Do you speak U, non-U, or just you?


Everyone agrees that the UK is moving steadily and healthily in the direction of a classless society, and it’s a little indelicate nowadays to try and identify anything overt that might hint at someone’s social class, whether it’s their clothes, accent, the names they give to meals (see Glossophilia’s earlier post on this subject), or which synonym they choose in certain given situations …

While researching the pronunciation of loan words for the previous post, I stumbled on something interesting: several sources point out how choosing a French derivative over a more historically English synonym was for a long time — and still can be — regarded as rather “non-U”. Living room is U, lounge (from the French) is non-U; napkin is U, serviette is non-U; sofa is U, settee is non-U; and two more amusing examples: what? is U, pardon? is non-U; lavatory or loo is U, toilet is so very non-U. Why this very predictable pattern? And what’s with this “U/non-U” business?

Wikipedia explains it clearly:

“U and non-U English usage, with “U” standing for “upper class”, and “non-U” representing the aspiring middle classes, was part of the terminology of popular discourse of social dialects (sociolects) in Britain and New England in the 1950s. The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the working classes, who in many instances used the same words as the upper classes. For this reason, the different vocabularies often can appear quite counter-intuitive: the middle classes prefer “fancy” or fashionable words, even neologisms and often euphemisms, in attempts to make themselves sound more refined, while the upper classes in many cases stick to the same plain and traditional words that the working classes also use, as, conscious of their status, they have no need to make themselves sound more refined.”

Taking this rule of thumb that the aspiring middle classes tend to prefer “fancy” or “fashionable” words, it makes sense that the apparently pretentious words of French origin would fall universally and predictably into the non-U category — hence those examples above.

The invention of the U/non-U dichotomy (which prescribed choices not just in language but also in behavior and general etiquette) is often attributed to the writer Nancy Mitford — one of the famous six sisters — who popularized the concept by including it in her books (notably her Noblesse Oblige, published in 1956). But it was actually a professor of linguistics at Birmingham University, Alan Ross, who first suggested the concept and coined the terms a couple of years earlier in his treatise “Upper-Class English Usage”. Here’s an excerpt from his paper that gives the gist of where he was going with his thesis:

“There are, it is true, still minor points of life which may serve to demarcate the upper class, but they are only minor ones. The games of real tennis and piquet, an aversion to high tea, having one’s cards engraved (not printed), not playing tennis in braces, and, in some cases, a dislike of certain comparatively modern inventions such as the telephone, the cinema, and the wireless, are still perhaps marks of the upper class. Again, when drunk, gentlemen often become amorous or maudlin or vomit in public, but they never become truculent. … I am concerned with the linguistic demarcation of the upper class.”

In his comprehensive survey of both pronunciation and vocabulary, he goes on to give special emphasis and importance to one of the French/non-U examples cited above: “Non-U serviette / U table-napkin; perhaps the best known of all the linguistic class-indicators of English.” You can read more excerpts from Ross’s often hilarious paper in an article published in The Independent in 1994.

Does the U and non-U bible of Mitford’s time still carry any weight today? At least in the decreasingly class-conscious Great Britain? It seems to in some circles, according to Debrett’s online in its “Everyday Etiquette” section, which advertises itself thus: “From rites of passage, family occasions, work life and romance to table manners, letter writing, body language and mobile etiquette, this is Debrett’s definitive online guide to modern manners.” More specifically, it addresses the U and non-U question in its British Behaviour section, which is billed as Debrett’s “indispensable Guide to British life and manners… From Countryside Rules, Dress Codes, Kilts, Meeting Royalty and Port Etiquette to Apologising, Introductions, Queuing, Reticence, Small Talk and Understatment. British rituals, social occasions, manners and characteristics decoded…”.

Here’s what Debrett’s concludes about Ross’s and Mitford’s rules, which today seem outlandish to most of us:

“Today, some of her proscriptions seem bizarre (spectacles, not glasses; looking glass, not mirror). Language is ever-evolving and society is visibly relaxing – a preoccupation with the minute calibrations of social class is looking increasingly outmoded. … However, if you are anxious to pass muster in more class-aware environments you should remember the basics: loo or lavatory never toilet; sofa never settee; napkin never serviette; supper never tea; drawing room or sitting room, never lounge or front room.”

There’s even a “U or non-U” personality test on the popular online dating site OKCupid. (Google it: I’m not joking.) Whether anyone gives weight to that particular linguistic parameter when choosing their romantic mate is anyone’s guess …


One thought on “Do you speak U, non-U, or just you?

  1. Pingback: Pardon? Say what? « Words, Phrases & Expressions « Glossophilia

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