The other day Edward Lucas knocked English phonetic snobbery, holding up America as a shining example of linguistic egalitarianism.
“In America, accents are neutral,” he writes. “They may show geographical origins but they say nothing about your brains, wealth or social status.” Witness the plight of Fiona Hill, a miner’s daughter, who “at her Oxford University interview in the early 1980s… was mocked for her clothes and diction – the most humiliating experience of her life.”
Sympathetic as I am to Miss Hill’s youthful traumas, I could tell similar stories galore about the US. A Houston friend of mine, for example, spoke with a rural Texan accent that was mercilessly mocked at Stanford.
When I found out he had gone to that elite university, I asked how his pronunciation had gone down there. “Ah was fixin to run away,” he sighed.
“When did you last hear someone on Radio 4 or the World Service speaking at length in Fiona Hill’s unapologetic Durham coalfield accent?” asks Mr Lucas. But then I don’t recall any US announcers – even those in Texas – speaking with the diction of my Stanford friend.
Yet Mr Lukas is right to point out that many US politicians have regional, or even foreign, accents. Or rather he’s half-right. Yes, JFK had a Boston accent, Johnson and Dubya a Texan one, Carter and Clinton a southern lilt.
But they all spoke with only a trace of those accents; none ever went the whole hog. Under no circumstances can anyone speaking like my Stanford friend become a US president.
Similarly, a slight New York inflection is no social impediment, but I question the career prospects of someone cursed with a broad Brooklyn accent of “dey, dem and dose”.
As to foreign accents not putting brakes on advancement in the US, that stands to reason. Being a country of immigrants, America can ill-afford to practise phonetic discrimination.
Yet even there things aren’t as straightforward as Mr Lucas thinks. Yes, “Henry Kissinger’s growling vowels still signal his German birthplace”, but according to his classmates at George Washington High, they didn’t always do so.
By the time Kissinger matriculated there, he had got rid of his Dr Strangelove accent – but revived it later to add gravitas to his foreign policy expertise. That he should have felt the need to do so hints at the inordinate, at times sycophantic, respect in which many Americans hold Europeans.
Thus many cultured people on the Eastern Seaboard cultivate English, or rather mid-Atlantic, accents to come across as more sophisticated. Hence also a plethora of English-sounding place names all over the American backwater, all those Kensington Streets, Windsor Plazas and Chelsea Lanes.
(This may explain the relief Fiona Hill felt on arrival in the States: any British accent is seen as a sign of sophistication there.)
It’s true that, in general usage, American English displays fewer and subtler dialectal varieties than British English. But it’s wrong to deny that they act as social and cultural indicators.
A man who, when introduced at a New York party, says “How do you do”, instantly builds an invisible wall between himself and not only someone who says “How y’all doin?” but even a chap who merely says “Nice to meet you”.
Someone who eschews the retroflexive vowel in words like bird won’t have much of a public career even if he doesn’t say boid. Similarly, dropping the r-sound at the ends of words like deliver is social death in the smart circles outside Boston.
There’s no denying that every nation has a standard pronunciation based on the language of the cultured elite. Where they differ is in the degree of tolerance to those who deviate. This largely depends on the country’s age, history, geography and ethnic makeup.
For example, both America and Russia are ethnically diverse and linguistically young: the Russian literary language only dates back to the early 19th century; the American equivalent is at least half a century younger. Hence the vital importance of a unified standard acting as a national adhesive.
The cultural elites in Russia’s provinces typically came from Petersburg and Moscow gentry whose language was seen as a social and professional hoist. (The same situation existed during the British Raj: educated Indians tended to speak English in exaggerated upper-class accents.)
America’s need for a uniform language was even more urgent: there was little else to unify culturally people settling from all over the world. You can see this even in relatively modern times, specifically in Texas.
Even though about a third of the state’s population are Mexicans, until 1973 the government had refused to allow bilingual education. In fact ‘Ma’ Ferguson, governor in the 20s and 30s, famously commented: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”
Her intuitive understanding of the American ethos was stronger than her knowledge of ecclesiastical history, but her heart was in the right place.
The situation in Britain is entirely different, as it is in all core European countries. For any number of historical reasons, Britain shows an unmatched dialectal variety. The phonetic atlas of the country identifies 50 major dialects and God only knows how many minor ones; London alone has five distinct accents.
Yet the received pronunciation of the cultured elite acted as the aspirational standard for about a century and a half. In recent decades, that has changed by what Mr Lucas calls ‘accommodation’. “People from the English regions soften their accents. Those like me who grew up speaking the strangulated posh-talk of ‘received pronunciation’ may adopt glottal stops and vowel shifts.”
Anyone who says ‘posh’ isn’t posh, but that’s a different matter. It’s true that the urge to achieve some uniformity is getting stronger in proportion to cultural and economic levelling. But that street isn’t exactly two-way.
After decades of socialist propaganda, educated people like Tony Blair have indeed begun to add glottal stops and drop their aitches to advance their careers. But the lower cultural strata aren’t exactly meeting them halfway: prole is the new posh.
Yet the dictum that all educated people should speak the same way is rather recent. It goes back to Victorian times, when the aristocracy was knocked off its perch and the middle class replaced it as the dominant cultural force.
Back in the 1700s, the last aristocratic century in British history, most people had regional accents. Dr Johnson, for example, wasn’t exactly an ignoramus, yet all his life he spoke in the accent of his native Lichfield. He could easily have dropped it when he went to Oxford University, but felt no need to do so.
Passion for uniformity is the distinguishing bourgeois characteristic. Middle-class people are desperate not to put a foot wrong and slip down the social ladder. Hence their desire to cut off both the peaks and the troughs, flattening every curve that undulates too much — not only phonetically, but also culturally, intellectually and even sartorially.
Neither the upper nor the lower classes share this propensity: they try to cling on to their social and cultural identity. Both are being sucked into the middle-ground morass, but I for one enjoy their rearguard action. And I certainly wouldn’t use it to denigrate England – especially by comparison to America.
Such things are more complex than Mr Lucas fancies… Anyway, got to run. It’s my turn to cook tea today, while me trouble hangs the serviettes out to dry in the toilet.