Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Talking posh

A couple of years ago, I spent a week at Merton College, Oxford University. Part of the whole deal was dining with the dons, a ritual which included the imbibing of dry sherry, much to my delight. But on the first day I had the distinctly uncomfortable experience of being engaged in earnest conversation by a speaker of very strongly marked Received Pronunciation, and, er, having no idea what he was talking about!!

There were two problems in this situation. The first was that he kept using the word "zims", the meaning of which was central to what he was telling me about. The second was that the power dynamic was such that I felt too embarrassed to ask him for clarification. I perceived the power as being all in his court: he was my host so I had politeness obligations as his guest; he was an Oxford don and I was a teacher in a modest sixth form college; he spoke in RP, I speak in Estuary even when I'm doing my best posh voice. It just seemed too rude to say "oi, mate, talk in English, will ya?!"

So, I did the only sensible thing: I smiled, nodded, and frantically used all the other clues in his speech to decode the meaning of the word "zims" - er, "exams". And then spent the rest of the week wishing I had a hidden mike so I could tape this curious language variety.

But why do I mention this now, I hear you ask? Well, it's the beginning of the posh season, innit? Ascot, Wimbledon (not that posh now I've got tickets...), Henley, Cowes. And to mark this, and the relocation of Royal Ascot oop North to York, the Times is running a humorous little piece today, in which a journalist purports to be writing in the sociolect of the upper class.

This is interesting because we spend a lot of time exploring other varieties of English, and there is no reason not to explore this one too. Indeed, by so doing we get away from the implict notion that this variety is somehow unremarkable and that non-standard varieties are "deviant". It's also interesting because it is a fictional representation of a language variety, a language variety that is changing, at least phonologically, and it would make an interesting investigation to find out how characteristic this really is of upper class speech patterns.

So, check out the links to read more, and if you live anywhere near any Wimbledon, Henley, or Cowes, get out this summer with a tape recorder!

But darling, how frightful it is to even consider leaving Berkshire

Routes of English Special - talking posh


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