Jacinta Nandi discusses how dialect snobbery relates to classism in the UK and how we should be proud of how we speak even if it’s not “received pronunciation”.

Back in the olden days, i.e., the early 2000s, when I still wanted to become a stand-up comedian, my friend and I were going to an open-mike night in Schöneberg, a neighbourhood in what was still, back then, usually called West Berlin.

“Will agents be there, do you think?” I asked, breathlessly.

“Will Asians be there?” She repeated, perplexed.

“AGENTS!” I said, cheerfully exchanging the glottal stop for a loud T sound.

“Oh, Jacinta,” she said breezily. “Your diction is sooooooooo appalling, it’s almost impossible to communicate with you!”

I could tell you slightly depressing anecdotes like this for literally hours and hours and hours and hours.

“They never complain about differences in grammar or vocabulary as they do when the speakers whose English is offending them come from the same country, but a different socioeconomic class.”

People who speak what they consider to be standard English – especially if they are middle-class, upper middle-class and white – do not mind telling everyone whose English they feel is “inferior” or lacking in some way that it is impossible to communicate with them. They’ll insert these admonitions slap, bang, right into the middle of a conversation where information, up to this point, was actually being communicated. They do not notice the irony, ever.

I suspect, deep down, they know the problem is not miscommunication at all. The reason is because, even though they will express some discomfort over other forms of English – US English is also seen as inferior – they never complain about differences in grammar or vocabulary as they do when the speakers whose English is offending them come from the same country, but a different socioeconomic class. 

A German friend recently asked, on her Facebook timeline: “British English speakers! What kind of people pronounce something so it sounds like somethink?” The first response was a British person who blithely wrote “Stupid people.” This person THEN got offended at being told, somewhat childishly perhaps, that it was in fact, her comment that was stupid.

Just meditate on that for a moment. This person is not only convinced that everyone who pronounces the “g” in something so it sounds like a “k” is less intelligent than people who make a “g” sound – she also literally believes that they believe it, too. That nobody would read it and say “Hey wait a minute! I pronounce something like somethink! And I’m not stupid! What’s your problem, mate?” There’s a serious level of contempt there.

For the record, I don’t pronounce something like “somethink” – though I think I did as a teenager. But my English teacher, Mr. Williams did. Mr. Williams lived in West London and taught at our comprehensive in East London/Essex. To us, he sounded posh, though I do wonder now how posh his accent really was. I think maybe he just wasn’t Cockney? When I was in Year 12, our other English teacher, Miss Fulham, announced that we wouldn’t be allowed to use double negatives when speaking in her class anymore. I actually think, looking back, that this isn’t the strictest rule in the world, to be honest, but at the time we were pretty horrified! Her argument was that they hindered communication. How could you know if someone really meant a double negative as a negative – and not, actually as a double negative? 

Mr. Williams and Miss Fulham had, to the delight of all us students, a bit of a feud going on. Can you remember how exciting it was when teachers hated each other? We just loved it. (We also did a bit of shit-stirring sometimes!) And Mr. Williams made no bones about the fact that he disapproved of this new rule deeply.

“If someone is so stupid that they can’t differentiate between a double negative used as part of an East London dialect for emphasis and an actual double negative, well, is it worth communicating with that person anyway?”

“There’s a certain elegance to the way some working-class people speak: elegance, power, even a kind of magnificent anger. This is threatening.”

You might not be able to tell from having read this column, but I don’t actually believe in dividing people up into “stupid” and “clever.” I think it’s at best ableist and simplistic, and at worst cruel and oppressive. But I do think it is surprising how many otherwise seemingly intelligent people really believe a lot of meaningless ideas about the standard language, as spoken by white people with more education and money, being more logical and more beautiful than other dialects. And that other forms of English are automatically “easier” and lazier. It’s obvious, if you think about this for longer than one minute, that this just isn’t true – for example, in Cockney English, we have a plural you and a singular you, which is both more logical and also less lazy than the standard language usage! 

But what I think is really important to consider is that this is not about communication at all. Middle class and upper middle-class speakers of English want to retain their power. They want to retain their privileges. It is very important for them to maintain the fiction that everyone who pronounces “something” as “somethink” is stupid.

Because people know, deep down, that in a truly fair society, where working class people of all colours and speaking all Englishes, could succeed as well as middle-class and upper middle-class society: well, maybe they would have to give a bit of power and privilege up. There’s a certain elegance to the way some working-class people speak: elegance, power, even a kind of magnificent anger. This is threatening. And every time someone stops, mid-conversation, to tell you you aren’t speaking ‘properly’ or to accuse you of being incoherent: they are trying to take away your power.

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Jacinta Nandi comes from Seven Kings, Essex and moved to Berlin in 2000. Her first English book will be published with Satyr Verlag in Spring this year. She lives in Lichtenrade, South Berlin, with her two boys and tweets as @JacintaNandi

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