One thing that catches my eye in the old ads and magazine articles is the presence of many upper-class people, dressed in their finery, attending some soigné event. Many of the domestic scenes in advertising depict elegant women at home with their housemaids. This kind of thing is conspicuously absent in our modern advertising, for obvious reasons. The world has turned upside down from what it was 100 years, or even 70 years ago. The egalitarian, downward-leveling trend has become the hallmark of our age. There are no clear class delineations as there were back then, with moneyed people and their luxuries. Nowadays, the rich often dress, act, and speak just like those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Think Paris Hilton.
And since the English language is on my mind these last few days, coincidentally I was just at a forum where the discussion centered on class
distinctions in the UK as reflected in language.
Apparently, there remain, despite all the leveling efforts of the leftists, differences in vocabulary as well as pronunciation in the UK.
This article from long-ago 1992 describes the class patterns in British English:
John Honey, an itinerant English professor educated at Cambridge and Oxford who is currently teaching in Japan, created a stir in Britain when his book was published. He urged Britons to acknowledge that speech accents are the coding of the class system and to strike a blow for equality by teaching everyone to speak the Queen's English, which Honey termed "received pronunciation," or R.P. The classic example of R.P. would be the crisp, clipped speech of most BBC news readers.
The Charles-Di split, then, is a matter of two different styles of upper-class speech. Prince Charles speaks a marked version of R.P. -- the upper-crust English, oozing privilege, spoken today mainly by senior members of the royal family, old Etonians and aging Oxford and Cambridge dons. R.P. speakers pronounce "cloth" as clawth and talk about the lorst pah of the British Empah (the "lost power of the British Empire").
Princess Diana has swung to the other end of the R.P. spectrum, occasionally assuming a trendy down-market variant, including traces of popular London speech, that approaches cockney. Its most prominent feature is "t-glotalling," which means strangling the final "t" in most words. Expert ears, for example, have detected Diana saying there's a lo' of i' abou' for "there's a lot of it about." '
From the perspective of today, it would appear that the 'received pronunciation' has long since lost the battle. I've noticed how 'the Queen's English' has been displaced in the British media by various regional accents and by more 'working-class' patterns of speech. When I watch old British films, (for example, today I saw ''Great Expectations" from 1946), the English spoken then is markedly different than that heard in the British media today.
There may be some of the older generation whose accents follow the old patterns but they seem to be few and far between.
I believe the cultural Marxists want to eliminate anything that hints at ''elitism'' and class distinctions and standards, the latter of which are
anathema to them in all areas of life. In the UK as in the United States and throughout the West, there is the mania for 'equality' and for a malicious pulling-down of those who are looked at superior or elite in some way.
And that, to me, is the crux of this issue of class distinctions in speech. The left is always busily destroying all vestiges of our former standards and ideals. Having distinctions of any kind amounts to ''discrimination" and this must always be stamped out.
This piece cuts to the chase, regarding speech:
Every detail of our selves and our lives — our appearance, speech, activities and associations — is perceived by others as an emblem of who we were, what we have become and where we fit in. The social profile of each person is recognizable and unique, like a fingerprint.
The ways we speak also reflect this combination of social similarity and diversity in fine detail.
Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound. “Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.
Societies use shibboleths in many ways. Indeed, speech is a convenient stand-in for other kinds of stigma that we recognize but do not openly acknowledge. For example, in our society, discrimination based on appearance, race, sex, religion or national origin is TABOO and often illegal, whereas discrimination based on particular details of language use by men or women, people of different religions, people from other countries and so on is often allowed.''
Do we have any class distinctions in speech in the United States? I would say we don't. It may be that some traditionally-minded people are unfavorably disposed towards those who have very uneducated speech, or strong regional accents in some cases. But this need not necessarily reflect a class bias, or a racial bias. We just tend to react somewhat negatively to someone who displays ignorance in their way of speaking.
It's often said, with some truth in the allegation, that people tend to judge those who speak with a Southern accent as ''ignorant'' or backward, even if the speaker uses impeccable grammar and syntax. The accent itself bears a stigma, I would say as much or more than ''ebonics''. And you'll notice I didn't specify that ''Northern people tend to judge'' Southern accents negatively -- just ''people.'' There are some who are born and bred in the South who carefully cultivate a neutral accent, modeling it on the media standard. Many of the younger generations do not sound Southron at all, even if their parents speak with a strong regional accent. I think this move away from the Southern speech is sometimes not a conscious thing; it's simply 'in' to speak standard American English as heard on TV or in Hollywood movies. Younger people who watch the mainstream media consciously or unconsciously absorb the accent they hear; it has connotations of being hip and cool, unlike the Southern drawl.
Other than that, however, we don't have a great deal of class distinction in our speech. Education these days does not do a very good job of educating. Sadly, most of those in academia these days are dedicated leftists who think that proper grammar and enunciation are ''elitist' and outmoded, as well as 'reactionary'. So who is there to uphold standards of good grammar and speech?
The linked PBS article argues (just as my linguistics professor did back in the 70s) that language is perpetually changing, and that we mustn't try to stop or impede the change. Language is 'organic', so the party line says. Languages just grow, like Topsy, and we can't control or even direct the change that inevitably happens. We can be 'descriptive' in discussing language, in other words, simply observe and note what we see and hear, but we can't be 'prescriptive' and uphold standards -- because everything is relative, you see. Who are we to judge the ebonics speakers or those who speak some sort of pidgin English or Spanglish or whatever argot?
A complex pattern of influences keeps the linguistic pot bubbling. Variation is everywhere. Change never stops. Language gatekeepers cannot control an ever-changing world of diversity. It’s hard on them, because in the gatekeepers' world, variation means error and change means decline.
