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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Ellen E Jones
Scientists have discovered the perfect cheese for pizzas (it's mozzarella)  

Life of pie: Hard cheese for academics

Simmy Richman
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution