Monday, March 28, 2011

The Language of One's Class

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


  1. I am sure you are aware f the section in the Emily Post's "Etiquette" titled: Words,Phrases, and Pronunciation. It is approximately 14 pages of the form and substance you describe in this post. Perhaps a good place for anyone to start. I look forward to the rest of your series on this topic.

  2. Reggie, Absolutely Delightful.

    Always, Bumby

  3. "Reggie is rather a stickler when it comes to language and the correct use and pronunciation of it...."

    I dated a woman in Richmond Va. whose mother became unglued upon hearing "woman"...she demanded "lady"..."tomato"...she insisted on "tumahto"..."couch" "drape" ...was a verb and "sofa" and "curtain" were musts. I tried with regularity to use the white trash choices whenever possible.

    "butcept"... "shut up"..."allsiest" and "leastways" are inextricably part of my redneck vernacular. Thanks for reminding me of my place!

    Your country bumkin pal inside the Beltway,


  4. MLS: Thank you, I shall consult Miss Post this weekend, when I return to Darlington House where we keep (a rather elderly) copy of her book. If I recall correctly, she is a great proponent of pithy, Anglo-Saxon plain speaking, as I am.

    Bumby: Thank you.

    ADG: Reggie has a sense of humor about all this, and enjoys playing with people who take such things too seriously, as you do. For all intensive purposes, that is...

  5. Mr. Darling, The copy of "Etiquette" I have on hand is Copyright 1940. I believe the first edition was 1922. I purchased mine for $ 1.00 at a Church fair book table several years ago and have always delighted at the chance to stick it under my children's noses to prove a point about certain behaviors I was correcting or critiquing at home.
    Which edition resides a Darlington? I am curious if the same chapter on language and usage is in an older or newer version.

  6. MLS: I bought my copy of Miss Post's book years ago at a library sale near Darlington House, and I recall it was no more than a dollar, like yours. I suspect my edition may be from around the same time as yours. I shall look at it when I return to DH and see if that is, indeed, the case.

  7. Oh Reggie,

    New books for me to read! The book Noblesse Oblige must be available at the Library.
    Julian Fellowes is one of my favourite writers of books and screenplays. Perhaps you are familiar with his work?

    I am hanging in the wings...appetite wetted, awaiting an education on the language of the elite and educated.
    You never disappoint...

    The Humble Hostess

    P.S. I too once dallied in the trashy TV lives of the Housewives of Orange County.

  8. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Each time I hear or see the words "Noblesse Oblige", I can't help but chuckle and think of the character Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, played by the excellent Penelope Keith, in the television series "To The Manor Born". Most amusing.

  9. Surely when you write "Each are worthy and thought-provoking treatises..." you meant to say each is a worthy and thought provoking treastise. Each is singular.

  10. I think you are right on the money here. A needed post these days. One need not be snobbish to be correct and proper. It is a shame that schools have scaled back on their teaching of grammar, etiquette and civics. Bring them all back!!

  11. Oh yes. Clearly. Definitively. Unfortunately:).

  12. Funny you should mention Paul Fussell's "Living Room Scale"! I just posted it a few weeks ago.

  13. I was called "impertinent" and "impudent" and "insubordinate," and soldiered countless trips to my room, for questioning my parents on their ulterior motive behind all those lessons in making sure I was never mistaken for a peasant. To this day I'm conflicted on the whole thing, mind you I know exactly when I sense that inner shudder we were brought up to feel, the sure signal that I'm in the company of the branded. For all my impertinence, I learned the rules nevertheless. But it troubles me that I know them. I can't throw the suspicion that there's an enormous amount of fear underneath these imperatives. Help me understand this better, Reggie.

    Conflicted in Florida

  14. That I vs me confusion really does let one know how undereducation one might be. Of course it isnt even close to funny when I see how many teacher bloggers have no idea when to use each one.

    Thank you for the reading list!

    Flo - what's wrong with knowing the rules?

  15. Of course, Lerner's line ought to have said 'hanged', since 'hung' and 'hanged' have entirely different etymologies. How playful of the poet!

    In England, class often centres around the letter 'h'. To that end, and pace 'hostess of the humble bungalow', my appetite is also whetted.


  16. Dear Reggie, great post! The Jilly Cooper book I have owned since it came out and it never fails to make me smile.

    I have the same copy of Noblesse Oblige but mine is tattier than yours xx

  17. Oh dear, I am at a loss for words...although I think Anonymous is right on the grammar and wrong on the spelling psst...treatise!

  18. Hostess: One adores Julian Fellowes, and is so pleased that he has gone from one success to another, and has ascended to the peerage, too!

    LizaE: Reggie adored "To the Manor Born" and hadn't thought of it in years, thank you for reminding me of it!

    Anon 11:19: Thank you for the correction, which I have made. You are absolutely right! Reggie, unlike some people he knows, appreciates it when he is corrected, for he acknowledges his imperfections. He doesn't understand at all why others sometimes don't respond positively when he corrects their errors of speech, deportment, or manners.

    Stephanie: Thank you, and agreed!

  19. LPC: Absolutely!

    Pigtown-Design: Thank you for the link, I see that you did post the LR questionnaire on your blog--I don't know how I missed it! So amusing.

