From the London Evening Standard, 4 March 1999. This article was triggered by Beryl Bainbridge's demand that regional accents should be eradicated -- and particularly Scouse, the accent of Liverpool, where she comes from.
The novelist Beryl Bainbridge believes that all children should have elocution lessons to wipe out their regional accents. In receiving an award on Tuesday, she said that being taught to abandon her own Liverpool voice had helped her career no end. As for the kids on Brookside, "They don't speak the English language," she said.
Audrey Hepburn as Liza Doolittle
learns her 'a' from her 'eh'
from Rex Harrison's Mr Higgins
Ms Bainbridge is a writer. How her writing was improved by elocution is a mystery, but this we must take on trust. More to the point is her falling into the Pygmalion trap. Speaking intelligibly, which means with coherent grammar, is quite different from speaking with a particular accent. What, for instance, would she do about London?
I heard Ms Bainbridge speak last month at the Ken Livingstone rally at Central Hall. She used the slightly flattened vowels of educated Camden, yet she referred to her adored Ken as the "real voice" of London. I wonder what she would do to his accent. Mr Livingstone has made something of a trademark of his voice. It is not cockney, neither is it the cockney refinement now called estuary. It has a slightly nasal Midlands twang, as of pre-Irish northwest London. Indeed if I were Shaw's Professor Higgins I would place Mr Livingstone as white-collar-London-and-Birmingham-Railway.
Higgins, of course, was the master of snobbish phonetics. From hearing Pickering talk he could reel off his pedigree as "Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, India". He rudely demanded of Eliza, in Covent Garden, "How do you come to be up so far east? You were born in Lisson Grove." All she had said so far was, "Keptin, n'baw ya flahr orf a pore gel ... Will ye-oo pie me f'them?" He boasted he could name anyone's neighbourhood to within two miles, indeed within two streets. For an appropriate fee he could turn Kentish Town into Park Lane, or take Eliza from Covent Garden to her "Bucknam Pellis".
But Higgins, like Ms Bainbridge, was struggling after a "London voice" that has simply ceased to exist. In the North of England, a London accent tends to mean anything posh. Sometimes London is code for "received" or "standard" or BBC English. Yet it can also be code for the opposite. In a Costa del Sol identity parade, London means yobbish. The Queen's own English is now wonderfully archaic. Dearly is still pronounced "deahleah" and people take tea on teebles and cheers. But when Eliza Doolittle's father talks of being "in me prime", as would his descendants today, it was equally London. It is no more wrong than the pukka "sez" is wrong for "says".
In the film Sliding Doors all eyes may have been on the face of the American Gwyneth Paltrow, but all ears should have been on her voice. She had studiously attuned it to that of an upwardly mobile west London career girl. Her "Notting Hill" English was a welding of a debased "Princess Diana" to the diphthongs of working-class London: "I've go'a'geh'on with my work." The voice is that of thousands of young people eager for a voice that can merge into the verbal Muzak of the city. They must pass muster at dinners and weddings, yet they will strangle their vowels and clip their consonants not to seem out of place in a pub or workplace. Tracing these chameleons across the map of London would test even a Henry Higgins.
Such accents have much to do with the subtle gradations of class in a big city. In London, accent is a way in which groups and neighbourhoods define and defend themselves against newcomers. I am told that old-established residents of Whitechapel regard cockney as aristocratic alongside the near-incomprehensible Bengali-cockney of Brick Lane. But such accents and dialects are neither right nor wrong. Only grammar can be judged in those terms. We do not regard Scotsmen or Irishmen as not speaking properly because of their distinctive accents. So why an East Ender?
I am all for teaching grammar. Speaking clearly is the key to writing clearly and spelling correctly, until, that is, Bernard Shaw's campaign to rationalise spelling comes to glorious fruition (or glorius frewishon). But accent is different. It is not about clarity or meaning but about family and locality. London's accents have always been the building blocks of English, drawn from the entrepôts of the docks and the markets. Like that ultimate verbal melting pot, cockney, they take on the colouring of the city's passing tribes, using, adapting and discarding at will. London English is incomparably the richer for such ethnic imports as clobber and conk, sucker and bunkum, pal, moll, bloke and boozer. It may be that nobody says cor blimey, guv any more. But effing and blinding are working up the social scale. Young Londoners now use West Indian slang as if it were their own: like ... man ... fat ... cool ... wicked.
Some London dialect is charmingly Old English, as in "He was that stuck up" or "I give 'im what for". Some is overtly ethnic, like the Jewish "already". Some of these are anthropological gems. But as William Matthews says in his book Cockney Past and Present, today's London English is England's English tomorrow. Words and pronunciations enter the language through London. They are tested there, in street and pub, before being received as somehow official.
Aristocratic England used to talk with a regional accent, as most of aristocratic Scotland still does. But like the upper-class voice a century ago, the nation's middle-class voice is now merging with middle-class London, as if to give itself national colouring. I find that a pity. It deadens local variety and standardises an aspect of English culture that has no need of standardisation. But then London English is itself becoming standardised. It, too, is killing variety and blurring the boundaries between class and ethnic origin. We are all saying "awrigh" for all right, yeah for yes, or Tony Blair's "Amean ... lessfaysit ... innit?"
The fun of London English has always been its variety and its resistance to the likes of Higgins and Bainbridge. Keep it that way. By all means teach grammar: give young people the weapons to make words their servants, not their masters. But God forbid that the national curriculum should ever get its hands on the kaleidoscope that is the London voice. Wassrong? Issokay, innit?
© Associated Newspapers Ltd., 04 March 1999
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Placed on the web 1999 03 05 JCW
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Placed on the web 1999 03 05 JCW