Magazine article The Spectator

The Only Way to End the Class System Is to Teach Kids to Speak Proper

Magazine article The Spectator

The Only Way to End the Class System Is to Teach Kids to Speak Proper

Article excerpt

Beryl Bainbridge is right to argue that children should be taught elocution. Saving the young from a lifetime's imprisonment in the local patois is almost as important as saving them from illiteracy, and the two usually go together. I stress the term patois. There is nothing wrong in a local accent, lilt or burr provided the words are correctly articulated and the rules of vocal syntax are followed. J.B. Priestley spoke with a distinctive West Riding accent all his life, but he enunciated his words perfectly and the charm and relish with which he pronounced them made him the most attractive broadcaster of his day. This is quite different from the horrible noise called Scouse, in its present-day variety, to which Bainbridge took particular exception (Geordie and Glaswegian are almost as bad). Scouse is a combination of grammatical anarchy, glottal and nasal obscurantism, elision, conflation and slurring, rendered even more murky by words and expressions unknown outside the district. The rest of us can't understand it, so it fails the first test of language - it is not a means of communication. Mr Gladstone spoke with a Liverpool accent which Eton and Oxford failed to remove, but he could address a crowd of 10,000 people for an hour at a time on an abstruse subject and make himself understood perfectly because he had mastered the art of elocution.

The problem is almost as old as the language and was already remarked on in Chaucer's day, still more in Caxton's when printing brought into the open the need to secure uniformity of pronunciation and spelling. By Shakespeare's time, the old East Mercian pronunciation, spoken in London and the Home Counties, was established as 'standard' English. John Hart, an official at the Court of Wards, which had to deal with wealthy children from all localities, made a plea for uniform pronunciation in his book Orthographie (1569). He argued that the only proper way to speak English was to use the court accent, a genteel version of London speech. That was the one Queen Elizabeth herself used, but in an exaggerated form, for she drawled her vowels, as one French ambassador noted, instancing her cursing: 'Paaaar Dieu!', 'Paaaar maaa foi!' etc. But she spoke distinctly, the main thing, and no one had difficulty in understanding her, even her massed troops at Tilbury fort in August 1588, when she addressed them in the open, without notes.

Even in those days elocution flourished and humble men who wished to get on changed their accents. The spellingreformer William Bullokar dropped his native East Anglian, then incomprehensible to outsiders, in favour of court speech. I am sure Shakespeare turned his native West Midlands into a court accent as soon as he came to London - but then he had to, being an actor. Others obstinately didn't bother. When the governors of Merchant Taylors' paid an official visit to the school, the only grounds on which they criticised its great headmaster Richard Mulcaster, who came from Carlisle, was that the ushers, `being Northern men born, had not taught the children to speak distinctly, or to pronounce their words as well as they ought'. But then the ushers could point to the fact that two of the grandest figures at court, the Earls of Derby and Shrewsbury, also had northern accents. It was said that courtiers `carried their country about with them on the tongues'. Sir Walter Ralegh, whose discourse on science the Queen loved to hear, `spoke broad Devonshire to his dying day', according to John Aubrey. …

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