Britain's crumbling ruling class is losing the accent of authority

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS I GROW older, the matter of how the English speak English becomes more urgent for me. This is not because of high-minded concern for syntax or elocution. It is because I am getting deafer. If, like me, you suffer from tinnitus (a sizzling in the ears brought on, in my case, by a Bren gun), you tend to miss consonants and rely on vowels. But English vowels are no longer predictable.

A report in the Independent the other day described changes in the speech of Milton Keynes. Children there are not only losing local Buckinghamshire pronunciation, if they ever had it, but melding their speech into uniform, Londonish sounds. They say 'ahm' for arm, 'naa-it' for night, and 'le'er' for letter. (The last is good for me, because a glottal stop is easier to hear than most consonants.) The other day I drove from Wiltshire to rural Essex, and was astonished to notice how plainly a mere hundred miles or so still separates rounded Wessex vowels from nasal Anglian. But a few more decades, at this rate, will leave both counties speaking like the children of Milton Keynes.

There are all kinds of reasons for this. The main one is the rate at which people move around the South-east of England: a cement-mixer of migrants and commuters. Another, I suspect, is the voice of children's TV entertainment: that brassy, relentless patter with its East End flavour (isn't the ancestor of all showbiz presenting the patter of stall-holders in city street markets?). As diction, it is warm, cheeky and inviting. Whatever the accents of parents, this has become the voice in which the nation chats up its children.

All discussions of English accents have to get past Shaw's Pygmalion - past Henry Higgins's line that 'the moment an Englishman opens his mouth, another Englishman despises him'. But is that ceasing to be true? For at least a century, accent in England has been two things: a vertical indicator about geographical origins, and a horizontal caste-mark separating 'top people' from the rest. From this intersection between place and class has come much odious social farce and - in those parts of the British Isles where it was taken seriously - a vast amount of unnecessary misery.

At the top were those who spoke with 'received pronunciation' (RP), previously called 'Oxford' or 'BBC' English. (Received by whom, and from whom?) The speaker of RP would refer to all the rest as 'having accents', as if he or she pronounced the language in some paradigm-pure, non-specific way. This was comic enough. More fascinating still, to me, was the absurd problem about local origins which this attitude created. An 'accent' proclaimed that the speaker had roots in some particular town or region. Conversely, it followed that anyone who had local roots was liable to have an accent. So, to complete the syllogism, the RP speaker who had 'no accent' came from nowhere.

If that is logic, then Groucho Marx was Plato. Nothing is funnier than what happens when you ask an upper-class English person the simple question: 'Where do you come from?' After all, it is the most common first question in the world. But the result, in this case, is a slight, very awkward silence. Eventually there may be a sort of reply: 'I spent a lot of my holidays in Leicestershire, as a child', or something like that. But there is a sense of a faux pas being politely overlooked. For, of course, one does not come from anywhere. Only people with accents come from places: from Bristol, or Hertfordshire, or Walsall. One might have been . . . brought up in Devonshire. But even if, in fact, one was born and lived to the age of 18 in a rectory near Exeter, one does not come from Devonshire.

This is revealing. It has something to do with the style of the old landed aristocrat, who had a country seat and a London house and whose personal connections were countrywide rather than local. The Victorian public schools spread this style to the new middle class. They imposed upon the bourgeois children of the Industrial Revolution, including much of the Scottish and Irish new rich, a pastiche of English aristocratic outlook.

But the really interesting thing about the idea of 'not coming from anywhere' is its universalism. Karl Marx thought of the proletariat as 'the universal class'. Oddly enough, the English/British upper crust thought of itself in that way too. By not coming from anywhere in particular, they suggested that they came from everywhere in general.

So it came about that, until recently, top people who lived near Cape Wrath spoke in exactly the same accent as top people who lived near Penzance. Their origins might be totally different: the first only two generations away from a Gaelic-speaking warlord, the second the descendant of a Tudor property shark or a Victorian mine-owner. But they had merged into a single ruling culture. They talked the same, thought the same and wore the same baggy clothes. They were the universal British ruling class.

Now that culture is dissolving. It did not exist for long, although, in the English manner, it pretended to have been there since time out of mind. Two centuries ago, great men at Westminster spoke with all kinds of regional accents. In fact the RP itself constantly changed. The recorded voices of Baldwin, or even of Anthony Eden, have narrow vowels that have almost entirely disappeared today.

Now the very nursery of the culture, the public school, no longer imposes the old uniformity. Powerful Scots have mostly reverted to educating their children in Scotland. And in England itself, another reversion is under way. The upper-class young already talk 'Estuary English', the faintly Cockneyfied accent of the South-east. When the children of privilege in a multi-national state turn to speaking with the accent of one province, the ruling culture is breaking up.

So the awful question arises: what will be left of Britishness? A state, a flag and armed forces recruited from every part of 'Ukania' will survive. But these are just institutions. What will remain of Britishness as a social reality rather than just a citizenship? There was only one British class, only one culture which incarnated the idea of the United Kingdom, and it is dying.

It will be a slow death. Most English people still react with deference to the sound of RP. This was the theme of the protests when Liz Forgan decided a year ago to encourage regional accents in the BBC, and depressing experiments showed that audiences find a talk in RP more reliable and credible than in West Midlands 'Brummie'. But the change has begun. At worst, it means Britain will remain just as class-obsessed but that top people will speak Estuary or Milton-Keynesian. At best, it could mean a quite different society in which a voice carries authority by its words, not its vowels. I will find it harder to understand that voice. But a miracle is worth the price of a deaf-aid.