Alan S.C. Ross: Linguistic Class Indicators In The Present Day (1954)

Alan S.C. Ross's "Linguistic Class Indicators In Present Day English", 2007 reprint

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.

George Bernard Shaw, introduction to Pygmalion (1913)

Alan Ross was Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University when he published this paper in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, the journal of the Modern Language Society of Helsinki, although The Dictionary of National Biography tells us he started writing it as “an undergraduate amusement at Oxford”. So it had simmered on his back-burner for a quarter-century or so before it finally saw the light of day. (One can imagine Ross, now academically senior and secure, deciding it would be a bit of a lark, and could now do him no harm, to place his “undergraduate amusement” in a learned journal.)

This is the paper that gave the world (or at least a select English-speaking part of it) the idea of “U” and “non-U” usage—patterns in speech and writing which (Ross suggested) distinguish the language of the English upper class from that of the aspiring middle class.

In this article I use the terms upper class (abbreviated : U), correct, proper, legitimate, appropriate (sometimes also possible) and similar expressions (including some containing the word should) to designate usages of the upper class; their antonyms (non-U, incorrect, not proper, not legitimate, etc.) to designate usages which are not upper class.

The paper would probably have fallen into obscurity had it not been read by Nancy Mitford, who referred to it in an article entitled “The English Aristocracy”, published in Encounter magazine (1955). This was sufficiently well-received that Mitford went on to edit Noblesse Oblige: An Enquiry Into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy (1956), which contained her original essay and a condensed version of Ross’s paper, together with contributions from Evelyn Waugh, Peter Fleming, Christopher Sykes and a poem (“How To Get On In Society”) by John Betjeman.

And so Ross’s distinction between “U” and “non-U” became the 1950s version of an internet meme—it was a topic for excited and amusing conversation, to which people could make their own contributions, and which gave those in the know a sense of “in-crowd” satisfaction. This led to Ross’s original paper becoming “famous by repute but paradoxically little-known”, to quote from Clive Upton’s introductory comments, written when the paper was reprinted by Neuphilologische Mitteilungen in 2007.

So I thought I’d take a look at it.

Ross gives his reason for studying the difference between U and non-U usage as follows:

It is solely by its language that the [English] upper class is clearly marked off from the others. In times past (e. g. in the Victorian and Edwardian periods) this was not the case. But, to-day, a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner or richer than someone not of this class.

He then admits that there are some minor differences in manners and interests between the upper class and the others—his list includes “an aversion to high tea” and “not playing tennis in braces”. It’s at this point one begins to suspect that Ross may not be entirely serious. This is confirmed when he goes on:

Again, when drunk, gentlemen often become amorous or maudlin or vomit in public, but they never become truculent.

Truculence, I deduce, would be the mark of a cad. Or perhaps a bounder.

Ross presents his linguistic analysis in two sections. The first is “The Written Language”, which deals with how people address envelopes and postcards, and the forms of salutations and letter-endings. This really does little to contrast U and non-U usages—it’s merely a list of ways of doing things that are considered “correct”, easy mastery of which Ross identifies as a U domain. So, for instance:

Modes of address, particularly those used for the nobility, have always been a bugbear to the non-U. It is, for instance, non-U to speak of an earl as The Earl of P—; he should be spoken of and to as Lord P— and also so addressed at the beginning of a letter if an introduction between him and speaker/writer has been effected.

Many of these rules of etiquette in writing are still around; some are now gone, but familiar to me from my schooldays, like:

Letter-endings. The U rules for ending letters are very strict; failure to observe them usually implies non-U-ness, sometimes only youth. In general, the endings of letters are conditioned by their beginnings. Thus a beginning (Dear) Sir requires the ending Yours faithfully […]

Well, duh. Miss Macpherson, my fearsome primary-school teacher, got that one well drummed into this (very non-U) youth before I turned twelve.

