Dilemmas: I hate my son's working-class accent
Thursday 15 July 1999
The truth about the working-class accents of private schoolchildren, is that they fool only some. Listen carefully, and you can usually tell that here is a person from a family that speaks in upper-class accents, who has assumed a working-class accent for his or her own reasons. The peculiarly new accent is luckily one that can be spotted only by those of us poor souls who are riddled with class, whose wincing at the word "toilet" is something over which we have no control.
But I'm all for these new accents and only wish I had one myself. Because they are like Eurocheques. They give you access almost anywhere.
There are still some pockets of English society in which old, posh accents matter. Among the very old and grand, for instance; and among a certain kind of bone-headed, landed young. But Chloe's son will be able to assume their accents as easily as he'll be able to put on a dinner jacket. He'll quickly drop the "like" and "if ya know wha' I mean" if he thinks it's to his advantage. At the same time, with more classless people he can assume this odd, hybrid accent. It's not transatlantic, but it's transclass, far more useful. When talking to builders (and I don't mean posh builders called Hugo), Chloe's son can be matey with them without appearing snobby.
But Chloe's son has developed this accent not just to appear classless. It's difficult, these days, for children to rebel against their parents, who have lived through sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Accent, however, is something else. It's one way they can really get their parents' backs up. There are no end of rich young trustafarians who speak as if they have a vocabulary of 10 words, with ghastly grammar such as "We was walking..." purposely designed to drive their parents bonkers.
But Chloe shouldn't worry. If her son is thoughtful, intelligent and well-educated, who cares what his accent is? Just because he speaks like a lager lout, it doesn't follow that he head-butts people in pubs and keeps 10 Alsatians in horrible conditions in his backyard. Far better to have a universal accent, than have an impeccable accent and spout total bilge from morning to night.
I myself am constantly aware of class differences; since it was hammered into me since I was born, I find it fantastically hard to shed, however much I loathe it. When I try to treat people of a different class equally I sound like Lady Muck, full of a kind of snobbish graciousness. I see it as a horrible barrier to affectionate relationships. Chloe should be glad her son has escaped this self-destructive trap. His language makes people more at ease with him, and also makes him more at ease with other people. It is not a hindrance; it's a gift.
Don't worry about his accent
When my brother came home from his first term at boarding school he talked in the magpied mishmash of estuarine English that my mother refers to laughingly as "public-school common". She did not worry about this and nor should you. Your son has learnt that his accent betrays social inequalities. It could be that he is modifying his speech in a well-meaning, if to you somewhat gauche, attempt to downplay the privileges of his upbringing and education.
He doesn't want to seem `posh'
My daughter, who is quite capable of speaking with "received pronunciation" when she wants to, can also speak wonderful "estuarial" English, complete with awe-inspiring glottal stop and vowel sounds, when talking to her friends. If Chloe thought that a private education rendered her son immune to these trends in accents, she is sadly naive. Indeed, it is the young who refuse to adapt who are the outsiders, derided for being "posh".
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
English is changing
Over the past four to five decades spoken English, and society itself, have undergone considerable change. We are witnessing a growing acceptance of regional accents and informal, colloquial language.
Your son is merely sharing peer identity; his language signals acceptance and approval from this social group. His accent has not prevented him from reaching university; why should it impede him in the future?
Speech and language therapist
Next Week's Dilemma
I've had a bachelor friend for 25 years; we've known each other since his sister and I were at school. But recently I've not been sure whether he's really such a good friend after all. When I was in hospital he never visited me, and when we went on holiday together for the first time, he was bad-tempered and not at all supportive when I got a bad tummy. Last week, he suddenly got rather drunk, and said some very nasty things about me. Admittedly he rang me up to apologise, but I do rather feel that `in vino veritas'. I suddenly feel I've discovered the real person he is behind the friendship, and I'm not sure I like it. But he still makes me laugh and remembers my birthday, and we have so many shared memories. I feel confused. Do you think I've just been stupid all these years?
Yours sincerely, Zelda
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