The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Land + People

In Scotland everyone speaks well. In Ireland and in Wales everyone speaks well. But in England speaking well is hard to come by. Accent is of enormous importance, especially in the more snobbish South and more particularly in London, where the important jobs are handed out. Bernard Shaw, well aware of this insurmountable class barrier, wrote “Pygmalion’’ to prove it. The musical “My Fair Lady’’,* half a century later, owes much of its success to the fact that accents still count enormously.

The fall of the accent, the breadth of the vowelsounds, the phrases used in the everyday business of living, the exclamations, the very silences, all of these in England are clues to class. Though someone of tremendous personality can transcend the social disability* of a bad accent, and thus move in any social circle he cares to with his bad accent intact, such a person’s exceptional. And of all the social circles, significantly, he will find the most middle of the middle classes the least penetrable.

“Milk first’’,* protested a middle-class Englishwoman, being served with tea in the home of a foreign diplomat’s wife. “Milk first, or goodness me, people will think you have come from the jungle.’’

Milk first! Why? Nobody knows. It mixes better? It does not in fact mix better. It doesn’t make the cup of tea cold as it would if you added the milk afterwards? Rubbish! “U’’* people in fact don’t put the milk in first. And what about those people who don’t take milk in their tea at all? The milk ceremony, like the Japanese tea ceremony, is a ritual, one of those little rituals with which the English middle class encompass themselves — a barrier to keep out those not in the know.

What is now called “U and non-U”’, especially what is “U’’, may be changed suddenly to fox newcomers struggling up the ladder. Not everyone is in agreement as to which words are one or the other. It can be said that many working-class expressions are older ones once in general use. “Sitting-room’’ is the word used by parents (workers) whose ladder-climbing children are careful to use the word “lounge’’ (middle-middle class). When these children get a few rungs higher they will find “sitting-room’’ is more acceptable again. Bourgeois terror of naming anything suggesting the natural functions leads to the word “toilet’’ meaning something else. The older generation of workers, unless they have got on quitea bit or are trying to keep up with their climbing children, say “double U’’, meaning W.C. (water-closet).

“U’’ expressions are a password system used for segregation invented by the elite to keep the climbers from mounting the ladder. The harder the “non-U’’ try, the more the “U’’ twist and turn, using cryptic phrases, using baffling initials, even reverting to satiric cockney phrases, they have had to learn since they were not born to them, to show the newcomers they don’t belong.

The English working class, even when they aspire to be “posh’’, are shrewd enough to see through their own prefences, and enjoy nothing better than a good belly laugh at the “la-di-da’’* and the “jumped-up’’. They are wonderful debunkers. French names for ordinary English foodis a favourite target. So are fancy boarding-schools, with expensive extras.* So are classy accents, especially if they have been acquired. The real thing they respect.

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