Monday, September 8, 2008

Upper-class vs Lower/Middle-class English

I'm watching Branagh's "Henry V" with my wife, and (after I expressed my absolute awe at Emma Thomson's acting skill... all actors in that movie are good, Thomson upstages them all - she's AWESOME!) we stopped midway through (getting too late) and briefly discussed the play's famous structure. After the obvious notice of the alternation between "upper class" scenes (featuring kings, princes and dukes) and the "lower/middle class" ones (with corporals and, at best, lieutenants), I idly remarked how much easier it was for me (a foreigner who studied English as a second or third language -- it's debatable whether I studied more English, or French!) to follow the dialogue in the "upper-class" parts, than the others...

Well, guess what: Anna's exactly the other way 'round -- SHE follows the "lower or middle class" dialogue much better than the higher-class one! She, of course, is Minnesota (heart of the Midwest) born and bred... MY English comes mostly through Milton, Swift, Sterne, Smith, Franklin, Poe, Melville, Hardy, Shaw, Conrad, &c... HERS, though she IS uncommonly well-read for an American, comes mostly through the organic, word-of-mouth, generation-to-generation "normal" process of language transmission...

...and, it appears, the subset of English best transmitted by highbrow "culture" (e.g. to foreign-born students like me) is QUITE different from that which best survives through "natural" means (to native-born speakers) -- and the "class distinction" is just what one would expect! Reminds me of the way Latin came into Italian through two similarly separate channels: the spoken-word natural one (which e.g. made gold into "oro", laurel into "alloro", &c) AND the "high culture" mostly-written one (which gives us such words as "aureo", golden, and "laurea", the university degree traditionally celebrated with laurel crowns).

The change of classic high-class diphthong "AU" into common-speech "O" is well attested even in late-Republic Rome -- e.g. the member of the ancient Claudius family who went for unstinting populism signaled that by changing his name to Clodius!-) -- so that's a particularly good example;-). However, this general kind of distinction (between high-culture, mostly-written transmission of language, and normal-people, mostly-spoken one) is VERY common in all languages, and English, this most wonderful and most mongrel of languages, is no exception;-).

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