What’s more, the very notion of a single standard of correctness in language is quite recent. “Correctness” is based solely on a purist’s own notion of what is socially or culturally correct: if it's not in, it must be out. A language purist works from a list of exceptions to the rule, ordinary speakers follow a hierarchy of patterns that reveal analogical similarities.''
Yes, the usual leftist arguments are heard in the realm of linguistics as in all other areas. Change is inevitable; embrace it. Celebrate it. Above all, don't judge it. Don't try to control it or contain it.
Change is sacred to the leftist.
And we ''language purists' who think (silly us) that there are rules and standards which apply to language just as to any other system, and who think that we should try to contain and direct change, are just sticks-in-the-mud who are impeding the 'diversity' and the richness of our ever-changing language.
I suppose we have to give the left some kind of credit for being consistent in their 'philosophy'. They are consistent to the point of being monomaniacal, when it comes to advancing their agenda in every area of life.
The larger question, though, is the loss of standards in our society.
I suppose it could be said that the beginnings of our country already contained the seed of our current obsession with 'equality' and leveling, which we see in the assault on all standards. Proper speech is now denigrated as archaic and rigid, the province of 'language purists'. Basic etiquette and social graces are scoffed at as passé and old-fashioned. Dress codes are going by the wayside, as people more and more tend to dress for 'comfort', regardless of the occasion. There are very few occasions for which Americans dress up nowadays. Jeans and T-shirts and athletic shoes are the universal uniform for all occasions from church on Sunday to the symphony. As I mentioned, even the wealthy are likely to slouch around in the ''uniform'' when in public.
Sexual mores, like all social standards, are now strictly up to the individual; who are we to judge? Tolerance of anything and everything is a mark of the sophisticated, ''enlightened'' 21st century American.
Profanity and obscenity are everywhere, with no respect for the people present. Oldsters, toddlers, nobody is spared the foul language.
The arts are no longer governed by any sort of rules regarding aesthetics or skill. This is true of the so-called 'fine arts' as well as popular culture.
Mediocrity and even ineptitude are no obstacle to attaining fame or success in the arts and popular entertainment.
Good taste has gone out the window; once I tried to discuss 'taste' with a liberal friend; it was a foreign language to her. ''Taste'' is an elitist construct, imposed by the aristocracy on the sainted common man.
The sad thing about all this is that the ''conservatives'' for the most part are rank egalitarians and levelers in most respects, just as the liberals and leftists. Perhaps the old American obsession with demolishing social class in general, the tradition of hating aristocracy, has gone too far. It seems to me that even conservatives have accepted many of the class warfare bromides of the left.
Our country was born from a revolution against English royalty, and there was an anti-aristocratic undertone to the slogans and sentiments of many of the Founding Fathers -- yet there was a movement to make George Washington a king, rather than President.
There was an old Southron aristocracy, and I am sure there were wastrels and other undesirables among their ranks, but on the other hand, many good men came out of that class: the aforementioned Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the Lees, the Pages, the Randolphs, the Taylors, and many more. Aristocracy is not an innately bad thing, provided they are principled.
Can anyone argue that democracy is preferable? How is it working out for us now?
Our forefathers, at least the Founding Fathers, opposed the idea of democracy and 'equality', despite Thomas Jefferson's unfortunate phrase ''all men are created equal."
Democracy does not exist for a long time - it wastes, exhausts and destroys itself. There was never a democracy that didn't kill itself" - Samuel Adams
"Democracy always leads to conflicts and instability, but never provides for the security of the citizens or their property. Usually it is very short at life, and very bloody at death" -- James Madison
There are many more such quotes in the same vein. Yet somehow Americans have become enamored of 'democracy' and equality.
Equality and liberty can't coexist. Neither can equality and standards. If we are to level everybody, standards must be pulled down; those who excel or distinguish themselves in any way are to be pounded down so as to prevent inequality.
Not so many decades ago, we had a culture which encouraged all, rich, poor, or middle-class, to aspire to civilized, genteel behavior. Children were taught to be polite and courteous, and respectful of elders. Girls, in particular, were taught social graces and were often sent to 'charm school' to learn how to groom themselves, carry themselves, and to be gracious.
Everybody could, and most did, aspire to ''better themselves." Even those from a poor background could become educated, or educate themselves, acquire some social polish, and improve their status in the world. Now, it seems every economic class emulates the lowest level of society. The gutter culture is 'cool.'
The old-style rich in America were standard-bearers. While there were 'black sheep' among them, in general they comported themselves well in public; it was considered part of the duty of the 'upper classes' to set an example. Now that we no longer have a wealthy class with any sense of noblesse oblige, or with a desire to uphold higher standards of behavior, we have no exemplars at all, except vapid celebrities, who are often troubled people with no detectable standards. Or there are the overpaid athletes who are idolized by many.
On this blog we've often discussed the leadership void. Leaders need not be politicians or 'statesmen' -- and how many of the latter even exist today? Leaders are standard-bearers and standard-setters. They are people who, at their best, honor and uphold social and cultural standards and traditions, and set an inspiring example. We all need something to which to aspire, and we all need to aspire to something honorable and worthy. We have few if any such leaders and standard-bearers now. I wonder if, by killing our aristocracy metaphorically, we have done ourselves in. We can see in history how much harm was caused by the Jacobins and their obliterating of class distinctions.
Standards are necessary; our mania for 'democracy' and 'equality' is proving to be very destructive to our society. I believe any effort to undo all the horrendous errors of the last five decades or so must include a renewed respect for quality, excellence, merit, and achievement, as well as for order and beauty.
We live in an ugly, sloppy age dominated by willful adolescents. At some point, the adults will have to reassert control.
The liberals say 'change never stops', and if they are right, then the pendulum has to swing back eventually.