25 OCTOBER 2003, Page 16

Thick accents

Theodore Dalrymple says that bad pronunciation is being encouraged by the middle classes to keep the poor in their place

-w henever, as happens with a frequency that makes me suspect the mechanical accuracy of my telephone, I dial a number that does not exist, a woman tells me that the number I have dialled has not been recognised.

Now in the old days — that is to say, up until about three years ago, I think it was — the lady who told me this had a cultivated and velvety voice, and she enunciated her words beautifully in received pronunciation: so beautifully, indeed, that I was tempted to redial the unrecognisable number just to listen to her all over again.

Such a situation could not be allowed to continue in thrusting, new, young, egalitarian Britain. The lady has been replaced by a mere woman, who speaks in an adenoidal voice that brings to mind the Isle of Dogs on a wet Sunday afternoon. Every time I hear her, I want to scream and smash the phone. I think I am suffering from accent rage.

Maybe I am growing paranoid, but I believe there is an attempt in this country gradually to supplant received pronunciation. For example, in a railway station of my acquaintance, the pre-recorded messages over the public address system are intoned by a man who uses received pronunciation, but who, when he pronounces the word Newcastle, uses the short rather than the long 'a', the long 'a' being what would come most naturally to him. It is as if the stationmaster is frightened that Geordies would be offended if they heard a middle-class man utter the name of the holy city, and riot accordingly.

I have noticed the same phenomenon on various wireless stations as well. It is clear that certain announcers have been told to use the short 'a', the long 'a' having unacceptable connotations of social superiority. Moreover, in railway stations that have no compunction about using as announcers incomprehensible Nigerians and Punjabis for whom English is their seventh language, the announcements giving the good news that the stations are no-smoking areas and that something nasty will happen to those who infringe this regulation is always given in what one might call exaggerated standard pronunciation, just as in Hollywood films the cultivated English voice always stands for unspeakable evil. Thus our population is being subtly indoctrinated with the idea that received pronunciation means prohibition and restriction. The glottal stop means liberty.

It seems to me unlikely, however, that the changes that have come about are the result of any welling up of an insistent or irresistible demand from below. Even the bolshiest Briton is so idle that he will not protest at received pronunciation, however much he might hate it. No: this is yet another sign of that peculiar combination of self-hatred and pusillanimity that characterises what Marxists used to call the ruling class.

Let me declare an interest. My father was born in a slum and his parents spoke such bad English that I could hardly understand it. He was a communist, but he took good care to learn to speak 'correctly'. (I thank God that he did.) To his dying day, I never heard him utter a single word in the accent of his place of birth.

He early recognised the social importance of accent in Britain, and adjusted the way he spoke. But this was not mere snobbishness on his part: he recognised as well that on the whole (no social law is absolute, of course) high culture in this country was associated with a certain accent. He was socially aspiring, but culturally aspiring also.

Things have changed since he was a child, of course. Now the only children who are taught received pronunciation as the route to social advancement are the children of Indian and West African immigrants, and those of the respectable wing of the West Indian community. When hear the children of Indian, West African or West Indian parents speak well, I almost want to cry with joy, and though by no means demonstrative by nature, I have to prevent myself from kissing them. White children have different aspirations completely these days. It is now almost impossible to distinguish, at least from the way they speak, the products of an expensive education from the alumni of the worst state delinquent-sitting services that are sometimes called schools. Not long ago I read the obituary of a pop singer — the only good pop singer being a dead pop singer — who was reported to have come from a middle-class family, hut who was so incensed by what he thought was the false gentility of his school that he forever afterwards adopted a South London accent.

This is a modern curiosity, indeed, to adopt in the name of authenticity an accent that is not naturally yours, and that must be learnt and rehearsed. Elocution lessons today are designed to disguise an embarrassingly superior social origin.

None of this would matter very much — after all, only a fool would discount what someone said solely because of the accent in which he said it, or recognise that cultivation in speech is much more than a matter of accent — if it were not of a piece with other manifestations of the very marked downward cultural aspiration in this country. I have noticed, for example, that so great is the bullying ideological pressure on the young to manifest a thoroughly plebeian taste that even highly intelligent students feel constrained to distract themselves in exactly the same way as the semi-literates of their own age. Cultural refinement is suspect precisely because it is by nature elitist; almost no one makes the important distinction between elitism and social exclusivity, which are by no means the same. The one is made to stand for the other.

When the Labour government came to power, I looked up in Who's Who the interests of members of the new Cabinet. (Of Tory philistinism I shall not speak.) Not a single one avowed anything that might loosely be described as a higher cultural interest; about three quarters of the new Cabinet claimed to be interested in football.

I am not quite sure whether it would be worse for this truly to have reflected the interests of the new Cabinet, or for it to have been a manifestation of the now almost obligatory genuflection in the direction of popular culture. Old Labour, bad as its policies were, at least had leaders among it who were cultivated men, and in that sense it was less radical and more conservative than New Labour, for all the latter's alleged enthusiasm for the market place. Of course, if we don't look out, we shall soon have the worst of both Labour worlds.

The attack on received pronunciation is only a particular instance of the relativist notion that there is no higher and lower, no better and worse, no correct and incorrect, and therefore nothing to aim at or aspire to. The world being what it is, this is a de facto conspiracy to keep the poor in their place. But conspiracies can backfire. Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows.. . .