Okay Yah

The birthday girl’s mother stood up. “Tiny Pony wants to make a little speech,” she said. And so she did.
We were at the White Horse in Putney, also known as the Sloaney Pony (pronounced Slaney Painy.) I was Simon’s date in the college friends’ corral, where they explained that though it was Cambridge, Churchill college took mostly state school kids, and was not at all posh, really. Unlike the rest of the guests. This distinction seemed important to them, and I believed them. Simon isn’t posh. He speaks with the new Tony Blair Establishment accent, full of democratic glottal stops. Our corral bonded as the yahs and brays increased down-table; we swapped compensating stories of council estate beatings and jam sandwiches.

I get infected with interest in this stuff as soon as I get to a British Airways check-in queue. I start listening and classifying, and watching others do it faster than me. Words and and accent peg you here, and they’ll always piss someone off. If you’re uncomfortable being having your origins and aspirations dissected, try an Irish accent. Thug? Posh totty? Only Dublin knows for sure.

I keep asking my friends about this obsession, sure that I’m exaggerating as usual. But maybe not. Elly tells me about her friend whose boyfriend wouldn’t take her to the May Ball, in case she might embarrass herself because she doesn’t speak properly. “She might say ‘toilet’ instead of ‘loo’ or something.” The friend reported this to Elly as proof of his consideration for her.

That class boorishness is dying. Nobody would coach Margaret Thatcher on a fake upper-class accent these days; the plummy Tories are a joke. Piers Morgan looks and sounds like a flabby young Roger Moore, but he edits Rottweiler tabloid The Sun. Little England tabloid The Daily Mail. The Daily Mirror*. The old BBC accent , which I’ve always liked, is being phased out, replaced by regional voices and the estuary English that’s becoming the new standard. No single class, identified by accent or schooling, seems to have a lock on a given industry or profession any more. Maybe classification is mostly a leisure activity now, social Tetris.

“In America, though,” they tell me when I ask about class in Britain, “they treat you like shit when you don’t have money or a flash job.”

*I’ve been annoying my English friends with my sloppy reporting. Last time I lived here, Piers Morgan was editor of The Sun. Now he edits the Daily Mirror, apparently, a fact that won’t stick in my brain even though somebody posted this in my comments a week ago. Simon writes: “Under his editorship it’s become a left-wing tabloid and a much “better” competitor to The Sun, unfortunately he has remained an odious toad.”

So there you go. I stand gratefully corrected.

13 thoughts on “Okay Yah”

  1. Having lived in the US for 11 years now, the estuarization of England, and particularly the beeb, is alarming. When I was at Churchill in the 70s, I remember finding the absence of haw-haw to be a great advantage, and yet I am sure there was little essex. Just ordinary English regional. As for the US, there are upper-class accents. Listen to the school girls, in particular, lifting the intonation at random points in each sentence (“Clueless” does it well.). And then there is the strange new “This American Life” speak, with gaps after every word to demonstrate intelligence and savoir faire.


  2. Eckchually, I im the Editwhore uv the Daily MirrORE. The rather more oikish Sun is helmed by the radiant Rebekah Wade wot is married to ‘im orf East Enders, innit. I shudder ‘pon the very thought of it.


  3. Thenks awf’lly for the correction, Piers.

    Agree completely, Bob, that there are class accents in the US, and probably everywhere. It just seems more of an obsession here, perhaps because learning the right accent as an adult once provided the mobility that making money did elsewhere. I notice that Ireland–or rather, Dublin–has become quite accent and class-obsessed in the last decade, too, which is funny given that we’re all one generation away from the small farm.


  4. It is true here in the US that money (read: clothing and possessions) speaks louder than accent or grammar. Comes from the individualist, can-do, up-by-the bootstrap heritage in a capitalist context. That said, it is also true that there are some class associations with accents. The tricky part is that some of the interpretations are regional. What passes for a moneyed Texas drawl in Dallas would not be recognized by many in New York. And the uppercrust trimmings at Yale wouldn’t mean squat to those in Atlanta. Et cetera.


  5. Many are the Micks who have draped themselves in the soothing purple raiment of a modulated RP accent. And it has stood to them. One is bound to feel ambiguous about the likes of chaps like the gentleman subject of the following obit. Apparently, the treatment the Christian Brothers charged with Patrick Cosgrave’s pastoral and educational care felt free to mete out in the absence of a father in his life turned him somewhat against the cultural experiment of the Irish republic.



  6. Hah…some of the the Irish have been obsessing about accents for quite a while, and not just the Dubs. In Limerick, you have the Ennis Rd. snobs, in Galway, the Taylor’s Hill gang and as for Cork poeple – they have snobbery down to the street level.

    Naturally, the rest of us are perfect.


  7. Class warfare came to the Irish Senate, or Seanad, yesterday. The question of accent has come up between the protagonists in this debate before when Senator Ross put on the poor mouth to claim Senator Mansergh was the only Member with an oxbridge accent. He turned the tables during the debate on the budget to make the following point which is redolent of an enigmatic snobbery which cannot readily have been manifest to their peers.
    Mr. Ross: Another small but highly significant matter is the tax allowance for membership of a trade union which rises from €130 to €200. Why is that?

    Dr. Mansergh: Very good.

    Mr. Ross: It is very good for Senator Mansergh who does not have to pay into a union and is never likely to be admitted to one because he is the only other public schoolboy

    Dr. Mansergh: I am an Irish Farmers Association member.

    Ms White: Do not spoil it now, say no more.

    An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Senator without interruption, although he is inviting trouble.

    Mr. Ross: I must point out that Senator Mansergh is the only other public schoolboy in this House, a minor public school to boot, and he is welcome to that.

    Dr. Mansergh: Does that disqualify me from being a union member?

    Ross went to Rugby.


  8. Two observations:
    When I moved to the States one of the things I liked was that I couldn’t detect class differences in accents, and so you didn’t make assumptions when you meet people (and everybody, myself included, does …)

    I think class is important here in the States, but here class seems to be a function entirely of money – you make a lot of money, you move to middle class. In Britain and Ireland, you can be, say, a plumber who makes 120K a year but you are working class. The Americans, I think, don’t object to class distinctions per se as long as there is *mobility* between the classes.


  9. The fine-grain of UK class distinctions is really what makes it so special, so that Orwell could without irony define himself as “lower-upper-middle class”. In a society where class is not precisely correlated with money, the signals used to spot intruders get more and more subtle.


  10. In apartheid South Africa we used to be able to tell each other’s race from our accents. But nowdays we can shut our eyes and not know the difference. The country becoming a little US colony though, most middle-class and rich kids say like and wassup a lot, and the most important part is what kind of cell phone you talk on while you’re saying it.


  11. to john
    as a taylor’s hill girl i just want to ask you where are you from??
    i just wanna defend my lovely school and road!!


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