The Way We Speak


Today’s oddity thrown up by my current research involves the native tongue.

English speakers rarely notice the rules hidden inside their speech. For example, when we describe something to others, we use a pre-ordained system known as the Royal Order of adjectives. This dictates that certain words must precede others. They usually fit in the following eight categories.









So our sentence must be; The ugly little old round grey Mexican paper hat. You wouldn’t use them all at once, but you’d say ‘The ugly Mexican hat’ and not ‘The Mexican ugly hat’. In fact it’s virtually impossible to swap the order of words. I’ve yet to read a satisfactory explanation of why this is beyond ‘it doesn’t sound right’.

There are many other forces at work when we speak. Germans and Spaniards are amazed by the number of times the British say please, thank you and sorry. German is in practice quite a blunt and imperative language. Spanish speech is trimmed of excessive niceties. The British soften speech to be polite, and in doing so become vague, unclear and downright evasive.

Much web space is taken up with investigating the linguistic oddities of English, usually centring on rhyming slang and local sayings, but the gap between taught English and spoken English is vast; our insularity has created a kind of alternate language reliant on shared knowledge that only becomes apparent when you watch something like Detectorists’ or ‘Only Fools and Horses’. The former is a show that represents Middle England; reasonable, literate and filled with unquantifiable, undetectable humour that is somehow very funny. The latter is an exaggerated version of ‘Sarf Lundun’ speech that does the same thing more bluntly.

You can follow the genesis of our speech by listening to speakers from different periods. Sadly Charles Dickens died seven years before the invention of the phonograph, but Tolkien, Tennyson, Daphne du Maurier, E M Forster and Conan Doyle can all be heard today. You can hear a perfect example of RP – Received Pronunciation, also known as BBC English – in Virginia Woolf’s speech. RP didn’t really take hold until the 1920s, although it can be traced much earlier to the East Midlands accent.

RP represented an ideal. The Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary School, 1891, suggests that RP should be used because ‘It is the business of educated people to speak so that no-one may be able to tell in what county their childhood was passed.’ My mother certainly spoke it, and I suppose I did when I was young, but the edges were rubbed off by a South London upbringing.

The hidden class signifiers in language are picked up, often mockingly, by those from outside that class.  The ‘ow’ sound of ‘ou’ is particularly hard for non-natives to handle – I’m usually called Mr Fuller in Europe. The language is filled with traps, and regional accents can even reverse meaning, so that ‘They’re never digging up that road’ in Sheffield actually means ‘They’re digging up that road.’

Here’s a video that went viral some time back – stereotypical, as it points out at the start, but fairly accurate. A Northern friend of mine spent her first pay check ‘having the corners of me accent knocked off’, but they didn’t change her speech patterns, leading her to eventually return to her birth accent.

Ultimately English native language becomes as class-reinforced as it ever was, with middle class lads speaking Mockney – the Guy Ritchie syndrome – to appear cooler, and others ‘putting on airs’ as my grandmother would have said, to appear more middle class. Nobody wants to speak with the strangulated vowels of the too posh, but many white kids emulated the hipster voices of black rappers because the clipped ‘T’s add a mellowness they lacked – until the question of appropriation was absorbed.

It was a bad thing to start researching this subject; I wasted the day heading off in a hundred different directions. So let’s cut it short with this lady, 108 years old, interviewed in 1977, in many ways sounding remarkably modern.

16 comments on “The Way We Speak”

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    Huge difference between spoken English and written English. This also shows you why attempting to write in regional dialect is a stylistic nightmare. In the UK If you put together two 80 year olds from 60 miles apart they would hardly understand each other, but they can both read the same newspaper. Funny ‘in it, eh?

