Sunday Times 2001 11 11

India Knight

Speak proper? Not likely

Many years ago my then future (now ex) husband used to reduce me to near-hysterics whenever we took a taxi back to his house. As soon as we neared home, he'd lean forward, slide open the glass partition, and tell the cab driver: "There's a li'el slip road just dahn on the right, mate, alrigh? Cheers." Then he'd shut the partition, lean back, adjust the collar on his Prada coat, and, in his normal voice, say something like: "That claret at supper was utterly divine."

This happened most nights. He'd laugh, too, but he still continued addressing cabbies in his pretend accent. The husband wasn't - isn't - a braying Hooray of the incurable kind (I know someone who goes to "marse" every Sunday) and, with time, his of-the-people accent became pretty convincing, to the point where he now marches around Hackney, east London, speaking like a native whenever the mood takes him. It works beautifully until some enterprising market stallholder asks him if went to school local.

I used to think this was terribly funny until I started doing it myself. Put me on Radio 4 and I speak normally. Stick me in a taxi and my natural accent completely disappears. Take me to a smart restaurant and I'm Lady Bracknell; take me down the market and naturally, without thinking twice, I'll ask the stallholder: "Are you avin' a laugh?" when he tries to overcharge.

Like some schizoid chameleon, I alter my accent to match that of my interlocutor - but only if said interlocutor speaks, for want of a better phrase, like a Kevin. And there's an expression you don't hear very often any more, because political correctness has sprung to the rescue of every single kind of accent. Except mine.

The only accent it is now actively all right to pillory is the so-called "posh" - the clear enunciation that comes from being privately educated or having upper-middle class parents. Mention the amazing ugliness of the Birmingham accent, for instance, and some bien pensant type will reproachfully inform you that it's a wonderful accent, actually, and that it's terribly important to maintain this kind of regional linguistic diversity (which it is). Make a joke about speaking like Tim Nice-but-Dim, on the other hand, and everybody will laugh like drains at the absurdity of public school voices. Why? Why is received pronunciation invalid and every other accent imaginable not so?

Speaking properly - because no matter how unfashionable it is to say it, I speak properly and many of the people I meet do not - has become comical.

Now it's even a sackable offence: the Commons Speaker Michael "Gorbals Mick" Martin, a Glaswegian, last week sacked his secretary Charlotte Every, 38, for having an accent that got on his nerves: she speaks like a "Sloane Ranger", apparently (an expression coined in the 1980s by Harpers & Queen magazine: rather peculiar reading material for the Speaker to be familiar with, one would have thought).

Every should be given a medal for sticking resolutely to her unwavering Sloane tones; God knows few enough of us do: we're too embarrassed. If Every had resigned on the grounds that the Speaker spoke "like an oik", for instance, there would have been an outcry. The other way around, though, is merely entertaining: good old Gorbals Mick, we're supposed to think. Salt of the earth. Go on, my son; dump the posh bird and her grating rah-rah tones and stick to yer ain folk.

Those of us who speak like we do have to deal with this kind of inverted snobbery every day, which has resulted in the majority of us compromising by adopting a weird hybrid of an accent - part Sloane, part street, knoworrimean, yah? When the occasion requires it, we air words such as "settee" or "serviette" to prove that we're not stuck-up nobs and go to the "toilet" like the rest of the population.

Actually, this is a copout: I can't be alone in feeling a burning, secret admiration for people like Charlotte Every, who never, ever change their accents, whether they're having tea at Claridge's or pottering around the 17th floor of a housing estate.

The reason my former husband and I, and a host of other people like us, drop the accent a notch or three when giving instructions to a cab driver or when meeting new people isn't because we live in some Guy Ritchie-like fantasy about being uncomfortably to the manor born: rather, it's because speaking properly is more trouble than it's worth.

If your accent is "posh" you are immediately viewed with hostile suspicion, the implication being you are probably some ghastly plummy nob, your very existence confirming the fact that there are still people who sneer down their long, well-bred noses at the plebs. You are also viewed with defensiveness (despite what we're constantly being told about classless societies, the vast majority of people in Britain are desperately chippy) and with mistrust (see Nasty Nick in Big Brother: private education makes you too clever by half, and also sneaky).

These assumptions, needless to say, are moronic in their predictability: not everyone who went to public school grew up in a mansion and not everyone who speaks properly is a snob.

Since we no longer believe that every scouse accent belongs to a scally, or that every Scots burr indicates a hard man, why do we persist in the belief that received pronunciation automatically marks out the speaker as a chinless prat?

And so we Sloane-speakers have become a fraudulent, beleaguered minority, pretending to be something we are not every time we open our mouths, and falling upon each other like starving people at a feast when we meet new people and like recognises like - "Air. Heli-air," we say, howling with joy. To the rest of the world, though, we are the proud(ish) possessors of the only accent in Britain that is still an albatross (unless you're hectoring what my mother calls "the men", that is, builders or plumbers, in which case you always win the argument when employing a sharper accent, which is something, though not much).

My children, both of whom go to a fee-paying school, have already acquired the hybrid accent I expect they'll have for the rest of their lives. This is no bad thing: I don't particularly want people to start snorting with derision every time my kids open their mouths.

Still, at long last I detect a tiny ray of hope. At a screening of Harry Potter last week - yes, it is utterly and unimaginably brilliant - the audience actually laughed out loud when Hermione Granger first opened her mouth and cut-glass came tumbling out. Two hours and a bit later, they'd have crawled across said cut glass for her.

If, as has been reported, children all over the country are already clamouring for glasses la Potter, it is perhaps not too much to hope that they might take to emulating Hermione's perfect diction, too.

I hope so, mate, I really do, because the alternative is extinction.

Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.

Placed on the web by John Wells 2001 11 12

Estuary English page