As should come as no surprise to his readers, Reggie is rather a stickler when it comes to language and the correct use and pronunciation of it. He seeks to speak English properly, refraining from the egregious use of slang, lazy or silly pronunciations, or sloppy grammar. And he thinks you should, too.
Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she utters.
By right she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.
—Alan Jay Lerner
Today marks the beginning of a new Reggie Series on the Language of One's Class, in which I shall explore the use of language, pronunciation, and ways of speaking that are clear identifiers of the socio-economic standing of the speaker, at least here in America. It is a subject that I have glanced upon before, in my essays When Is a Vase a Vahz? and Drapes Is a Verb, where I shared the correct pronunciation of one (vase) and the correct usage of another (drape)—at least from the perspective of this self-described Saint Grottlesex/Ivy League somewhat observant Episcopalian WASP. My goal in codifying this subject into an ongoing series for you, Dear Reader, is to share with you how one should speak if one wishes to do so in a manner that identifies one as a member of this country's educated and cultured upper classes, as opposed to from within those less refined strata struggling below.
|Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige:|
An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics
of the English Aristocracy
Reggie recognizes that considering "class" as a subject these days is a surefire means of exciting emotions—mostly negative—in certain circles because the concept is a touchy one for many people, particularly here in America. That is because we are (mistakenly) taught in this country to believe that there is no class system here, at least not in the same way that can still be found in some, more hidebound European nations, and that we Americans are all of one large, fluid "middle" class, with no "upper" or "lower" classes straddling above or below.
Reggie begs to differ.
|Jilly Cooper's Class:|
A View from Middle England
Just as Henry Higgins remarked in My Fair Lady that "an Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him," so it does in this country, too—at least to those of us who have an ear for such things. Even with the vastly leveling influence of television and radio, which have largely (and unfortunately) obliterated regional accents amongst the younger generations in this country, an American's way of speaking today still speaks volumes regarding his level of education and degree of sophistication. One need look no further than the depressing (and for Reggie grating) use of "I" in people's conversations today instead of the far preferable and more correct "me." I will never forget an exchange I witnessed on one of the Housewives of Orange County episodes (admittedly a once-guilty pleasure of mine, long since overcome) where one of the pumped up bimbos featured on that series said—several times at least—that "She gave the items to Shane and I." Heavens! Where is Anita Loos when we need her most?
|Paul Fussell's Class:|
A Guide Through the American Status System
As one considers the nuances of language and its correct use and pronunciation among the educated and cultured classes, there are three books that I wish to recommend to my readers. They are worthy and thought-provoking treatises on the class systems that existed in England and the United States in the mid- and later-twentieth century, the vestiges of which continue in (somewhat diminished) force to this day. Each book delves into and analyzes the language, vocabulary, and pronunciations that those of us "in the know" recognize as key identifiers of their speaker's class, education, and sophistication.
The first of the three books is Nancy Mitford's groundbreaking Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1956. It was the first book that codified the differences between "U" (for upper class) and "non-U" (the striving middle class) speakers, and created a firestorm of interest among literate English and northeastern Americans in the ensuing decades. The book divided the world (the English one, that is) into three classes comprised of "upper," "middle," and "lower" orders. When growing up we Darlings regularly consulted Miss Mitford's Noblesse Oblige and considered it to be the definitive resource in such matters and distinctions.
The next book is Jilly Cooper's Class: A View from Middle England, published in 1980 by Book Club Associates. This book ably and amusingly updated and expanded Miss Mitford's tome, and sliced the world into six separate classes, ranging from the "Stowcrats" at the highest, most aristocratic level, down to the "Definitely-Disgustings" at the lowest and most base level. Boy and I often read aloud from this clever book during the Christmas holidays when on an extended stay at Darlington House, with much enjoyment. Fascinating and thought-provoking, it is a jolly good read.
The third and final book is Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, published by Summit Books in 1983. In his book Mr. Fussell expands upon (and Americanizes) Miss Cooper's earlier tome, and brings a particularly sardonic wit to the subject at hand. Although somewhat dated by now, it is still wickedly funny and well worth reading. Mr. Fussell breaks down the classes into nine separate ones, with "out of sights" sitting at both the highest and the lowest levels (read the book to learn why). Of particular note is a questionnaire concerning one's living room's decoration (well, one actually prefers to refer to such a chamber as one's drawing room), where the final score supposedly indicates where one sits on the "upper class" to "mid- or low-prole" class continuum. Most amusing, indeed.
In discussing language and class, Reggie recognizes that one must maintain a sense of humor and objectivity about it, or one can dangerously (and tediously) descend into a nitpicky Hell of snobbishness, which is something to be avoided, if not abhored. While Reggie—like many in his class—aspires to speak precisely and correctly at all times, and refrains from using sloppy and lazy language and pronunciations, he is a playful fellow and occasionally will engage in silly banter that runs afoul of the rules that are ingrained in him. And that is, in his mind, more than acceptable, because the use of language is an art and not a science.
But one can only flout rules if one actually knows what they are in the first place.
To be continued . . .
All photographs by Boy Fenwick