Britain's snobby accent has a cruel, harsh tone


November 17, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Nearly everyone knows how sensitive the English are to the way people speak.

This was understood long before George Bernard Shaw wrote "Pygmalion," the play which, when transmuted into the musical "My Fair Lady," taught those who didn't already know it's not what is said that matters so much as how it is said.

The idea is familiar in the United States, though it is not so divisive there as it is here. Which is not to say Americans aren't susceptible to linguistic snobbery.

Every shrewd American advertising man knows that if you want to sell a product that has pretentions to quality, hire somebody with an English public school accent to talk about it.

(English public schools, of course, are not public at all in the American sense. In fact they are private, and very expensive. They are attended by youngsters who all come out speaking the same way, even if they didn't go in that way.)

The English themselves know how easily some Americans can be gulled by such an accent. The man who wrote this letter to the Times certainly does:

"Sir: Living and practicing law in Los Angeles as a British expatriate has many advantages. For a start, one's accent is much admired and lends credibility to the most flimsy of arguments . . . ."

In Britain the effect can be more serious.

Consider Neil Kinnock. Mr. Kinnock is the former leader of the Labor Party who, despite bringing about a remarkable rehabilitation of his party, a labor of nine years, failed to win the government in April's elections. As a consequence, he lost the leadership.

Mr. Kinnock is Welsh, and though no one of great influence here has stated flatly that he lost his quest for the premiership because of that, some have hinted at it.

There have been Welsh prime ministers before, such as David Lloyd George, and currently there are at least two Welshmen in the Cabinet. But one can say with certainty that being Welsh did not help Mr. Kinnock. Perhaps he talked too much; perhaps it was how he talked.

In England, which is a stew of accents, the Welsh accent is not greatly respected. As the Economist put it recently, in England "every accent conveys status and the status accorded the Welsh accent is low."

(Actually, the Economist is a magazine which speaks with a public school accent, which is probably why it is so popular among those who consider themselves among the political and intellectual elite in the United States, where it is more popular than it is here. Also, it was the Economist that judged that Mr. Kinnock's accent lost him votes in April.)

In fact the Welsh accent hovers on the English barometer of esteem somewhere probably a point or so above the Irish accent, which is truly low.

But the Irish have an advantage over their Celtic cousins in Wales: They have their own country to repair to when they feel the cold breath of exclusion and unaffection blowing on them from English throats.

The Welsh can retreat to Wales, and do, but it is such a pleasant place many English people have followed them there. This has caused friction.

In fact, it has reignited the anger of the dread Meibion Glyndwr, a clandestine band of extremist Welsh nationalists who want the English to remove themselves from Wales. Or else.

MG -- which has a penchant for firebombing English-owned vacation houses in Wales and the offices of real estate agents who sell them -- recently sent two letters to the authorities demanding the departure from Wales of 13 English people. The extremists stridently described them as "racist colonists." (Naturally enough, police withheld the names of those threatened.)

MG insisted that these 13 English get out or face the Molotovs, adding with typical guerrilla-speak hysteria: "We must cut the cancer of the Englishmen out."

Thus, the national liberation struggle hardly anybody ever notices heats up. "The military council of MG," screamed one of the notes, "have ordered their cells to restart hitting the colonists."

It's hard to know what to say in response to that, or whether it would make any difference how it was said.

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