The View From Here: A nation still hung up on vowel length

Click to follow
The Independent Online
OH DEAR, oh dear! The press has had a field day this summer with the news about the docker's son who became a Cambridge don and then humiliated a girl from Essex during her interview with him to get a place at the university. Journalists streamed onto the field of battle from all sides: the don was brilliant and misunderstood; he had a quirky sense of playful ironic humour; Ms Playle had obviously over-reacted, due to the stress of the interview; she just wasn't sharp enough to cope with a truly penetrating mind.

Or, the other side countered, Ms Playle was a very bright woman who had been reduced to tears and walked out of the room, unwilling to face a barrage of snobbish ranting from an unpleasant bully who has since been forced to apologise. Widening the terms, some wrote about how incidents like this undermine all the attempts to attract students from the state sector to Oxbridge. Apply to Cambridge and you too might be linguistically challenged. And so one unfortunate episode is then turned into a campaign.

Ms Playle is coming to my own university, where she will be warmly welcomed and where she will, I hope, enjoy her English degree with us. I am sorry that she had such a distressing interview at Cambridge and I admire her courage in going public about it and requesting an apology. But to suggest that one man's bad manners is representative of our ancient universities is ridiculous. We have all met people who show off at the expense of others, and it cannot be said that one institution has a monopoly on arrogance.

Equally ridiculous is the proposition put forward by some that all interviews should be abolished and replaced with paperwork. Interviews are never pleasant, but they serve a very useful purpose, and an interview for university can help prepare students for job interviews later. At my daughter's school, parents turn up once a year on a Saturday morning and work with the staff on mock interviews for all the A level candidates. Other schools please note.

What depresses me about this case is the importance people in this country still attach to accents. You can't turn on the radio or TV without encountering dozens of different accents, and yet we are still hung up on the idea of perfect received pronunciation (RP). We must be the only country in the world where an ideal version of the language exists that is not actually spoken in any geographical location.

We may have the idea of a classless society, of cool Britannia and all that, but a lot of ordinary people seem hell-bent on erasing traces of their local origins. Eric Griffiths, the academic in question, started out life as a Liverpool docker's son, and yet seems to have felt that he needed to acquire an accent as camp as a row of pink frilly tents in order to get on in life. Similarly, Lady Thatcher invested time and, presumably, also money in losing her Grantham burr, and she still gets her pronouns wrong. Why do the English do it in this day and age?

The links between class, status and accent used to be obvious once upon a time. These days, with members of the royal family speaking estuary English and children of RP-speaking parents doing their utmost to acquire an Essex, Brummie or Liverpool accent in order to have playground credibility, it is surely time to accept that English has changed forever. I hope Tracey Playle hangs on to her Essex accent and responds to anyone who sneers at her in future with the contempt they deserve.

But equally, I hope Dr Griffiths takes a long, hard look at himself and seeks an answer to the questions of why he feels he needs to dress himself up in borrowed linguistic finery and pretend to be a toff. Brilliant you may be, Eric, but you're out of touch. The future belongs to our Tracey.

The writer is Pro-vice chancellor of the University of Warwick

Comments