Speakin’ proper (2)

Professor Higgins has been back in touch… In response to his/ her first email I sent a rather flippant reply: “I’m sorry, but I’m from Luton. That’s how people talk! Do you really think we should all sound like Jacob Rees-Mogg?” and got this back:

“You are confusing accent with diction. There is nothing wrong with the former, lack of attention to the latter is just laziness. It cannot be excused, especially in your case, by lack of education.”

Well that’s told me. I’m not sure he/ she is right though… Surely some accents are defined by the fact speakers drop various letters, as well as pronouncing certain vowels/ consonants in a particular way? Isn’t, say, Estuary English an accent just the same as Scouse or Brummie or Geordie accents are? Would Professor Higgins pull up a Geordie for poor diction too, or would the Prof just accept that’s the way they speak up there?

In Bristol there are so many incomers that it’s difficult to tell who is from outside Bristol and never had a Bristolian accent, and who grew up here but, either deliberately or unconsciously, dropped the accent, say, when they went off to university. You’re definitely far more likely to hear a strong Bristolian accent in the more working class areas, but that is of course partly because more people in those areas are locals. But there are definitely quite a few Bristolians from those areas who no longer speak with the accent, and going off to university seems to be a key trigger.

Then of course you have the influence of West Indian dialect… I meet Somali teenagers who have a bit of Bristolian and a bit of black Caribbean and a bit of Somali in their accents. I wonder what Professor Higgins would say of the black tendency to say ‘aks’ isn’t of ‘ask’? Is that just the accent, or poor diction, or just not knowing what the proper word is? And what is the problem of just letting them get on with it? Everyone knows what they mean… Isn’t that the crux of it – understanding each other? That’s what language is for, so provided we can understand what people mean to say and they’re not mumbling then isn’t every way of talking OK?

Having said all this, I am a complete grammar Nazi, as my staff will testify. Not on this blog, where it is I believe not only permissible but desirable to write in a colloquial style, but in letters to constituents and ministers woe betide the staff members who describes a matter as ‘concerning’ or ends a sentence with a preposition. They used to have post-it notes on their PCs saying “licence not license!” I’m also addicted to the @GuardianStyle Twitter account. I like grammar rules.

I could argue that speech is different, speech is about self-expression, and not conforming to society’s idea of what is ‘proper’. I suspect I’m being rather inconsistent though. I want my letters to constituents and ministers to appear educated and not semi-illiterate. Professor Higgins obviously thinks dropping ‘g’ at the end of a word falls into exactly the same category.

Here’s the Week in Westminster podcast if you want to hear it:


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  • Paul Bemmy Down  On January 22, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Come to South Bristol if you want to hear how Bristolians really talk. Not much exposure to outside dialects here. I find it rather sad that when I go into town, I do feel that “us” from Bristol are becoming a minority in our own city, but thats probably an age thing. My son used to have to interview celebrities, and I would say “make sure you talk proper” but he would say “but I do” and was proud of his south Bristol dialect. He always got on well and I wonder if they found a local voice more trustworth. I do think it’s exagerated though when I see these T shirts saying “GERT LUSH”.

  • omar  On January 24, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Ms McCarthy,

    In respect of your aversion to sentences ending with a preposition, the online Oxford dictionary takes rather a different view…


  • Geoff Davis  On March 15, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    One category of Bristolians you fail to mention is those who suffer from “variable accent syndrome”. This is very common in Bristol and I myself am a sufferer. The accent changes from broad Bristol to slight Bristol to non-existent Bristol according to the company one keeps. You see, I grew up in a fairly working class part of north Bristol but went to one of the city’s top direct-grant (now independent) grammar schools. At school, if I spoke with a Bristol accent I was told I was a peasant. However, if I lost the accent while I was playing football with the other lads in my own neighbourhood I would hear “ark at ‘e with his gurt posh voice!”. So I had to adapt, to both environments!

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