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.