Talking like common people

Posted by on November 21, 2011

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.

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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.

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Comments (6)
  • Interesting post. When I was at primary school (up to age 11) I was with students from relatively well-off families with educated backgrounds and jobs like school headmasters, accountants and so on. I talked like them, with BBC-English pronunciation and attempts at using the correct word for everything. But when I went to secondary school, I was in a large town with a largely working-class population, and the way students spoke reflected this. Within days of being at school I realised how different I sounded to most of the other students, and was made fun of for being “posh” (actually I wasn’t posh at all, I just spoke well). So in order to fit in I had to start speaking like the other students, dropping “t’s” from words (“la-er” instead of “later”) and things like that. Now I am an adult I try to speak well regardless of who I am around. But it is funny and very true that within the UK, people from good backgrounds now choose to speak with a working class accent. Thanks for an interesting read.

    Posted by Jon Sumner on 21st November, 2011
  • Thanks, Jon. That experience rings true! My family moved from London to Wiltshire when I was six and I remember having a very strong London accent (and tape recordings of what sounds like a cockney barrow boy singing “Li’l donkeeeee” to prove it). As well as consciously trying to fit in after moving, there was the added pressure of teachers telling us off for using “f” instead of of “th” or glottalising (an approach that I wouldn’t dream of adopting as a teacher these days) so the London accent soon went, but has resurfaced since moving back to London in the last decade.

    I’m sure part of their reaction against it was its working class connotations rather than its regional origin.

    Posted by dan on 21st November, 2011
  • I’m not sure that it’s ‘snatched away’, as the original users of this language are not prevented from continuing to use it. But there is probably much more variety – in terms of ‘dialect’ vocabulary and regional accents – in ‘working-class’ speech than in that of other classes. Don’t the upper/middle classes talk much the same, anyway, regardless of which part of the country they came from? The vernacular is where the heart is – and this applies to other forms of culture too, like food and architecture.

    Posted by Oliver Lawrence on 22nd November, 2011
  • I’m not sure…

    There’s often a rather knowingly ironic use of some working class vernacular by some of those who pick it up, and that kind of mockery diminishes the value of the form in the eyes of the original users sometimes, I think. Once you’ve heard a minted trustafarian answering his phone with a “Wassup blud?” you know it’s time to move on.

    There was even a touch of this with the Armstrong and Miller RAF chaps who spouted slang in RP voices. I really liked it, but many of my south London students at the time said they found it uncomfortable, perhaps because it mocked the language many of them used, or heard around them.

    Then again, if the cycle of creation – appropriation – recreation keeps going, that has to be a productive and exciting source of new language, so maybe it’s all good.

    Posted by dan on 22nd November, 2011
  • Quite usefull article for my english lessons! Thank u vary much =)

    Posted by Slava Zurabov on 22nd November, 2011
  • […] The Macmillan Dictionary blog finished up Class English month with posts from Dan Clayton on the language of the “common people”; John Wells on the rise of the “r-ful” class; and a roundup from Laine Redpath Cole of words […]

    Posted by This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words on 2nd December, 2011
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