    Dear Conflicted Flo: I don't see it that way, actually. My parents taught me and my siblings to speak grammatically and in a (mostly) un-accented manner when we were growing up so that our horizons and opportunities would not be limited or constrained by the way we spoke. There is nothing wrong in speaking like a "peasant", as you write, but if one only knows how to speak like one it means that one will never have the opportunity to be anything else. Eliza Doolittle was limited to being a flower girl only for so long as she continued to speak like one.

    Suburban Princess: The "I" vs. "me" mix up drives Reggie crazy!

    vir beătum: Yes, isn't it amusing? It took Reggie years to figure out the double joke in "hung" vs. the more correct "hanged" in that witty ditty.

  20. Christina: Why is Reggie not surprised that you own both of these books? Don't you adore Osbert Lancaster's illustrations in Noblesse Oblige?

    Lindaraxa: Thank you! Reggie has since corrected the errors in his essay that Anonymous called to his attention. I believe it is correct as currently written.

  21. I look forward to your posts on this topic, Reggie. I'm particularly hopeful that the word gift will be reinstated as a noun, allowing the word give and its conjugations to continue as verbs!

  22. Is "I" vs. "me" is, as I was taught, dependent on which pronoun would be correct if you were speaking only as yourself? E.g., she gave the object to me and my friend (because you would not say "she gave the object to I"), vs. my friend and I gave her the object (because you would not say "me gave her the object"). I'm sure you plan to elaborate on this in your further posts on the subject, but I would be just horrified if I've been taught incorrectly!

  23. I say "vase." I say "couch." I prefer "draperies" to "drapes," but that's just me.

    These days, alas, I am constantly coaching my children that "like" is a verb, not an interjection. If I can get that far with them, I will declare victory.

  24. "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..."

    But why in the world would anyone wish to identify himself that way?

    Reggie, I am shocked, SHOCKED, to learn that you're even aware of Bravo's Real Housewives, much less a regular viewer. I've witnessed that "Shane and I" mistake being made by each and every Housewife on Bravo, no matter the franchise. But Bravo has got nothing on those "reality show" kids from MTV. Over there they've taken the "and I" thing one step further by making the "I" possessive. Several times I've heard the oversexed kiddies say things like, "Brad and I's relationship is very complicated." Nails on a chalkboard.

    Looking forward to your first installment on the language of class...even though I don't have any myself...and even though I absolutely ADORE slang and the ridiculous fluidity of American English. And whatnot.

  25. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Would you be so kind as to an installment regarding your thoughts upon proper dress for a gentleman? Your excellent breeding is quite apparent, sir.

    Thank you,

  26. Your review of Noblesse Oblige brought to mind Ogden Nash's devastatingly witty rebuttal. When Nancy Mitford condescendingly refers to "our American cousins", Nash addresses his "Ms. Found under a Serviette in a Lovely Home" to "Dear Cousin Nancy".

  27. Oh local library does not have Oblesse Oblige and I am distressed...especially after googling the online booksellers and discovering how incredibly dear the book is...over $100 Canadian and climbing.

    I am off to shop ebay, wish me luck!

  28. Reggie,
    Spring Break is allowing me time to catch up on my favorite blobs. I'm so glad I did not miss this one. For several years I have heard people speak of the "real housewives" only to discover them last night. My mother and I watched as we watched Vegas show girls pretend to play house. As an educator, I realize my students have no idea their language quickly allows them to be identified as member of a certain class. Thank you for this meaningful post. Please allow me to share it with my students.

  29. Recovering_BumpkinApril 5, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    Reggie, the reason many people don't like to be corrected is because of an inner fear that they are dumb and uncultured. I find myself falling into this problem quite often. I surely must harbor an inner fear that I haven't been able to fully shake off the rural midwestern dialect which I've always wanted to shed. Although I abhor the idea of being thought of as a bumpkin, I sometimes lash out at those who try to correct me. I'm self-aware regarding this condition, but that doesn't stop me from consistently doing it.

  30. Reggie,

    I am surprised at you. I would think you'd know that it is 'rude' to correct someone unless they are paying you to do so.

    I have been a Protocol/Etiquette expert for over 20 years. I would not dream of 'correcting' someone's speech or manners unless they were paying me. It's rude and 'not done'.

    1. Dear Anon:
      Thank you for your starchy comment. I reread my post here, which I wrote long ago, and cannot find anything in it (admittedly I reread it quickly) that said I go around rudely correcting people's use of language, at least to their faces. However, I have decided views on such topic, and use and will continue to use this blog as a vehicle for sharing them. Noone is forced to read what I write here. As far as your statement that one should only correct someone when money is exchanged for such purpose, I respectfully disagree. A parent doesn't charge a child for such instruction, nor, in my view, should a friend or acquaintance. I am not suggesting that one should run around rudely calling out strangers in such matters. Personally, and as I have written elsewhere in this blog, I appreciate it when people (politely) point out to me that I have used a word incorrectly, or my grammar is not correct. I treat such instruction as a learning experience, and an opportunity to reconsider, and thus correct, my blundering. And you can rest assured that when I do correct someone's misuse of language or grammar, I do so respectfully and with tact. Finally, and with all due respect, I am surprised that a person with your supposed expertise would post such a comment anonymously, as it is my belief that one trained in manners and etiquette should know that one never criticizes another under the convenient veil of anonymity. Reggie takes ownership on a named basis the views he shares on this blog and on others' when commenting, and believes that all well-mannered people should do so, too. He wouldn't dream of calling someone out, as you have done here, without signing his name to it. Respectfully yours, Reggie


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