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

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

C# Developer

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client is lo...

Business Project Manager

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project Manager job vaca...

Day In a Page

Read Next
80 per cent of Commonwealth countries discriminate against LGBTI people - will Salmond speak out?  

Alex Salmond must speak out against the Commonwealth's homophobic countries

Peter Tatchell
 

Commonwealth Games 2014: Speak out against homophobia, Mr Salmond

Peter Tatchell
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor