Some notes by a recent American visitor to England have been doing the rounds on the Internet. Generally positive, he nonetheless has certain reservations about aspects of British life, such as the inexplicable lack of mixer taps — a problem about which Mrs. Blether has also been known to put in her tuppence worth.
More to the point, he also expresses surprise that the British are "defined" by their accents. Perhaps that last one is so obvious that it passes many of us by unnoticed, but egalitarian America provides a good example that the dominant reality need not be so (indeed, among the same racial groups at least, America's accents often differ so little, and so overwhelmingly from place to place rather than from class to class, that, where they exist, they are popularly referred to as "dialects"). Closer to home, in Germany, by an historical quirk the question of whether one has a "mild" or "strong" accent often has more to do with whether one lives in the north or south of the country than with class per se. Meanwhile, people from Norway generally speak their regional dialect all of the time. Indeed, much to the surprise of those from outside Scandinavia, they continue to do so even when they go to Sweden or Denmark.
Perhaps the most extreme examples of speech defining class in the UK are found in Scotland, where, under the pressure of Anglicisation, previously homogeneous Scots dialects have split into the distinct varieties of Scottish Standard English and Scots-influenced working-class vernacular. However, England too is subject to the great divide. Although very few people actually speak RP, how closely their speech approximates to the variety is a very good indicator of class. RP itself ("Received Pronunciation") is so called because it does not hail from a particular region. Rather it grew out of the vernacular of various key cities of yesteryear (all of them, broadly speaking, in the southern part of England) and is perpetuated by a complex life-support system of private schools, Oxbridge, and, one might argue, broadcasting. Its status as a "standard" variety is controversial, since it may be spoken by only 1% to 3% of the UK population.
The trouble with RP is its unparalleled prestige and, therefore, the fact that those who speak it — whose parents, let's not forget, had the spare income to school them privately — are wont to be favoured undeservedly. RP is associated with intelligence and high-level learning, which they may or may not have, and money and confidence, which they usually do. If we want a fairer society, there are steps that we can take to do away with it.
- Stop treating private schools as charities and start treating them as businesses for tax purposes.
- Since the privately educated get better grades at school but then go on to do worse than state pupils with similar grades at university, factor that in when offering places.
- Cap the proportion of privately educated pupils at any given university (don't stop them going; just stop artificially sending them all to the same place).
- Federalise the BBC. If RP is the standard language of the south of England, why should the rest of the UK have to listen to it?
- Redistribute wealth to the poor.
- Abolish the House of Lords.
- Abolish the Monarchy.
- Encourage regional varieties, regional theatre, regional broadcasting, and above all regional democracy.