  2. brooke says:

    “In fact it’s virtually impossible to swap the order of words.” A linguistics scholar specializing in origins of English (Oxbridge–so take with grain of salt) told me that order emerged as English began to drop specialised endings like “en” etc. that pointed to agreement between between subject and verb, adjectives, possessives and so forth. For example, in latin class, given a passage of Cicero, I would look at word endings first to get a sense of noun and verb and then figure out adjectives, etc.
    Just a thought. Suggests that language, at least English, moves toward efficiency in communication and understanding.

  3. admin says:

    Efficiency in English sometimes feels like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Yet Georgian English was clearer and more succinct than late Victorian English, which reached heights of incomprehensibility (more on that anon).

  4. brooke says:

    ” late Victorian incomprehensibility…” Lord, yes… imo, the fault lies in budgeoning pretentious middle class sensibilities, like rooms overflowing with bric-a-brac.

  5. Ian Mason says:

    “Love, hand me the ugly hat please”
    “Which ugly hat?”
    “The Mexican ugly hat.”


  6. Peter Tromans says:

    On the basis of notices on hotel room walls and similar, English seems to be quite concise in spite of its excessive politeness. Having tried and failed to digest several Victorian novels, I totally agree with admin on incomprehensibility.

    Should we see regional dialects and accents as as important heritage that should be maintained or as barriers to communication that should be eliminated? There is certainly a tendency to treat anyone with a marked accent as less intelligent. It was true for George Stephenson two centuries ago and probably even more so today.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    No final Rs in RP it seems. All of Virginia Woolf’s words seem to end in that sort of “ah” sound. Great for choristers but rather blurring for speakers. The 108 year old lady was interesting and sounds very similar to elderly ladies I heard in my youth – and they’d have been Victorians. She had very clear pronunciation, too.
    I recognized a few of those 67 accents and for what it’s worth the Canadian one was just about right. I think there was an “aboot” in it and I actually heard it, because it isn’t quite as definite as that when we do it.
    There is a progression of adjectives in French, too, but I can’t remember how it goes precisely. I’m not surprised that you can actually create a non-normal sentence but I wonder how many situations permit it.

  8. Jan says:

    In the maths class I go to @ Yeovil there’s a young Polish woman.

    She made me think a few weeks,back by telling me”By the way you speak the British are so polite and to me you are always apologising.(sounding apologetic) The British they are apologising when there is no reason to but I think the way it is you speak and the way you think must be a lot different. Maybe you fool yourselves sometimes.”

    This took me back a bit but I’d say is undoubtedly true or contains a real Kernel of truth.

    Never in a month of Sunday’s could I formulate a sentence like that in a second language I’d have trouble saying it in this my first language! I think it is true that in many ways our thoughts and actions are far removed from our true sentiments. Maybe we do disguise ourselves.

  9. Jan says:

    See I have got lost in what I was trying hard to express already!

  10. brooke says:

    “…true for George Stephenson two centuries ago and probably even more so today.” Proper accents were humilitated that their own lot had no brain power. Imagine what the economy would have lost had the posh accents triumphed. Stephenson is one of my heroes–

