How To Pronounce It – U and non-U. A guide for George “innit” Osborne.

28 March 2013

Sometimes, in the joyous lotteries we call ‘secondhand bookshops’, you find a volume that takes you back to a different era because of its physical appearance. Sometimes you find one that adds to the effect by its content – a book about Victorian cricket, perhaps, or 1950s industrial policy. But sometimes you find one that goes beyond even that: it shows you a world where books mattered in a way they simply can’t today, and indeed never will again. That’s what happened to me recently, when I bumped into a copy of the sublimely archaic How To Pronounce It by Alan S.C. Ross.

Published in 1970, it has a dust-jacket whose shades of green, blue and grey evoke the cardigans of Open University presenters from the time. The price is printed as ‘1.50 net/30s net’, showing that the publishers’ confidence that it would still be selling after 1971’s shift to decimal currency. The back flap contains a biography of the curiously-initialled Mr Ross (‘Strode Campbell’, apparently – he was descended from Robert the Bruce). ‘His writings,’ we’re told, ‘include such learned works as The Numeral Signs of the Mohenjo-davo Script,’ at which point we assume the book is a spoof. It isn’t. He found fame ‘as a result of a paper delivered to a Finnish philological society in which he originated the terms “U and non-U”’. Yes, he was the man who gave Nancy Mitford the idea for her legendary work on social etiquette. Professor Ross, in other words, is a member of that legendary British tribe, the pedantic snob.

Which is why he wrote a book telling the rest of us how to speak. It took me quite a while to be sure that the book isn’t a spoof after all. ‘Gone’, we’re told, should rhyme with ‘born’, NOT with ‘on’. ‘Lather’ must be pronounced to rhyme with ‘gather’, and NOT (Ross’s capitals) with ‘father’. ‘This second, non-U pronunciation,’ he fumes, ‘is almost universal in the television advertisements for soap powders’. Those beastly modern entertainment people. It is acceptable (though not compulsory) to rhyme the last two syllables of ‘Alabama’ with ‘calmer’ rather than ‘hammer’. Some entries unwittingly show the great flaw in Ross’s thesis, namely that pronunciation has always been and will always be subjective, across both time and geography. ‘Coffee’ should (as you would expect) rhyme with ‘toffee’; pronouncing the first syllable as in ‘wharf’ was at one time U, but ‘is to-day only American’. (That’s Ross’s hyphen in ‘today’, incidentally. I wouldn’t dare take it out, even though he’s been dead for 32 years.) ‘Golf’ should have a silent ‘l’, so that it rhymes with ‘scoff’. You can keep the ‘l’, but only if you make the first syllable rhyme with that of ‘dolphin’, not that of ‘soulful’. To test the difference between the two I’ve said ‘soulful dolphin’ so often it now sounds like the name of a band.

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I’d recommend the book as something funny to keep in the loo, but please for God’s sake no one tell Simon Heffer about it or he’ll do a sequel. The reason it’s so amusing in 2013, yet seemed so sensible in 1970, is that back then if you set something down in a book you set it in stone. Books were written by clever people who knew things, and what’s more had lots of initials to remind you that they knew things. They legislated on language for the rest of us, piteous little oiks that we were. There was right and there was wrong, and woe betide you if you didn’t know the difference. Today, on the other hand, social media is inventing new words faster than even an e-book could cope with, never mind a conventional one. The very word ‘book’ itself, for example – for a while it became Young Persons’ slang for ‘cool’, simply because that’s how predictive text rendered it. It probably isn’t any more, of course. It’s probably no longer cool to say book for cool. Or even to say cool full stop.

So the snobbish tyrannies still exist. They always will, it’s human nature. But what we won’t get any more is someone charging us 30 shillings, or even £1.50, to instruct us which of those tyrannies we should obey. Even someone whose ‘principal recreation is croquet which he plays with his wife at tournaments throughout the country’.

This article was written before George Osborne’s Eliza Doolittle-style foray into the world of class, language and glottal stops. Details here.

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Show comments
  • Matthew Woods

    During the US Election, I heard Polly Toynbee, doyenne of the workers, refer to Mitt “Rumney”, a pitch-perfect U-pronunciation according to Debrett’s!

  • highlandjock

    “I’d recommend the book as something funny to keep in the loo”
    Only with a hole punched in the corner of each page, with string through it.

  • Atreyu

    The greatest tyrannies are those that are self-imposed anyway. Phenomenal post.

  • Ted Marr

    It might have been helpful, in this article, to mention that Professor Ross’s now famous lecture/article appeared in 1954, and that Nancy Mitford’s essay, “The English Aristocracy”, was published the same year. Or does Mark Mason think that 1970 is so inconceivably long ago that it’s all the same thing, and that the “sublimely archaic” book that he found was in some way a precursor of Nancy Mitford’s “legendary work on social etiquette”? In fact when I first heard about “U and non-U” when I was at school in 1970, it seemed already to be an astonishingly ancient concept.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I think you ignore the fact that the way a person speaks is important because we judge him or her by it. You may not like it, but it is true. Of course the norms change. Nobody says ‘goff” now. But if a young person goes for a job speaking, say, ‘Jafaican’, the the young person won’t get the job unless it involves pushing drugs. You can pretend this is not so, because you don’t like it, but, alas, it is. And someone going for a job in the South of England speaking broad Glaswegian won’t get it for the very good and unsnobbish reason that no-one will understand a word he, or she, says

    • Atreyu

      Agreed; I am increasingly finding that RP is now frowned upon in some circles, however. It was certainly detrimental to my job seeking efforts back in 2011 when I was deemed “too posh” by some interviewers. Sad but true.

      • Fergus Pickering

        But you wouldn’t want to work for savages like that.

    • highlandjock

      There is a very good book entitled “Parliamo Glesca” to help Southerners translate.
      Who outside Essex and London can understand the Estuary English of the South?

      • Fergus Pickering

        Everybody, sport. Everybody except you.

        • highlandjock

          Glottal stops are not attractive anywhere.

  • David Lindsay

    The Wikpedia entry on U and non-U sometimes comes up as a page referring people to my website, but I have no idea why. Judge for yourselves –

  • mahood

    Surely, surely, social media are inventing new words quickly.

  • plmac

    Nancy is on the right in that picture.

  • In2minds

    “something funny to keep in the loo” – Do you mean lavatory?

    • Trofim

      I think he means the bog.

      • Daniel Maris

        I think he means the shithouse.

    • David Lindsay

      “Lavatory” is as much a euphemism as “t****t”. The correct word is “loo”.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Naw. The correct word is shitehouse a very old word.

  • Shorne

    I’m reminded of an Irish friend of mine complaining about English Catholics saying they were going to “Marrse”

  • Daniel Maris

    How is “How To Pronounce It” pronounced where you live? Living in London there are lots of variations but “Ow a puhnarns i’ ” is pretty common.

    We may mock the 50s fashions but we still have standards we aspire to.

    BTW, does Cameron suffer from the disappearing consonant? I think he’s got bad teeth or something…he seems to keep his teeth hidden and his lips seem to smack together so he ends up pronouncing the consonants rather indistinctly.

    • Trofim

      You’re talking about glottalized consonants, aren’t you?

      • Daniel Maris

        Is that the technical term?

  • Zoe

    ‘How To Pronounce It’ obviously not found at The Idler Academy’s 2nd hand bookshop, as their proprietor, Tom Hodgkinson, would surely have found a tutor and created a new course!

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