If you don’t know what ‘glottophobia’ means, don’t feel embarrassed. The term is still new.
Makes one wonder how we’ve lived without it for so long. After all, we know how all those phobias and isms enrich our vocabulary, actually our whole lives.
Didn’t you feel culturally impoverished before we were blessed with the arrival of words like ‘transphobia’? One can’t resist sin – nor refrain from crime – unless one knows it for what it is.
Hence, for example, Brexiteers are helped no end on the road to virtue when our transgression is diagnosed as ‘Europhobia’.
Spending half my time in France, I didn’t realise I was suffering from an inordinate fear of Europe. I feel much better now that my phobia has been properly diagnosed.
‘Glottophobia’ isn’t, as you might infer from the word’s etymology, fear of language as such. It’s the crime of mocking language spoken with regional accents.
Anyone finding himself on the receiving end of this outrage is instantly traumatised for life, which places glottophobia side by side with homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and other capital crimes.
That’s why a French MP has proposed that the mockery of accents be outlawed. Why is it that the French are always ahead of us?
This overdue measure was prompted by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French Corbyn, who mocked a journalist who asked a probing question at a press conference.
Mélenchon lampooned the hack’s Toulouse accent and then asked if anyone had a question in “understandable French”.
That blew to smithereens another of my cherished stereotypes. I thought only elitist conservatives were capable of such snobbery, not tireless fighters for universal égalité and the liberation of the working classes from the capitalist yoke.
Still, the subject of regional dialects is interesting, both as such and in its social and cultural implications.
I grew up in Russia, a country that has no dialectal variety to speak of. Oh, I’m sure a Russian Prof. Higginsky will talk your ear off about phonetic differences between, say, Moscow and Petersburg, 400 miles apart.
But, since I was professionally trained in English, not Russian, I can hear no differences between the two in sound production, although there may be some variations of inflection.
All Russians speak essentially the same way. I grew up a few hundred yards from the Kremlin, but I sound almost identical to someone from Vladivostok, 4,000 miles away as the crow flies (and 6,000 as the car drives).
From there I went to the US, which offers more dialectal diversity. Some accents are quite pronounced, such as those of New York, Boston, the Deep South and the Southwest (with variations within each).
Thus a New Yorker and a Texan will know where each comes from. But I dare anyone other than a professional phonetician tell apart the accents of various Midwestern and Western states. I certainly can’t, and I’ve studied such things academically.
Even though a New Yorker and a Texan will acknowledge their differences, they’ll have no problem understanding each other. And a Russian or a Frenchman wouldn’t even believe it possible for native speakers of the same language to have such problems.
Note also that, though the journalist who offended Mélenchon with his impertinence spoke in a regional accent, the former had no problem understanding – and mocking – the latter.
This brings me to the unique phonetic phenomenon: Britain, a country much smaller than France and positively minute compared to the US and especially Russia. Yet linguists identify 50 major British dialects (five of them in London alone) and God knows how many minor ones.
These aren’t the namby-pamby differences between Moscow and Vladivostok or New York and Boston. Britons living but a few miles apart may not understand one another.
When my wife was growing up in Exeter, she couldn’t understand the farmer living five miles down the road. The denizens of two adjacent counties, Yorkshire and Lancashire, may have similar problems – and neither will effortlessly understand a Newcastle Geordie who lives practically next door.
Clearly some uniformity is vital to allow for smooth communication. That’s provided by the standardised accent variously known as Queen’s English, Received Pronunciation or, in the past, BBC English.
Educated people, even those who retain traces of their phonetic origin, all tend to speak that way and, truth be told, occasionally look down on those who can’t or won’t.
Yet the attitude to regional accents changes. For example, when Samuel Johnson entered Oxford University, he spoke with a pronounced Lichfield lilt, which he kept all his life.
Had he gone to the same university 200 years later, he would have found himself the butt of cruel jokes. Yet in 1728 he was neither patronised nor despised.
Regional accents weren’t yet viewed as a sign of inadequacy. Yet two centuries later the creator of Prof. Higgins observed that: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
What had changed? The nature of British society, is the short answer.
The Industrial Revolution was no less destructive than any other kind, even though Joseph Schumpeter would have doubtless described the destruction it wreaked as largely creative.
As a result, England was no longer a country of aristocrats and peasants, with the middle classes sandwiched in between.
It became a society shaped by the middle class, with the aristocracy marginalised and the peasantry all but eliminated. Middle class sensibilities came to the fore, and a quest for uniformity was prime among them.
The middle classes, especially in Protestant countries, tend to hold a smug belief in their own superiority. Since they’re the acme of creation, it follows ineluctably that everyone should be – and sound – just like them.
Since in Victorian times they fawned on the upper classes, they could forgive some toff idiosyncrasies. But anyone they deemed beneath them was treated with contempt, usually but not always tacit.
It was then that speakers of regional dialects began to be seen as social and cultural inferiors. Eventually that feeling became justifiable, if not excusable.
For good schools insisted on certain standards of not only grammar and vocabulary, but also pronunciation. Thus it was possible to tell an Eton man from a Rugby one, either from the alumni of grammar schools, and all of them from those who never received much education at all.
A good accent, therefore, betokened a good education and a certain social standing, while a regional dialect bespoke ignorance. Glorious exceptions existed, but even they had to overcome their phonetic handicap to acquire recognition.
Then things came full circle. The British educational system was destroyed for ideological reasons, and gradually the teaching of good English faded away.
Proletarian accents became not only acceptable, but desirable and, for a politician, essential. Thus Tony Blair, who went to all the good schools, studiously dropped his aitches and used the glottal stop when addressing wide audiences, although sometimes he forgot, making his speech sound hermaphroditic.
Suddenly people in public life have begun to take elocution lessons to take their accent down, rather than the other way, as they used to. It’s essential to come across as prolier than thou.
Note the progression. First, in Dr Johnson’s time, nobody cared about the accent. Then, when the middle classes became dominant and smug about themselves, local accents became contemptible: the bourgeois dreaded the possibility of slipping a rung or two on the social ladder.
In our time, when everything is dominated by ideology, phonetic slumming has become a sign of ideological PC virtue. And ideological heresies start out being derided and end up being punishable by law.
So think twice before trying to mock the Cockney accent as a party trick. You may be committing the crime of glottophobia.