U and non-U english in the 21st century

Examining the landmark articles by Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford to examine the state of U and non-U english on the world stage in the 21st century

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Cover: Ivan Petrusevski

Recently I came across a 1955 essay by Prof. Alan S.C. Ross called ‘U and non-U: An essay in sociological linguistics’. Simply put, U and non-U refer to the upper class and the non-upper class(es) respectively, and his essay examines the differences in the english spoken and written by these two classes of people, primarily in England. Naturally, it was tempting for me to make notes on how this has changed over time—specifically, over more than half-a-century—and as the English language has spread over a more global scale today.

Apparently, Prof. Ross’s essay was based on his more academic work on the subject, which preceded this essay by a year, and was prompted by the publication of another essay called ‘The English Aristocracy’ by Nancy Mitford which referred to Prof. Ross’s academic work although in a lighthearted fashion.

No reference is made here to Prof. Ross’s original work either, rather to his essay from 1955 which is based on his original paper but edited to be suitable for the layperson. As the publisher of Encounter puts it—

We have been forced to omit some over-technical sections on phonetics, and Professor Ross has been kind enough to revise a few of the other sections so as to make them more easily comprehensible to the lay reader.

Interestingly, Prof. Ross’s own essay refers to a much older work on the subject by one Prof. H.C. Wyld who ‘wrote a short article on the subject. He was well equipped for the task, for he was both a gentleman and a philologist. Today, his views are perhaps a little old-fashioned; for instance, the dictum “No gentleman goes on a bus,” attributed to him, is one which most gentlemen have to neglect.’ Since Prof. Ross’s own time we have moved from gentlemen having to use busses on occasion to everyone being advised about the benefits of using public transportation. But, as I would soon find out, this is not the only remark from Prof. Ross’s essay that goes the way of Prof. Wyld’s.

Addressing letters. The current unwritten standard, for the most part, is Dear sir, Dear madam, ‌Dear A–– etc. signed Sincerely, Yours sincerely or something of the sort. Some like to sign like a hit man with a bare Regards.

An e-mail, a form Prof. Ross understandably does not discuss, usually begins with the (first) name of the person when the person is unknown or well-known, even a customer, and in all cases where Mr X–– or the like is not explicitly warranted (such addresses usually being reserved for higher ups). This is likely because even the most formal e-mails are, for some reason, considered less formal than paper-and-envelope letters. E-mails usually end with Best or Cheers although I myself prefer to end an e-mail like I would a letter, as do some others I presume, which is in any case the norm for more formal e-mails, with the name and designation of the writer beneath.

Postcards are rarely sent, but when they are they are still signed with initials and not signatures, like Prof. Ross describes, unless a postcard is delivered by hand. This peculiar habit is the result of a postcard being replaced by more practical, quicker methods such as messaging via the internet. A postcard itself then is merely symbolic, an almost vintage form of showing someone you thought of them and brought back something expensive in regard rather than in money. Postcards were likely not signed to prevent fraud, since they were mailed open. This concern does not exist when delivering postcards in person.

Addressing people. Says Prof. Ross, ‘- A U-speaker, naming his wife to an equal, normally says “My wife” (or uses her christian name); to a very non-U person he says Mrs. X–.’ This is still in practise although I doubt the class distinction is what prompts this. People refer to their spouses by name when talking to people they or their spouses know—whether husband or wife.

Interestingly there is mention of the habit of shortening surnames of close friends e.g. Todhetley becomes just Tod, and Miss Robinson becomes just Robbie. I have nothing to say of this because I have never seen it—perhaps its absence is the observation I should put on record. But the use of the surname in addressing someone goes further: Says Prof. Ross, ‘In the second person, the use of the bare surname without Christian name or prefix is rarer still. For a woman so to call a man is still either foreign, bohemian, or intellectual-left. In general, women call other women by the bare surname only in institutions for women’. Perhaps this ‘intellectual–left’ habit has died or perhaps I am simply unaware but to call someone one does not know well by just their surname in public is today a good indication of subordination. However, it is still done in private between good friends of any gender. In general, it is usually prefix and surname on first meeting and subsequently just the prefix, just sir/madam, or—if the addressee prefers—just the first name.

These distinctions obviously do not apply in countries like China, Japan and the Koreas where the naming structure is entirely different.

Choices and sounds of words. A lot of pronunciations have remained unchanged between the 1950s and now. Any change in how words are pronounced is far less, and far less dramatic, than changes in word usage. The L in Ralph is still silent (this may differ in the US but my only source happens to be the sitcom Friends where the company Ralph Lauren is constantly pronounced as Ralf rhyming with the first syllable in Alfie rather than with a silent L and rhyming with safe. The H in hotel and humour are generally not silent, but Americans prefer to silence the H in history, even leading to words like historic with an ‘an’ rather than an ‘a’.

