A U and non-U exchange: In 1956, Alan Ross defined the language that marked a man above or below stairs. Today, can one still tell?

Share
Related Topics
NANCY Mitford popularised the designations 'U' and 'non-U' in the 1950s to designate 'Upper class' and 'non-Upper class' behaviour and language, and has since been widely credited with their invention. In fact, the terms originated in 1954 in an academic paper on 'Upper-Class English Usage' by Alan Ross, Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University. The following edited extracts are taken from Ross's 'U and non-U', published in 1956.

TODAY, in 1956, the English class system is essentially tripartite - there exist an upper, a middle, and a lower class. It is solely by its language that the upper class is clearly marked off from the others. In times past (eg, in the Victorian and Edwardian periods) this was not the case. But, today, a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class. Nor, in general, is he likely to play a greater part in public affairs, be supported by other trades or professions, or engage in other pursuits or pastimes than his fellow of another class.

There are, it is true, still minor points of life which may serve to demarcate the upper class, but they are only minor ones. The games of real tennis and piquet, an aversion to high tea, having one's cards engraved (not printed), not playing tennis in braces, and, in some cases, a dislike of certain comparatively modern inventions such as the telephone, the cinema, and the wireless, are still perhaps marks of the upper class. Again, when drunk, gentlemen often become amorous or maudlin or vomit in public, but they never become truculent.

I am concerned with the linguistic demarcation of the upper class. This subject has been but little investigated, though it is much discussed, in an unscientific manner, by members of that class. Both the written and the spoken language of the upper class serve to demarcate it, but the former to only a very slight extent. A piece of mathematics or a novel written by a member of the upper class is not likely to differ in any way from one written by a member of another class, except in so far as the novel contains conversation.

The line of demarcation (in the examples below) is, often, a line between, on the one hand, gentlemen and, on the other, persons who, though not gentlemen, might at first sight appear, or would wish to appear, as such.

Pronunciation

1 In a few cases, a difference of stress serves to demarcate a pronunciation as between U and non- U. Thus yesterday is non-U as against U yesterday; or, again, U temporarily / non-U temporarily; U formidable / non-U formdable. In some cases two stress-variants may both be U as sponge-cake or sponge-cake (non-U speakers hardly use the word, substituting sponge for it).

2 To pronounce words like ride as if spelt raid is non-U (raid was, however, undoubtedly Shakespeare's pronunciation of ride). This kind of pronunciation is often called refained.

3 Many (but not all) U-speakers make get rhyme with bit, just (adverb) with best, catch with fetch.

4 U-speakers do not sound the l in golf, Ralph (which rhymes with safe), solder.

5 Real, ideal have two, respectively, three syllables in U speech, one, respectively, two in non-U speech (note, especially, non-U really, rhyming with mealie).

6 In Berkeley, Berkshire, clerk, Derby, U-speakers rhyme the first syllable with dark, non-U speakers with mirk. Since it is definitely non-U to pronounce Berkeley with first syllable rhyming with mirk, U- speakers get a frisson if they have to enunciate the surnames Birkley, Burkly (correctly pronounced with first syllable rhyming with mirk) for, if a U-hearer does not appreciate the spelling of the names (rare ones), they may be suspected of using a non-U pronunciation.

7 Some U-speakers pronouce tyre and tar identically (and so for many other words, such as fire - even going to the length of making lion rhyme with barn).

8 Miscellaneous words. Acknowledge: U-rhymes with college/non-U - second syllable rhymes with bowl. Either: U - first syllable rhymes with buy / non-U - first syllable rymes with bee. Forehead: U-rhymes with torrid / non-U - fore-head. Handkerchief: U - last syllable rhymes with stiff / non-U - last syllable rhymes with beed or weave. Hotel and humour: to drop the h is old-fashioned U. Medicine and venison: U - two syllables /non-U - three syllables. Tortoise: U - pronounced identically with taught us / non-U - last syllable rhymes with boys or Boyce. Vase: U - rhymes with bars / non-U - rhymes with cause or maize. W (the letter): U double-you / non-U dubby-you.

