The Short A

 

I’m reading Theodore Dalrymple’s book, Life at the Bottom. It was very good until page 81 where he says “… with the glottal stop and other vocal mannerisms of the lower classes, such as the short in words like class and pass”. This is taken from his essay, Uncouth Chic, written in 1998.

This is nonsense. The glottal stop is one of the many things that has spread upwards from the speech of the uneducated, to become almost normal in British speech. It cannot be compared with the short A. It is the long A that has been incorrectly inserted into words like “class” and “pass”.

The lower classes (as he calls them) in the Southern areas he describes in his book use the long A as well. They may make it sound more like an “ar” sound than an “aa” sound, but it’s lengthened nonetheless. The long A is a Southern characteristic and one must not fall into the trap of thinking anything Southern is “posh” and anything Northern is not. Furthermore, the long A is plainly incorrect most of the time as a gander at a dictionary would tell you. I have seen some that would provide both “glaas” and “glass” as pronunciations of “glass”, but largely they have not yet modified themselves for this recent Southern linguistic domination.

Due to the influence of television (something Dalrymple decries elsewhere in his book), the lengthened A has spread out of the South to the bottom of society elsewhere. An educated Midlander is unlikely to lengthen an A, but the more common Eastenders-watching fool is quite likely to, especially if young. Outside of the South, the short A is indeed a signal, but one that indicates the complete opposite of what Dalrymple claims. Those still using the short A outside of the South are probably higher up the ladder than most and are likely to be quite far removed from the Southern and Southern-influenced bottom rung.

Subtle Distinctions

 

When I was about 17, I had a conversation with a couple of friends from my old school. I was at university at the time but one of the two was still at my old school and one had left and was at another school. As it’s an old British school, my school had a house system. It’s not very strong and I was never into athletics while I was there. I never won anything for my house as far as I can recall. Both friends were similarly uninterested in such things. We discussed the houses we’re in. One said to the other that he didn’t seem like a member of that house. She wasn’t a particularly observant girl, but she hit on something that had percolated in my mind for ten years at that point: there are differences between the members of the houses. It’s indescribable.

It’s not that Streetonites are athletic and Napierites are academic, or whatever it is that the previous generation claims based on the Sports Day results of their era. It is way more subtle and unimportant than that. Affinity for your group is one thing, but it’s quite another to have a gut instict for identifying the houses of people who largely had no say in which of the four houses they were arbitrarily assigned to. And yet, somehow, this is a widespread phenomenon (if I may extrapolate from my sample size of three).

We discussed a few people we knew and which houses they were in with similar comments popping up occasionally. All three of us had this concept that someone could seem like a member of one of the houses as a result of no describable thing.

There is legitimately no good way these differences between the members of the houses and commonalities between members of the same house could have come about. At boarding schools, which have literal houses in which the children live, obviously there are ways and reasons, but at this day school, how?

 

I grew up partially in Amington, Tamworth, Staffordshire, which is in the English Midlands. As a Midlander, I don’t really have a dog in the North-South fight. Southerners would like to think I’m from the North, but geography rather undermines this binary perception of England. Scots aren’t thought of as Northern, even though they’re even further North than Northerners. The East and West of England as well as Northern Ireland and Wales are also not really involved in it.

Despite all of this, I recently looked at the website of a small company which had a dozen staff portraits on its front page. I immediately took a dislike to the company because they looked like Southerners.

Southerners, despite what a Yorkshire lad may tell you, are largely not of a different race to people from the North. I can form no coherent explanation why I would perceive these innocent souls as Southerners simply because of the way their faces looked in sterile corporate headshots.

Many of my favourite people are Southerners and I have had no personally negative experience with a Southerner. Although my English ancestors are largely from Lancashire (including parts which are now Manchester) with one significant branch around Halifax, Yorkshire, I have never lived in the North. Nor has anyone ever described me as a Northerner, even as a joke (although I have been accused of being Southern numerous times). Nor can I seriously say anything against Southerners. Although I may be able to half-remember a joke or two, or even complain about the London-centric media we have with even the formerly Manchester-based Guardian now publishing the kind of articles that only make sense if you have a dim Londoner’s typical big-city solipsism. But I digress.

Nearly all of England is lovely, as is true of most European countries (trust me, I’ve been to half of them), so why would I have anything against a company because their staff apparently look Southern to me somehow? Prejudice is a strange thing.