  11. Nick says:

    Both of my parents spoke “very well” (which would probably be described as ‘posh’ [horrible class-ridden word] by the average man in the street today), and did their utmost to ensure that I followed in their footsteps. They were probably 85% – 95% successful. However, I would note that my father was born in 1920 and brought up in the Mile End / Bethnal Green areas of east London until his family moved to Hornchurch in around 1935. He said that the ‘Cockney’ accent beloved on EastEnders as ‘authentic’ is a nonsense. He came from working class origins and said that everyone “spoke well” at the time, and that the ‘Cockney’ accent was an invader from south of the river.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Interesting that is, Nick. We have generalised attitudes toward speech patterns from various places and forget that time is also a factor. My father was born in 1913, so of a general age with yours and he was born in a working class area of Vancouver at a time when there were foreign accents (that includes all British) and a generalised Canadian accent that came from middle class areas of Ontario (that’s what you heard on that video). That was what teachers spoke and was still what teachers were expected to speak when I did my training. If you had some other accent you were encouraged to take a speech class. We were told in a linguistics course that part of the problem in changing one’s speech is that we literally cannot hear sounds which are not in our speech. It is why many Asian people cannot say the letter R and replace it with an L. Once I started to listen I wondered about my Father-in-law who came from Nfld at age ten and had no trace that I could hear of a Newfy accent, any more than my Mother-in-law had any trace of what should have been an Ulster Irish accent. I never met the Newfy grandparents, but I did know the Ulster grandmother and there were traces but only traces. Mother had individual words rather than accent. Her older sister who was in church and community life more had begun to adopt something a little posher – sort of English – but she lived in New Westminster which was founded by the Royal Engineers and the military were still around.
    Neither of the parents had had any comment made by other students at school about the way they spoke. My Mother, on the other hand, in a one room school in Saskatchewan had other students comment on the funny way those Steen girls talk. Their mother was born in Sask of immigrant English parents (Elsie, Mabel, Florence, and Fred what can I say) and she may have had an accent or their father (German/Irish from Illinois) may have. I met both of them and there wasn’t anything in Gram’s speech and Grandpa didn’t talk much. I think a lot of the disappearing accent may be down to teachers and a desire to sound like everyone else. (Probabbly why Mother told me to speak properly, “I don’t want you sounding like a hick.”)

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Most of the children at school seemed to think that I came from London – I have no discernable accent whatsoever, which was odd in Suffolk in the 1960’s and 70’s. Neither parent had a noticeable accent either, which was odd, as dad was of Welsh extraction, and his mum spoke Welsh fluently, and I had relatives that spoke no English at all. My mum’s family were Scots and Devon, and my gran spoke with a definite west country burr. But mum and dad, both living in London, had no real accent at all. Mind you, as I have said before, my dad’s speech was peppered with bits and bobs of other languages: Yiddish, German, Arabic, French, Welsh, back slang Army slang, Cockney rhyming slang, Polari – We never noticed it, but visitors to the house did, and, some like a good friend of mine, were amused and impressed by it. My mum was very well spoken, with no accent. My brother, born in 1970, spoke, for many years with a noticeable Suffolk accent. Oddly, that’s a dialect that I find impossible to imitate – the nearest I can get, is a barely passable Norfolk accent, which is close, but not enough. Geordie? Easy. Northern Irish? No problem. The county you were born in, and have lived in most of your life? Not a chance.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    We do remember, of course, that we (the speakers) do not hear our own accents. Still, I wonder if you are exposed to an almost infinite number of accents you neutralize (?) everything to a and here I cannot find a word to cover what I mean. A speech pattern with few notable markers?
    We were at a performance of “Stones in His Pockets” and my husband commented on the actors’ accents which wandered all over Ireland. I hadn’t thought he had been that aware of the (mostly mild) Northern Irish accents in his mother’s family, but he picked out those markers almost unconsciously.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    We were talking about all this this morning and a friend who came here a number of years ago from Tasmania with her husband and young son told me about a difficulty that boy had at school here. The teachers told her that he wouldn’t do anything he was asked and wouldn’t respond. She finally realized that he didn’t understand them because here in Canada we spoke more quickly than they had at home. As soon as the teachers slowed their speech the boy was fine.

  16. Wayne Mook says:

    I now I do have an accent, it’s only when I heard it played back to me I realized how broad it was. My accent isn’t as broad, or thick if you will, as it used to be but I do have still have a Manchester accent (Stretford.), very clearly Lancastrian, as opposed to some of my friends who have a Cheshire accent (Sale – there is a river between us, not very wide though.) The word bath is the big difference, I use a harder a, ath, whereas people south of the river use ar, arf.

    The river is the Mersey which means boundary river, I could go on, in the Cheshire working cloass accent some t’s became s, as in Sasaday, Saturday, it’s one of the influences on the Liverpool accent that people don’t realize.


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