Prof. Ross’s claim of U english being ‘have one’s bath’ and non-U english being ‘take a bath’ is a bit unlike the other distinctions. At least in India, which was generally populated by U Brits, the English they left behind has ensured the language spoken here is largely U english. For example, Civil is preferred, bedspread is preferred, bicycle is preferred, as are dinner not supper, vegetables not greens, house and not home, jam and not preserve, rich versus wealthy etc. (In each case the latter word is non-U according to Prof. Ross and the former is U, the former being predominant in India. I trust this is also true of other countries formerly ruled by Britain.)

An especially interesting word is cruet. Today most restaurants and homes have a cruet set, with separate containers for salt, pepper etc. but this was apparently not the case when Prof. Ross published his essay, when having just one cruet with a salt and pepper mixture was more common and non-U. The U alternative were salt-cellars, pepper-pots, mustard-pots and such, all of which are today simply part of a cruet set even what one might obnoxiously call non-U households.

While the attire- and ownership-based definitions of the U and non-U classes had crumbled by the 1950s, left only to be distinguished based on language, the modern-day distinction in terms of language too is crumbling. The internet is no doubt to blame for this. However, in my own experience, there seems to be no trend in this change towards either U or non-U forms, rather there is a random amalgamation across the board. For example Americans call a bike what other countries, including the UK and India also call a bicycle. Both of these are U. Also, supper was for non-U people the last meal of the day, while it was dinner for U people. In the US if online chatter is any indication some distinction seems to remain although this is extremely local; elsewhere, such as in India and most of Asia, the last meal of the day is almost always called dinner.

As for attire itself, a dress-suit which Prof. Ross mentions is something I have never come across. It is also a non-U word, he says. The U alternatives mentioned in the professor’s essay are standard fare today: dinner jacket, black tie, tails and/or white tie depending on the occasion. The other U alternative Short coat seems to be no longer in mainstream use.

As mentioned earlier while in India and other countries formerly ruled by Britain (and I attribute this to mostly U Brits living in these countries) people buy vegetables. In the US people buy greens too, a non-U word. Curiously, thanks to the receding influence of the UK and the increasing influence of the US, and hence of Americanisms in English, I often see the word greens appearing more fashionable and gaining popularity. Its former identity as a non-U indicator seems not to bother anyone and perhaps rightly so. That said, this could simple be a cycle that progresses with time, with less popular words appearing more fashionable and attractive than overused alternatives—but I might be jumping ahead of myself here.

Some other U words are quite dead: people generally no longer have a lounge in their homes (this was non-U) rather they have a hall (which was U); and people no longer say looking glass (which was U) preferring the simpler mirror instead (which was non-U); a serviette (which was non-U) is almost always a table-napkin (which was U) today much like mad (which was U) is preferred to mental (which was non-U) by and large although, unlike in the other examples, the formerly non-U word mental still sees widespread use in Britain, India etc. in a non-scientific capacity. The scientific word mental is not what we are discussing here.

It is notoriously hard to find a copy of the 1956 book Noblesse Oblige, which carries both Ms Mitford’s and Prof. Ross’s essays, without spending a fortune. Luckily, the World Library has a copy you can borrow if you are a member, which is how I read this book myself, so join the wait list today if you are interested.

From all these observations, and the progression of the language, some conclusions seem obvious. For starters, most U words are straightforward in nature. Prof. Ross attributes this to the non-U attempting to overcompensate for their social status while the U class saw no need for that. Second, most U words seem to lack emotion—the classic house as against home is one example of this. And third, U words where characterised by a better pronunciation, a distinction made elsewhere in the world too where some system of social classes existed. This is likely in large part due to U people being better educated a couple of centuries ago, a fact that is no longer true.

While my own writing is more like that of Ms Mitford, coming from experience rather than academic research, I happen to disagree with Prof. Ross in one key aspect. Prof. Ross, himself a U-person, insists that the non-U could never become U because ‘one word or phrase will suffice to brand an apparent U-speaker as originally non-U, for U-speakers themselves never make mistakes.’ This is a strong claim and one that brings out the cynic in me. And Ms Mitford, also a U-person, seems to disagree as well, writing—

I am not quite sure about this. Usage changes very quickly and I even know undisputed U-speakers who pronounce girl “gurl”, which twenty years ago would have been unthinkable.

In addition, when a letter by one P.B.S. Andrews reproduced in Noblesse Oblige pointed out that King Richard II in Shakespeare’s play about the man speaks non-U english, Ms Mitford clarified that the U and non-U classification has little to do with titled people saying ‘It is possible that Richard II, like many monarchs, was non-U’. These distinctions, then as today, are ‘something of a national parlor game, a sort of linguistic “How to tell your friends from the apes”’ affair as described in the introduction to Noblesse Oblige.

The entire U and non-U distinction is merely a curiosity; it is certainly not a declaration of someone’s social worth today and to take it as anything but an interesting observation about linguistics would be missing the point entirely. Languages grow much like societies themselves and some words evolve while others remain stagnant; some speakers shuffle things up while others remain loyal to older forms. So it makes no difference today whether you say toilet like nearly everyone does, which is apparently non-U, or like the Indian Railways insists use the U word Lavatory. Either way we all know what you mean.