Class English month continues with a guest post by one of our regular contributors, Dan Clayton. Dan is a middle-class grammar school boy who has tried to talk like a Cockney for the last 15 years after failing to talk like a working-class northerner before that.
When Jarvis Cocker wrote the lyrics to Pulp’s classic Common People, he sang about a wealthy student who wanted to adopt the style and mannerisms of working-class people. In one line he described how she would “Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend (she) never went to school” but in the next line tell her “still you’ll never get it right”, because she was never really from the working class. She was engaging in a kind of class-tourism that her rich daddy could save her from any time it got too much, or too “real”.
Language is a huge element in the creation of identity, so it’s not surprising that as well as picking up the cigarettes and pool cues, when the middle classes try to act working class they often pick up some slang terms and drop their h’s and g’s, so “I hate her singing” soon becomes “I ‘ate her singin’”, perhaps with a mate, geezer or bruv chucked in, depending on the age of the speaker.
What’s interesting about this kind of “talking down” is that it’s one of those rare occasions when working-class people actually appear to have something that upper- and middle-class people want. For a long time, the standard variety of English and the most respected accent (Received Pronunciation or RP) have been the preserve of the wealthy, or those who aspire to be wealthy. Most of us have been told that these are the forms of English that we should be using if we want to be successful in education and employment, yet now we hear more and more markers of working-class identity – slang terms from the inner city and patterns of pronunciation that are derived from Cockney and Multicultural London English – and fewer markers of upper-class identity.
What’s happening? Are we becoming a classless society, with a healthy cross-fertilisation of language? Probably not. While statistics seem to suggest the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider in the UK, the language of the working class seems to be getting appropriated by those higher up the social scale without much movement the other way.
The French philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu talked in the early 1970s about language as an element of what he termed cultural capital and made the point that the middle and upper classes often have access to not just financial capital but a wealth of social connections and signifiers of social status, such as the standard and respected form of a language, while the working class generally do not. But here we see how an otherwise impoverished group can have their own cultural capital in the form of language. Working-class speech forms clearly have some kind of prestige, often among young men who perceive working-class language as more masculine and authentic. It’s something they want and something they want to buy into.
As I talked about in the post about street slang last month, certain types of language seem to signify rebelliousness and an unwillingness to conform, and working-class speech is often seen as having this covert prestige. Of course, the irony is that just as the working class starts to have its own cultural capital, it starts to get snatched away by those who like what it represents.Email this Post