What’s in a name?

social classIn Wells-next-the-Sea last week, doing a workshop on interview skills with a great group of Year 10 pupils, we were asked “Does it matter what kind of English I speak in an interview? Will the way I talk count against me?” The experienced English teacher with me was quick to point out that the school was teaching ‘Standard English’ which emphasises correct grammar and appropriate vocabulary but encompasses all accents. As she pointed out, however, the tricky bit comes in knowing where the difference between accent and dialect lies. For example, in Norfolk there’s a frequent use of “do” instead of “does” and “done” instead of “did”. Other verbs also change – such as “shew” instead of “showed”. Some words are special to the county , like a Bishy-Barneybee or Jollificearshuns (lady bird and having a good time). The accent is gentle with a rising intonation. I find it tricky to follow when people are talking Norfolk very quickly, but pretty clear when the speaker slows down. So, no worries for our anxious Year 10 then?

The same week saw the clip* of Katie Hopkins on This Morning TV show go viral-ballistic. The topic was whether you could judge enough about a child from their first name to know whether, or not, you might want your child to be friends with them. Hopkins was pretty clear – as soon as she hears the child’s first name she can not only tell what social class they come from, but also how they will behave. So she cuts short the heart-ache of having unsuitable playmates but not letting her children even become friends. And the names that can tell her so much? Well, names like Tyler, Chardonnay, Chantelle… and seasons… and place names like Brooklyn… and India? (No, not India because her daughter is called India, so maybe she just means cities?) The Queen’s grandson Peter Phillips’ family wouldn’t cut the Hopkins mustard – what with a wife called Autumn and their daughter Savannah (pretty sure geographic features would be on the Hopkins “no mates” list too). She explained that these dodgy names are an indicator that the children will be loutish, do poorly at school, not do their homework, and probably use the wrong cutlery. In fact, to use a really old unpleasant acronym, NQOCD – don’t know that one? It stands for Not Quite Our Class, Dear.

While I’m not so naïve as to imagine that class prejudice no longer exists – we are all tribal at some level after all – what is most unpleasant is the idea of it being publically validated now, in 2013. One of the ways – possibly the most usual way – British people used to define class was based on spoken English, judging a combination of vocabulary and accent sometimes as quickly as within a single phrase to literally classify the speaker. As Professor Higgins famously sings in My Fair Lady:

“An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him

The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him”

Increasing use of Estuary English and greater prominence of regional accents has gone a long way towards narrowing the gap.

Poor Katie, names are getting more exotic – she doesn’t seem to have met children called Griffin, Phoenix or Blue Ivy yet, but she will. For the sake of her children I suspect she’ll have to change her point of view.

Our young people need to be confident in their futures and they need good speaking and listening skills. The new draft of study for KS3 students doing English has changed “Speaking and Listening” to “Spoken English” (omitting ‘Listening’ in the topic title – cue for a joke with reference to listening and Mr Gove? Bit obvs, as the bros in my fam would say. Soz guys, probs shouldn’t of, I’m only a rent). Speaking still remains an important feature of the curriculum. I’m concerned that when discussions like This Morning one about class / language / behaviour hit the social media network they can add, unnecessarily, to the anxieties of young people like the student from Wells. As students rest before the next academic year I hope they, and their teachers, will continue to focus on spoken English, putting the emphasis on what they say; being confident in who they are; and not feeling undermined by any shadow of class prejudice. There simply isn’t room for it in the Britain of today. To quote Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

*Want to see the clip? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edZjdgU0asM


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