The section ends with a dissection of the advice given by R.W. Chapman in Names, Designations and Appellations (1936*), published by the Society for Pure English, no less. In general, Ross thinks that Chapman’s reflections were dated, even for their time of writing. To Chapman’s discussion of the use of surnames, Ross adds an observation about U schoolchildren addressing each other by their surnames only (as in the “Jennings and Darbishire” books by Anthony Buckeridge):

It is not until a boy gets older (c. 16?) that he realises that he must deliberately ascertain his friends’ Christian names in order to be able to refer to them correctly to their parents. At Oxford in the late twenties the use of the surname in these circumstances was a known gaucherie and must therefore have been fairly usual.

I also rather relish Ross’s personal anecdote on the use of the suffix “Esq.” (“Esquire”), which in Ross’s day was a standard way of addressing a letter to a gentleman.

Knowledge of at least one initial of the recipient’s name is, of course, a prerequisite for addressing him with Esq. If the writer has not this minimum knowledge (and cannot, or is too lazy to obtain it) he will be in a quandary. In these circumstances I myself use the Greek letter θ (as θ. Smith, Esq.) but this is probably idiosyncratic.

I think it may well be, Professor Ross.

Section Two, “The Spoken Language”, begins with pronunciation. This section is a bit difficult to follow for a modern reader, because Ross’s phonetic notation predates the standard International Phonetic Alphabet. But, among other things, we learn that U-speakers say “temprilly” rather than “temporarily”; drop the letter l from “golf” and “Ralph” (“goff” and “Rafe”); and pronounce “tyre” and “tar” the same way (“taa”). “Either” pronounced with the first syllable sounding like “eye” is U; first syllable “ee” is non-U.

Ross then asks, rhetorically, if it is possible for a non-U speaker to become a U-speaker. He concludes that there is only one way:

This is to send him first to a preparatory school, then to a good boarding school. This is a method that has been approved for more than a century and, at the moment, it is almost completely effective.

Good to know.

It’s not until we get to Part 6 of Section 2 that we reach the bit for which Ross is now remembered, and around which most of the U/non-U excitement took place in the 1950s—U and non-U vocabulary and phrasing, arranged in an itemized list. So we’re told that “They’ve a lovely home” is non-U; “They’ve a very nice house” is U. Non-U people call the lowest-ranking face-card the “jack”; the U equivalent is “knave”. “Serviette” is non-U; “table-napkin” is U. And then there’s this:

Coach. ‘char-a-banc’ is non-U, doubtless because the thing itself is. Those U-speakers who are forced, by penury, to use them call them buses, thereby causing great confusion (a coach runs into the country, a bus within the town).

Finally, and to me unexpectedly, Ross addresses the issue of ephemerality—the fact that what’s U for speakers in the 1950s was not so in the 1850s or 1750s. To make his point, he quotes extensively from relevant sections of John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791). His conclusion is:

The ephemeral nature of our present system of linguistic class-indicators is very clear from the above citations from Walker. Nearly all the points mentioned by him—only one hundred and sixty years ago—are now “dead” and without class-significance, in that one of the pronunciations given is to-day no longer known in any kind of English save dialect. […] In three cases of double pronunciations, to-day’s U alternative is chosen by Walker as the non-U one.

Which is refreshing—Ross is too much of a linguist to believe “that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature” (to quote George Bernard Shaw again).

So this is, in essence, a glimpse of the language spoken by the English aristocracy in the mid-twentieth century, and the shibboleths they used to identify an out-group by which they undoubtedly felt somewhat threatened. And Ross is certainly an entertaining guide.

I haven’t been able to find a version of Ross’s original paper that doesn’t require either an academic institution log-in, or signing up to some document server service. You can, however, read the condensed version that appeared in Noblesse Oblige here. He went on to write a series of popular books on English usage and pronunciation: What Are U? (1969), How To Pronounce It (1970) and Don’t Say It! (1973). I haven’t read any of these, but if I get around to it, I’ll report back.

