At the chalkface: Talking proper

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

For girls it was marginally worse. Those with pushy parents went to something called a Lucy Clayton Finishing School. There they got finished. They practised enunciating “how now brown cow” with a telephone directory on their heads...

Is it part of our job to monitor our pupils’ speech? To teach them to talk proper? Of course not.

Their speech is who they are, their very identity. They own it, they control it. It keeps us out. Go to any urban street corner and the young seem to be speaking in hip moon language, fast, fly, fractured, witty, passionate, full of put-ons, present tenses and truncated sentences – and grammatically off the map. “Signifying jive,” as jazz musicians used to call it. A rich mix. Lovely stuff.

But we do need to make pupils aware of the politics of language, of its context. I remember thrilling lessons on dialect, accent, register, codes, the demotic, colloquial, vernacular and tribal – and the dread Received Pronunciation. Pupils have to master this as well. It’s a weapon of survival, especially for the “working class”. Your life may depend on it, though things have loosened up since I were a lad in the 1950s.

I was on the cusp of several classes – upper working lower middle. Mum was soft southern, Dad tough northern. They moved to the Home Counties. I didn’t know if I was coming or going. Dad was aspirational. If you talked proper, the world was your oyster. So he coached me. I elocuted like billyho, got into grammar school and morphed into the middle classes, though the world never quite became the promised oyster.

Meanwhile the upper class spoke a weird, contorted, and strangulated language – like Lady Isobel Barnet, Sooty or the Queen. It sounded as if they were swallowing marbles. The working class knew their place and hunkered down.

For girls it was marginally worse. Those with pushy parents went to something called a Lucy Clayton Finishing School. There they got finished. They practised enunciating “how now brown cow” with a telephone directory on their heads. This promoted poise, a Roedean accent and, with luck, a rich husband. Class and gender lines were fixed.

It all supposedly changed with the 1960s revolution, when language codes became fluid and relaxed and deference died. So much so that accents have lately sometimes reversed.

Barnaby Lennon, ex-head of Harrow, recently observed that “posh” is out and the rich are slumming it, appropriating working class speech and affecting “mockney”. Well, they’ll never hold a candle to those kids on the corner. But the ruling class still rule. Class, money and inequality have all made a nasty come back. Prep school prospectuses flaunt a Tatler world of exclusivity, boaters, lacrosse and mostly nice, White children – like my 1950s.

So just make sure your pupils learn to talk proper too.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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