabulary list can often appear counterintuitive: the middle class prefers "fancy" or fashionable words (even neologisms), often euphemisms, in an attempt to make themselves sound more refined, while the upper class in many cases sticks to the same plain and traditional words that the working classes also use, as they have no need to make themselves sound more refined, being completely confident of their status.

The debate was set in motion in 1954 by the British linguist Alan S. C. Ross, Professor of Linguistics in the University of Birmingham. He coined the terms U and non-U in an article on the difference that social class makes to English language usage, which was published in a Finnish professional linguistics journal. While his article mentioned some differences of pronunciation and writing style, it was his attention to differences of vocabulary that attracted the most attention.

Alerted, Nancy Mitford took up the theme in an essay “The English Aristocracy” that appeared in Encounter magazine in 1954. Mitford provided a glossary of terms used by the upper classes, unleashing an anxious national debate about English class-consciousness and snobbery, which involved a good deal of soul-searching that itself provided fuel for the fires. In some cases the U term just seems more traditional, as in the contrast of graveyard vs. cemetery and looking glass vs. mirror. In other contrasts, euphemism seems evident, as in the non-U substitute for die, pass on, and the replacement of napkin with serviette.

The U and non-U issue now seems little more than a light-hearted diversion, but at the time many took it very seriously. This response was a reflection of the anxieties of the middle class in 1950s Britain, recently emerged from post-war austerities. In particular the media used the notion as a launching pad for many pieces of commentary, making much more out of it than was first intended.

Implicitly the concept ridiculed the idea that one might improve oneself by aping the culture and manner of one's "betters," an endeavor pretty much taken for granted before World War II,.

Further reflection suggested that, in the last analysis, these vocabulary differences were not very important. What was of overriding importance, some sociolinguists maintained, was accent. The ability to render effortlessly the speech patterns of the Home Counties of southern England immediately marked one out as superior. Ultimately, this claim seemed hardly likely, as it made an educated. well-to-do individual from Leeds or Bradford the inferior of a postman in Brighton.

At all events the Home County advantage lost its cachet when reverse snobbery led younger members of the British educated strata to adopt elements of working-class speech, what is now termed Estuary English and Mockney. The latter represents the deliberate affectation of the working-class London (Cockney) accent. At all events, the BBC has long ceased to be the arbiter of linguistic correctness, since all sorts of regional accents may be heard there.

What has become clear is that in England there are no simple linguistic criteria for ascertaining class status, as many factors--including wealth, education, fashion choices, and place of origin--play significant roles.

A further issue--an unavoidable one--is this: how many classes are there? In an earlier inquiry I found that the schemes ranged from two to nine. The simplest form dichotomizes society into the rulers and the ruled. This is, grosso modo, the scheme espoused by “Upstairs, Downstairs” and succeeding TV dramas.

At the opposite extreme is the ninefold scheme of upper-upper, middle-upper, lower-upper, upper-middle, and so forth. In addition, some speak of an underclass consisting of the truly unfortunate who do not figure even in this elaborate scheme.

In short the matter is iffy, to say the least. I would encourage anyone to look at assertions about the primacy of class in Britain with skepticism. To be sure, there is something to it. However, those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.



Blogger Dyneslines said...

Note: Some factual details in this piece derive from a Wikipedia article: However, the opinions expressed are mine.

6:56 AM  

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