* Ross’s article misprints this date as “1946”

8 thoughts on “Alan S.C. Ross: Linguistic Class Indicators In The Present Day (1954)”

  1. Ahh yes, language, humor; and, language humour.
    And then there’s that fraction of language humour left languishing in the shadowed halls of academia.

    1. And it’s difficult to know, at this remove, how much of Ross’s article is deliberately humorous, and how much is merely retrospectively amusing because it reflects concerns of the time (like the approved way to use “Esq.”) which don’t trouble us much any more.

  2. I saw an amusing short subject on Youtube and immediately thought of you sir.

    It seems an inordinate amount of Scotsmen can’t pronounce the phrase “Purple Burglar Alarm”. At least with any rapidity.

    (This makes be wonder how they would fair with “Rubber baby buggy bumpers”)

    Personally my foil has always been “She sells seashells by the sea shore”.

    At least now I have an effective sheboleth in the unlikely event I ever go to war with Scorland…

  3. YouTube certainly seems to have an inordinate number of videos of Scots folk making a disproportionate meal of the phrase, along with more dubious things like “generally” and “ibuprofen”—I suspect these latter are just Scottish people having a laugh, rather than reporting a real problem.
    “Purple burglar alarm” is a bit of a tongue-twister for anyone who (like the Scots) pronounces their r’s—if you do that, you have to flick your tongue back and forth between various points of articulation to navigate your way through those consonant clusters. Whereas those with a non-rhotic accent manage to get through the phrase with four fewer tongue movements.

  4. Sorry about that Doc. I saw the single vid and thought it was a one off. I didn’t realize it was a “movement”.

    Typical YouTube. A hundred likes garners a thousand copycats.

    Had a pecular culinary adventure yesterday. My youngest and her husband came to visit. (I had a particularly gruelling day at the doctors. They are trying to rule out endocarditis as the cause of some issues I’ve been having and had to undergo “procedures”.) So I was hungry, parched, and still a little loopy from sedation.

    The light of my life had came in drinking a Thai ice tea, which I’m sure you already know are fabulous, and she made the mistake of setting it down next to me and turning her back. I, of course, immediately tried to sneak a big sip through the oversized straw.

    Unbeknowst to me Michelle had requested an added ingrediant, known as “boba” aka tapioca pearls. These were the size of large peas. As I tried to glom a sip I thought the resistance was a small piece of ice in the straw, drew harder and then ended up with about five or six of these things all at once.

    It was very much like suddenly having a mouth full of tadpoles.

    I’m given to understand this is supposed to be a feature, not a bug. I’m going to reserve judgment on that one.

    1. Ah, bubble tea. I’m afraid I’ve already passed judgement on that.
      Coincidentally, a recent discussion on our old forum reveals that boba straws are much easier to breathe through than the classic drinking straws I’m used to, because they’re wider in order to allow these tapioca abominations to pass through. Since resistance goes as the inverse fourth power of the radius, the relatively small increase in diameter causes a big drop in the resistance to air flow.

  5. Sorry about the continious “off topic” posts but the boba story has an epilogue.

    This past Thanksgiving we had *everybody* over. From my old stepfather to the newest son-in-law, plus all the sibs and their significant others. (It was actually quite wonderful.)

    I had related the ice tea misadventure to the room at large and I saw my youngest put her warface on. (Uh-oh)

    Seems I have no grounds to complain about tapioca pearls. Why? As Michelle put it, “Dad, I’ve seen you cook, eat and enjoy fried okra. You loose your complaining about boba priviledges!”

    As I was at that moment elbow deep in a big frying pan full of same, teaching the eldest daughter the finer points of preparing it, I couldn’t muster an adiquate defense. Okra is, after all, a bit “mucus-y”. (But so good cooked in butter and bacon grease!)

    Thank you. That is all.

    1. I dunno. Seems to me you do have a defence—you’re not putting your okra in a drink and sucking it up through a straw, which is the defining weird part of boba tea.

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