Thursday 1 June 2023

Choose Your Words Carefully 13: Accents

It's those little things that place you – and drive the other classes mad.

Model Katie Price (pictured) once explained “I had my Botox done” before travelling to the States. Some refer to “my atheism” and “my power walking”, and others cringe. 

Adding a Y to words that don’t need them (acidy) is very lower-middle-class – they love baby talk

It’s very middle-middle to pronounce “non” as “nun” as in non-revealing, non-permeable, non-poisonous. Have these speakers been warned not to rhyme “none, one” with “con, don, gone, John, yon” because that’s northern?

Cornices, niches, pilasters: The middle-middles refer to the architectural features as cor-nieces and neeshes, while those higher up the ladder say “CORniss” and “nitch”. Elderly Upwards say PILaster, while most others say pil-ASS-ter or pil-ARS-ter. 

What do you call retirement? Lower-middle-class Jen Teale is looking forward to her “sunset years” and plans to go on a cruise to see the world. Like Jen, middle-middle Howard and Eileen Weybridges call it "retyement", and get involved in a lot of committees and work almost as hard as they did when employed. Their upper-middle friend Samantha calls it "re-tyer-ment" and plans to take up painting in watercolour. Aristocratic Caroline and Harry call it "retahment" but will keep an eye on their estate until they drop. Working-class Mr Definitely is going to project-manage his property portfolio, and Mrs D carries on as a dinner lady for the social side. 

Caro's mother still says plarstic, mar-sterbate and car-stration.

Howard says ocktion for auction, "We are going to haf to do", and "should have bin". He also says aquottic and quawk for aquatic and Quark. Samantha rhymes them with attic and park. She says "St John's wort" like "bird thou never wert". It's a plant not a skin blemish.

Teales never grasped that "a double consonant shortens the preceding vowel", and pronounce ogle as oggle. No wonder nobody could spell "millennium".

To everyone but Samantha, Memorex tape was always Mem’rex, and Corsodyl and Voltarol are Cors’dyl and Volt’rol. She pronounces every I in invisibility.

People on Twitter complain about others saying pitcher for picture, and heighth for height. Jen pronounces length as lenth.

At general election time, Sam and Caro flinch as announcers talk about “candy-dates” and “Conservative Hell” areas. If you want to sound posh, clip the vowels (“candid’t”), but pronounce the consonants (Conservative-held).

Old-fashioned English speakers used to insist combat was pronounced “cumb’t”, and shouldn’t be made to rhyme with wombat. Lamb’s Conduit Street in central London was “Lamb’s Cundit Street”. They would explain that if you wrote “cumbat” in medieval Gothic script, it would be unreadable, so an “o” was substituted for the "u". They used to argue about how to pronounce “controversy”, too. Accent on the first or second syllable? I can’t remember which was “correct”. Some pronounce comrade, Coventry, Sompting with a U sound.

They would also sneer if you said “paytent” instead of “pattent” with a short A for patent.

My parents’ shibboleths were sumpthing, everyb’dy and poor pronounced paw. It’s “something, every-body and poo-er”. The distinction between “poor” and “paw” disappeared some time during the 50s and I don’t think I ever heard anyone say “poo-er”, not even my parents. They also used to insist that lunch was “really” luncheon. That didn’t last either.

Whatever you do, don’t call Paris “Paree” in front of an upper-middle-class Upward who speaks French. They will say “Actually it’s ‘Parrrggghhhheee’”, and make you repeat it and repeat it, criticising you every time. “No, you haven’t quite got it.”

“Nobody can ever place my accent.” People like to claim that their accent is a hybrid, the result of moving around the country or continent.

I grew up with Dad from Portsmouth, a very middle-class RP but with a Hampshire burr that you don't really hear so much these days, and Mum had a cockney accent upbringing but has spent my whole life correcting me haphazardly, badly and punitively, in some sort of misguided effort to eradicate all trace of anything, so Christ alone knows what I’m left with. I think I swing from polite RP to South London, which means some people think I'm a Mockney, but I genuinely have no idea I’m doing it unless someone points it out. (MLR. RP with a Hampshire burr would not be RP. You could never make a film set in Portsmouth because if the actors got the accent right nobody would believe it.)

A lot of [public-school boys], I noticed, have a special ‘cleaning lady voice’ which is this slightly flirty, old school charming way of talking to people they regard as underlings or inferiors. (@KatyFBrand) 

Gideon Upward puts on a slight mockney accent in the same circumstances, and is rather hearty. Someone described my grandmother as being friendly to cleaning ladies but always “de haut en bas” (from high to low). 

Accents are called “broad, thick, heavy, flat”. The long A in path and grass is thought to be “posh”. (It’s just southern.)

My grandparents, who, like me, speak in a Wearside accent/dialect, do this with my wife, who speaks in a not remotely posh Norf London/S. Herts accent. My nana is like "Eeee, don't she talk lovely?" (@bartramsgob)

A character in EF Benson's Autumn Sowing rises in society until she’s invited to dinner by the local titled couple. She puts on an affected, high-pitched voice and is rude to the servants.

In South London, boys avoid a kicking by adopting a Cockney accent, while girls get ahead by sounding genteel. (Via David Bennun)

The upper middles used to hold entire conversations in “Cockney” or “Liverpudlian”. I hope this “joke” has been quietly dropped. But apparently when Americans want to be funny or ironic they adopt a “British” accent – even a “Cockney” accent! They must sound as terrible as middle-class Brits doing the same thing.

I love comedian Paula Poundstone’s remark about her recent visit to England. She said the most astounding part of her trip was how everyone there managed to keep up their accents 24 hours a day. (

People sometimes call Received Pronunciation “affected”, as if nobody could speak like that naturally. But perhaps this is because they have been taught elocution, and are mortified to meet someone who really talks posh. In the 80s a friend was puzzled that a university receptionist had not lost her Southampton accent. Other acquaintances thought I was putting on my voice, or had learned it at my “good” school.

Class is dead, long live class.

More here, and links to the rest.