Good morning and welcome to Lesson One in the “Middle-class Person’s Guide to Speaking to Proletarian Tradesmen”. Now, class, say after me: “Mate, you must be ’avin’ a faaahhkin’ giraffe. Five grand for them patio doors? Tha’s to-uh-ly unacceptable.”
Note, if you will, the demotic greeting “mate”, used by one male when meeting another, irrespective of any actual friendship, and increasingly placed at the beginning of a sentence for particular emphasis. Note, too, the dropped aitch, the casual obscenity and quasi-cockney rhyming slang. Do, please, pay attention to the importance of grammar in the phrase “them patio doors”. A simple stray “those” can give the whole game away.
The glottal stop in the middle of the word you would normally pronounce “totally” is vital, too, when trying to curry favour with plebs with whom you have nothing whatever in common. And finally, observe the sudden appearance of a relatively complex, polysyllabic word such as “unacceptable”: a grace note, suggestive of an effort to seem educated, that only deepens the authenticity of your Yobspeak.
I mock, yet I too, like two Britons in five, have been known to take my resolutely educated, middle-class voice down a notch or two when talking to the endless sparkies, chippies and spreads – or electricians, carpenters and plasterers – who seem to have been working in my house since the dawn of time.
I never resort to the glottal stop, not least because it would sound plain daft down here in Sussex, where none of the locals uses it either. But my voice gets just a touch more Estuarine, my vocabulary and grammar dumb down just a fraction and I’ve almost developed a reasonably convincing ability to use “mate” with people I know. Though I do still have trouble employing it when, you know, one hasn’t been properly introduced.
Oh, and that’s another thing, I try not to sling random ‘y’knows’ into my speech. That was another Blairism and the fact that it came from a product of Fettes and Oxford who could perfectly well express himself without the need for any superfluous verbal litter only added to his bogusness.
For politicians with carefully abbreviated names such as Dave, Ed and Nick this is just one more desperate attempt to pretend that they are men of the people. They don’t seem to notice that confident, unabashed authenticity is actually more effective. Boris Johnson if anything exaggerates his hearty, upper-class voice and uses language that verges on the Woosteresque. Yet he has a natural rapport with the general public that other politicians can only gaze at in bitter, awestruck envy.
So why do any of us go faux-prole when talking to tradesmen? It’s a particularly male sin, I suspect, and part of that has to do with a sense of threatened masculinity. Those blokes with their power tools and their artisanal expertise seem to have just that bit more testosterone than their pasty-faced, white-collar clients. So we try to talk tough to fit in with their rugged authenticity.
Then there’s that pall of self-loathing that hangs over the British bourgeoisie. The vast majority of Britons now describe themselves as middle class, yet the term “middle class” is more derogatory than ever before. It’s sharp-shouldered, middle-class parents who try to get their kids into good schools by devious means, and middle-aged, middle-class drinkers are, apparently, the most dangerous boozers of all. That the people making these accusations are themselves middle class only proves how desperate they are to be anything else.
Then again, why shouldn’t one’s voice change, over time or in different contexts? I know from listening to old interview tapes that my voice has become less posh over the past 30 years, but then, so has the Queen’s. So has almost everyone’s.
That said, if I were invited for a weekend at a ducal estate I would be as capable of shifting up a social gear and talking appropriately in that setting as I am of blending in (a bit, anyway) when watching West Ham at the Boleyn Ground in London E13.
I have a friend whose parents both came from Yorkshire. He grew up and went to school in Manchester, graduated from Cambridge University and is now a lawyer living in south-west London. He sees accent not as a fixed point, but as something flexible that reflects, or rather echoes, one’s life experiences. To my southern ears, he still sounds slightly, but discernibly, Mancunian. To a Moss Side scally he would sound – not least because he is so clearly educated – like a soft, gay, southern twat.
But these distinctions of class and region may gradually be flattening out as society settles into a relatively small underclass, a tiny super-rich elite… and everyone else.
My children, like my, ah, mate’s, have all gone to state school. They all, also like his, speak in unmistakably middle-class accents. I have never heard any of them use a mockney voice, partly because they don’t need to pretend they aren’t public-school kids, but equally, they are only marginally posher-sounding than their friends’ speaking voices, in the same way that, say, Prince Harry sounds only marginally posher than a perfectly normal non-royal.
In their generation people worry much less about class, likewise race, gender or sexual proclivity. They use words that terrify their liberal, well-meaning parents such as “darkie”, “bitch” and even “nigger”, not as terms of abuse but as friendly banter. In that context, people may notice if you talk a bit posh, but they don’t worry about it.
In any case, if you did want to sound street, the new voice to fake is that multiracial, Asian-Caribbean south London accent that sounds nothing like cockney. And if you really want to sound like your builders, learn Polish.Reuse content