work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

daily mail on middle class whiteness and the purity of language

10.11.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

The Daily Mail  really should come with a subtitle “The Sociologist’s Friend” – it is a spring  of examples to be used in undergraduate teaching, e.g. on race and class. Here the Mail’s Nick Harding is deeply concerned about the spread of inner city London accents into the Shires.

With her ear glued to her mobile phone, my 11-year-old daughter, Millie, was deep in conversation, her brow furrowed as she discussed some arrangement with a friend.

I listened in, as I made jam in the kitchen. ‘Lol, that’s well sick!’ Millie said. ‘DW, yolo!’

This indecipherable code-speak (‘sick’ means awesome, ‘DW’ is don’t worry and ‘yolo’ means you only live once) was delivered in an accent I could only place as somewhere between South London, downtown Los Angeles and Kingston, Jamaica.

It certainly isn’t indigenous to our home village of Ashtead, in the rolling Surrey hills.

This invasion of what the author calls “Amerifaican” (and a worse because, I assume, even blacker version: “Jafaican”), but, he tells us, academics call “Multicultural Youth English” or “Multicultural London English” troubles him. But why? He talks of “linguistic atrocities” and a “random hotchpotch”. It seems to be a matter of aesthetics. So that means it’s about class. Well, it is in this case. For one, there is an open acknowledgement that accents are relevant in the labour market and the fear that speaking like a black London kid will lead to declassement.

“It is not just snobbery about accents which is stoking parental concerns. Diction has a direct bearing on how speakers are perceived, especially in the job market”

Note how the open admission of racial and class discrimination in the labour market is taken as an unproblematic fact. It only becomes problematic when the middle-class White English person confuses matters by not speaking “posh”, sorry: “received pronunciation”. This is textbook Bourdieu: class boundaries are maintained by the internalisation of a habitus that comprises all aspects of comportment including ways of walking, ways of talking etc. A middle class taste to go with this also includes a preference for visiting museums in the cultural capitals of the world. But what will the neighbours say?

Her new language, comprising alien words and abbreviations delivered with faux West Coast American inflections, will not stand her in good stead when she embarks on a school trip to visit museums in Berlin.

Now, Berlin has changed a little since Lord Rothermere last stayed at the Hotel Adlon. It is a bit like London actually, inclusive a metropolitan multicultural idiom known under the name of “KanakSprak”. So in all likelihood Nick Harding’s daughter will, in case she comes in contact with the locals, come across as doubly cool. One because she’s British, and two because she’s urban (yes, that’s sort of culturally “Black” in the way David Starkey meant it…).

“Kanak Sprak” is, actually, an interesting case: In Germany there are the same fears about loss of purity, messed-up grammar and style. Of particular concern, however, is the loss of inflection in verbs, articles and nouns due to the mixture of languages (the main ingredients: German, Turkish and some Slavic languages are all highly inflected). Surely a language needs inflections – the more the better. Hold on. What now counts as “good” English (which, I hope, I am using right now) has undergone this very process centuries ago when Anglo-Saxon was infused first with Danish and then French. Learning English is by no means easy, but the one thing the learner does not have to worry about is inflections – just an “s” at the end of third-person verbs, that’s all. That English still is one of the main languages in world literature shows that the beauty and power of a language is not a property of its grammatical awkwardness and the number of redundant features. The (in comparison to France and Germany) relative absence of the nationalistic penchant for purity may have allowed for inflections to go out of the window, but it has also opened the door for new words which resulted in the richest and most nuanced vocabulary. Multicultural London English has been a major contributor to this refinement of English over the centuries. It is the conservationists that do most harm to language as in an attempt to maintain its utility for race and class segregation they curtail its organic growth as a means of expression and communication.

As Nick Harding professes he’d much rather see fluency in a proper foreign language like French or German, here’s a quote from the great Austrian literary critic Karl Kraus’ Die Sprache

Die Sprachreiniger sind in Wahrheit nur das, was sie auch außerhalb ihrer Funktion sind: Sprachpeiniger

Or just take it from Stephen Fry


One Response to “daily mail on middle class whiteness and the purity of language”

  1. That’ll be good for Thursdays session on the lived experience class. Sociologists friend, indeed.

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