Vocabulary

Bath. To take a bath is non-U against U to have one's bath.

Civil: this word is used by U- speakers to approve the behaviour of a non-U person in that the latter has appreciated the difference between U and non-U, eg The guard was certainly very civil.

Cruet. The sentence Pass the cruet, please is very non-U; cruets are in themselves non-U. In gentlemen's houses there are, ideally, separate containers.

Cultivated in They're cultivated people is non-U and so also is cultured. There is really no U-equivalent (some U-speakers use civilised in this sense).

Cup. How is your cup? is a non- U equivalent of Have some more tea? or the like. Possible negative non-U answers are I'm doing nicely, thank you and (Quite) sufficient, thank you. There is a well-known non-U affirmative answer: I don't mind if I do (but this was U about a century ago).

Cycle is non-U against U bike, bicycle (whether verb or noun); non-U motorcycle / U motorbike, motorbicycle is perhaps less pronouncedly so.

Dinner. U-speakers eat lunch in the middle of the day (luncheon is old-fashioned U) and dinner in the evening; if a U-speaker feels that what he is eating is a travesty of his dinner, he may appropriately call it supper. Non-U speakers (also U-children and U-dogs), on the other hand, have their dinner in the middle of the day. Evening meal is non-U.

Greens meaning 'vegetables' is non-U.

Home: non-U They've a lovely home / U They've a very nice house.

Horse-riding is non-U against riding. From the non-U point of view, the expression is reasonable, for to the non-U there are other kinds of riding.

Ill in I was very ill on the boat is non-U against U sick.

Lounge is a name given by the non-U to a room in their houses; for U-speakers, hall or dining- room might well be the nearest equivalent (but all speakers speak of the lounge of a hotel).

Non-U mental / U mad.

Pardon] is used by the non-U in three main ways: (1) if the hearer does not hear the speaker properly; (2) as an apology (eg on brushing by someone in a passage); (3) after hiccuping or belching. The normal U-correspondences are very curt, viz. (1) What? (2) Sorry] (3) (Silence).

Pleased to meet you] This is a frequent non-U response to the greeting How d'you do? U-speakers normally just repeat the greeting; to reply to the greeting (eg with Quite well, thank you) is non-U.

Posh is essentially non-U but, recently, it has gained ground among schoolboys of all classes.

Non-U radio / U wireless.

Rude meaning ''indecent' is non-U; there is no universal U- correspondent.

Non-U serviette / U table-

napkin; perhaps the best known of all the linguistic class-indicators of English.

Teacher is essentially non-U, though school-teacher is used by the U to indicate a non-U teacher. The U equivalent is master, mistress with prefixed attribute (as maths-mistress). Non-U children often refer to their teachers without article (as, Teacher says . . .).

Non-U toilet-paper / U lavatory-paper.

Non-U wealthy / U rich.

IN ENGLAND today the question 'Can a non-U speaker become a U-speaker?' is one noticeably of paramount importance for many Englishmen (and for some of their wives). The answer is that an adult can never attain complete success. Moreover, it must be remembered that, in these matters, U-speakers have ears to hear, so that one single pronunciation, word, or phrase will suffice to brand an apparent U-speaker as originally non-U (for U-speakers themselves never make 'mistakes'). Under these circumstances, efforts to change voice are surely better abandoned.

Keeping up appearances, page 21

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Account Manager

£30 - 38k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a digitally focussed Account Man...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP / MySQL / HTML / CSS

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this digital ...

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist / Cashier

£16500 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity exists ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Ancient Labour rivalries – Bevan versus Morrison

John Rentoul
Labour leadership hopefuls, from left, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn on the BBC  

If you’re thinking of voting for Jeremy Corbyn, here are my promises to you

Andy Burnham
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935