Over 60 years ago, Professor Alan Ross published his paper ‘Linguistic Class Indicators in Present-Day English’ in which he described how the British upper class distinguished themselves from others principally by the language they used. He referred to their use of language as U, as opposed to the non-U language of everyone else. The novelist Nancy Mitford publicised his findings in an article on ‘The English Aristocracy’ published in ‘Encounter’ in 1955.
Speech is still a class indicator, including the written speech found in social media. Nonstandard speech is associated with the working class, although those who complain about it might be surprised if they examined their own speech carefully. As the authors of ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’ have written, ‘the speech of most people is, at least in some respects, variable, combining, for example, both standard and non-standard sounds, words or grammatical structures.’
There is a certain levelling of accents in the UK today, but nonstandard grammar and vocabulary are still stigmatised by those who aspire to, or believe they already hold, a superior social position. Language, however, is not the only manifestation of social difference. Do you buy your clothes from Boden, Primark, John Lewis or Marks and Spencer? What brands do you favour? Tommy Hilfiger, Barbour, Fatface, Burberry or a store’s own brand? Which supermarket do you frequent? Asda, Lidl, Morrisons, Tesco or Waitrose? Where do you go on holiday? South America, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Spain or Torquay? If you listen to the radio, is it BBC 1, 2, 3 or 4, or is it a local station or LBC? Do you watch BBC television or commercial and satellite channels? Choices such as these tell the rest of the world something of the sort of person you are, and, in particular, what your socio-economic status is.
The British class structure is replicated in our honours system. Here, taking the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire as an example, is the hierarchy from top to bottom, with an approximate description, not entirely serious, of the class of those who receive them:
British Empire Medal – working class
Member of the Order of the British Empire – lower middle class
Officer of the Order of the British Empire – middle middle class
Commander of the Order of the British Empire – upper middle class
Knight of the Order of the British Empire – upper middle to upper class
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire – well on their way
English literature has made good use of the class structure. Shakespeare’s plays are mostly about the well-to-do, the lower orders merely provide the comic relief. Jane Austen’s novels are shot through with it. Anthony Powell’s twentieth century saga ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ features almost entirely the upper class and the aristocracy, including the lady who would not speak to anyone below Cabinet rank.
Thackeray actually wrote a ‘Book of Snobs’, and the snobbery which the class structure produces probably deserves a post of its own. Petty snobs like Hyacinth Bucket in the TV series ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ are amusing and have some basis in truth, but for serious snobs we have to look to the likes of James Lees-Milne, who preferred ‘the company of stupid, well-bred people to that of intelligent, common people’, Brian Sewell, who thought Ikea was ‘the refuge of those who have no taste and lack the courage to admit it’ and Auberon Waugh:
What depresses me about this country is the way more and more money is being given to the working classes to spend on their unpleasant enthusiasms, such as transistor radios, sweets, caravans, frozen food, plastic flowers, souvenir spoons from dreadful places, which can only make England a nastier country.
John Major, on becoming British Prime Minister in 1990, spoke of his aspiration for a classless Britain. Whatever he meant by that, Britain remains, if not as classless as ever, at least a society where class differences remain a source of pride, anger and humour.