Monday, 30 July 2012

Penguin no. 1348: Noblesse Oblige
Edited by Nancy Mitford

Have you heard of the 'Butler Education Act'? I suppose not, although it happened in the days when you still lived among us...In his Education Act he provided for the free distributions of university degrees to the deserving poor. Very handy for splitting atoms and that kind of thing, you will say. But many of Mr Butler's proteges choose, or are directed into, 'Literature'. I could make your flesh creep by telling you about the new wave of philistinism with which we are threatened by these sour young people who are coming off the assembly lines in their hundreds every year and finding employment as critics, even as poets and novelists.

It was surprising to read in Simon's recent review of Noblesse Oblige that this Penguin can be an expensive book to purchase second hand. It is not really clear why this should be the case, as no vintage Penguin beyond number 500 is rare, and the book itself is only very slight, comprised of four brief essays, a letter, and a poem (together with some lovely illustrations by Osbert Lancaster). It runs to just over 100 pages, and can be easily read in a single evening.

Although the subtitle rather dryly suggests it as an enquiry into the identifying characteristics of members of the English upper-class, it is really more of a debate: there is a first scholarly essay outlining the hypothesised set of characteristics, followed by a series of written responses, with the book chiefly interesting because one of these is by Nancy Mitford, and one is by Evelyn Waugh. Despite the humorous tone, the intent still seems serious, with each essayist attempting to both entertain and convince.

It begins in 1954 when Alan Ross, the Professor in Linguistics at Birmingham University, publishes a paper on Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English in the Finnish journal Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. He proposed that other than an enthusiasm for tennis and a disinclination to embrace the newer products of technology, idiosyncrasies of spoken language were the only reliable markers that could be used to identify a random person as a member of the English upper-class. This volume includes a simplified version of his paper, listing his suggestions as to the identifying linguistic markers, classified as U (specific to members of the English upper-class) and non-U (never used by members of the upper-class).

Presumably the idea of linguistic markers that can be used to reliably differentiate between specific groups in society - either in terms of words or pronunciations - is not particularly novel, and a list of them can only really have been of interest to those who study linguistics or who perhaps wish to track the changes over time (and it wasn't interesting to me at all, although now that I have read the list, I find that I am more inclined to notice the nominated words being used in the fiction of the era). But his article and his classification system were elevated to greater prominence when Nancy Mitford referred to them in a rather tongue-in-cheek essay on the English Aristocracy which was written in 1956 for the magazine Encounter, and which is included here as part two. Though she doesn't agree completely with Professor Ross's list, she adopts his classification system, and adds a few suggestions of her own.

It can be inferred from Evelyn Waugh's contribution that Nancy Mitford's article must have upset many of her readers, including him. While he affects to treat her essay as a provocative joke, he seems to have taken issue with the broad generalisations she applies in describing the outlook of the English aristocracy, while others seem to have been more disturbed by this discussion of U and non-U usages. Perhaps this was less about the actual differences, and more about the attitude she conveys, of seeming to judge those who do not speak according to this upper-class code, but judging them all the more harshly if they try to do so.

I found Evelyn Waugh's letter to be the most entertaining and well-argued section in the book, with the exception of the single paragraph quoted above in which he sneers at an entire cohort of working class kids given the opportunity of a university education (and my first thought was of Jim Dixon and all he had to contend with). There also seems an antipathy displayed towards science of the kind discussed by C.P. Snow in his lecture The Two Cultures, when he endeavoured to highlight just how limiting such an attitude would be in finding solutions for many problems. (And the irony is that this book illustrates this point, though in a fairly trivial way. Many of the criticisms made in the response essays are valid entirely because you cannot answer the question under consideration by having each person argue a case based on a personal observation they assume to be representative. The tools to reliably find a set of identifying characteristics of any group, and to provide a measure of how certain you can be of your conclusion, are maths-based. If the question had been given to an empirically-minded researcher there would be no need for a debate.)

I think the most important observation is the obvious one that the system is dynamic, with the set of words changing over time, largely as a result of fashion. It means recognising that the identifying words have no inherent correctness; they are simply given that status by the upper-class people who use them, which could be seen as the equivalent of scoring well on a test which you have set for yourself.

Also by Nancy Mitford:
Penguin no. 1532: Pigeon Pie
Penguin no. 1976: Don't Tell Alfred


  1. I read this many many years ago, when I was a teenager, and remember being very entertained by Nancy Mitford's essay. But I think there is still a linguistic class divide in the UK. Not having Nancy's list in front of me I can't remember the details, and probably usages have changed since then anyway, but I don't call my lavatory a toilet or my living room a lounge, to give just a couple of examples, and I'm not even upper class. Very interesting review -- thanks.

  2. It's not rare or expensive here in the UK Karen or at least not in any of the places I've bought orange Penguins from. I've not yet read my copy but look forward to seeing which words were defined as class markers. Like Harriet I can think of a couple of choices I make that might have been considered U but am very definitely not U by birth.

  3. I've long wanted to read this, but I've been unable to find a copy either for purchase or through the library. I need to try interlibrary loan again, I guess.

    1. Hi Lisa,

      I can help you there, as I have one spare copy. It is not in the best condition, but perfectly readable, and I am happy to send it to you if you want to contact me offline at karynreevesATgmailDotcom and let me know your postal address.

    2. That is so very generous of you - I did not mean to hint!

  4. Dave - also in Leeds...30 July 2012 at 20:56

    Mitford's 'U' and 'non-U' has been the launchpad for many a Sunday-newspaper think piece over the years. Must track this book down - sounds fascinating.

  5. Here in Spain, language and the use of it does not play an important role, indeed it may play no role at all, in defining class. Spanish can be spoken well or poorly (the king, for example, does not speak with a posh accent) but the vocabulary is the same across all classes. Funnily enough, one of the few markers of class (not quite the best word but it's all we've got) I've come across are the terms "culto" and "inculto." They can de defined as "cultured" and "uncultured". This difference can be seen in terms of the number of books and type of books you have read. It is also associated with manners: book reading being seen as the reserve of the "educados", people with good manners. But Spain, as a very direct society, does allow for class distinctions to be displayed in the biggest cars imaginable and the most outrageous clothes! Once again, thank you for such an interesting and well-written post.

  6. I can remember reading this years ago, and being fascinated by the our language defines our class but, like Harriet, I can no longer remember the details. At about the same time I read Jilly Cooper's Class, which is a kind of updated version featuring middle-class Jen Teale, the Stow-Crats, the Noveau-Richards and so on. Cooper is very astute in her observations, and wickedly funny, but it may seem as dated as Mitford.

  7. 'Presumably the idea of linguistic markers that can be used to reliably differentiate between specific groups in society - either in terms of words or pronunciations - is not particularly novel'

    It certainly isn't. The earliest recorded use is probably biblical: the Gileadites asked strangers to pronounce the word 'shibboleth' and, if they couldn't pronounce the 'sh', killed them, as probable Ephraimites. 42,000 of them.

  8. U words are still a trap for the unwary.....listen to any conversation at the gates of top schools in the private sector....frightning.

  9. U speech is still relevant and a real trap for the unwary...just listen in on a mummie conversatiom at a top school in the private sector...frightening.



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