Linguistic snobbery

In the latest in our series on what we mean by 'posh' in 2007, Dr. Penelope Gardner-Chloros examines

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Try this test: If YOU call something or someone ‘posh’, is it a. a compliment, b. an insult, or c. neither? Not many people will answer ‘neither’ – if you are a social climber, you probably consider it a compliment - not for nothing did a certain well-known WAG adopt this as her stage name.

If you are a chav, it is almost certainly an insult – you know the jokes: “What do you call a chav in a box?” “Innit”; “What do you call a chav in a filing cabinet?” “Sor’ed” (sorted). The old adage that no English speaker can open their mouth without making another English speaker despise them is still largely true in the PC age.

What should we make of this? Is the branding of certain speakers as ‘posh’ in the UK reproduced elsewhere, or is it particularly British? How did it arise in the first place and what is different about linguistic snobbery in 2007 compared with twenty or forty years ago? Is it bound to be like this forever, or will we all speak Estuary soon?

First, the question as to whether this is a peculiarly British state of affairs. The way you speak reflects your identity – who you wish to resemble and who you do not wish to resemble – and strongly polarized attitudes towards ‘talking posh’ reflect strongly polarized (social) identities.

Such marked social divisions are no longer as prevalent in most European countries. But the way language is used not only reflects society, it also shapes it. In many countries regional identity is a matter of pride, and regional forms of the language may be more prestigious than the standard form.

This is the case in Scotland, where the home-grown version of posh is in no way modelled on posh south of the border; in German-speaking Switzerland, where Swiss-German, once considered a regional dialect to be avoided at all costs in formal situations, is now used in parliament and for university lectures instead of the former prestige language, High German; all the way to Vanuatu (or New Hebrides), where a home-grown pidgin language, Bislama, is an official language on a par with English and French. Regional varieties in England do not enjoy such a position, though they may enjoy a special place in people’s affections.

As the social situation evolves, so does the language. Standard English developed in the 19th Century, and has since then been disseminated by institutions such as the public schools, the army, the government in Westminster, the older universities and the BBC.

The dialect which was selected for standardization was just the regional dialect of London and the South East – had the capital been in York, standard English would have been based on Yorkshire English, and had it been in Cardiff, the prestige language would have been Welsh or Welsh-accented English.

But Posh too has changed. A recent study of the Queen’s pronunciation, based on forty years of Christmas broadcasts, shows how Her Majesty has gradually- and doubtless subconsciously- adapted her vowels to the changing standards: ‘man’ used to sound more like ‘men’ and ‘happy’ like ‘heppy’ in the Queen’s RP (or ‘received pronunciation’). The y on the end of ‘happy’ also used to sound different: more like ‘happeh’.

Words such as ‘pour’ and ‘poor’ used to be distinguished by the fact that ‘poor’ had a diphthong, ‘oo-er’, whereas now they both sound like ‘pore’. ‘Orf’ and ‘plar-stic’ are rarely heard now for ‘off’ and ‘plastic’, and only from the oldest speakers. The younger members of the Royal Family speak a much more socially neutral form of RP, although clearly for many listeners they still sound posh. So the prestige standard has developed along with everything else.

But what of young people’s attitudes towards ‘talking posh’? Jenny Cheshire’s work in Reading schools in the late 1970’s already showed that pupils were adaptable and would use fewer non-standard features with teachers than with their friends – fewer instances of “we was” or “I ain’t” and fewer ‘–in’ endings on words like ‘going’.

Recent work in a state school by Ben Rampton has shown how pupils can switch into either a posh or a Cockney accent –often several times within a single sentence- depending on whose ‘voice’ they are adopting and what they want to put across.

In London, adolescents consider it cool to adopt features of ethnic dialects – such as Jamaican creole – regardless of whether they have any Jamaican ethnicity – a phenomenon known as ‘Crossing’. This shows that from a young age people have a sense of what is linguistically appropriate and are aware that language is tied up with identity. If they don’t speak RP or posh, it’s because they don’t want to.

Finally, what of ‘Estuary’? Linguists such as Paul Kerswill, who have studied it extensively in the regionally neutral ‘new’ town of Milton Keynes, see it mainly as a levelling out of regional differences between accents and dialects spoken in the south-east of England. Such levelling is a result of increased geographical mobility, which leads people to drop the more local forms.

At the same time, a more meritocratic ideology has emerged since the 1960’s, which has led to lower-middle-class accents becoming commonplace in contexts previously reserved for the privileged classes – notably broadcasting. These lower-middle-class accents coincide, to a large degree, with the homogenized regional accents of Estuary English, and reinforce its appeal.

In the long term, Estuary may well ‘eat up’ yet more local varieties. There are a number of signs, for example, that it will become perfectly acceptable to say ‘be’er’ rather than ‘better’ - the ‘t’ is already disappearing, in some groups of words, from the speech of someone like Tony Blair – as in “I wen’ upstairs”. If you have another forty years or so, just listen out for developments in those Christmas broadcasts.

Read more from our series looking at the issue of class and 'poshness'

Penelope Gardner-Chloros teaches Linguistics at Birkbeck, University of London. Her special interest is in Bilingualism, and she has done research in Alsace, France and among the Greek Cypriots in London. Her new book, "Code-switching", about how bilinguals mix their languages, will shortly be published by Cambridge University Press.