The first rule about secret clubs is that you don’t talk about them. We all know that. They have rules. Some rules are out in the open, pinned on the door: those are easy. Anyone can see those rules (assuming you are literate, which is another rule). But others are more sneaky, existing solely to allow friends in and keep enemies out. I’m never likely to learn what a Masonic handshake actually entails. And let’s not mention pig heads.
Some rules are not physical. The very language we use and the accent we say it in betray our history, culture, influences, friends and, yes, what some people call ‘class’. I rhyme that with ‘arse’, by the way, which will tell you where I grew up in Britain, though one set of grandparents were from Yorkshire so I can slip easily into the vowels of ferrets, flat caps and lickin’ roads clean wi’ tongues.
This morning, true to my socio-economic group, I was lying in bed listening to BBC Radio 4: the bastion of educated middle-class Britain that likes politeness and is nervous of rap music. The newsreader mispronounced ‘Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge’. I was shocked. The BBC is usually the professional juggernaut of pronunciation, taking the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in its stride when the ash cloud hit the news.
Ten seconds later, I had turned on myself. Just because I can read ‘Caius’ and know it’s pronounced ‘keys’ doesn’t mean anyone else should. Leaving aside the BBC’s fabled Pronunciation Unit’s 200,000 words, why would you imagine you needed to check if the word looked so unambiguously like ‘chaos’? And that’s another one …
Full disclosure: Cambridge happens to be the second university I dropped out of, so Caius and Magdalene hold no terrors for me. But as somebody pointed out to me on twitter, it was ‘nice proof that some people in the media didn’t go there’ (@Swissss). Why should anyone know how to say them? And does it matter?
These things are shibboleths. That word is from the Hebrew shibbōlet: apparently people from Gilead used it to find out if someone was an Ephraimite, because the Ephraimites didn’t have the sound ‘sh’ in their language and therefore couldn’t pronounce it properly. You don’t need me to tell you it didn’t go well for the Ephraimite if his accent was wonky.
These days we don’t usually kill people on the spot if they don’t say things the way we do, but we judge them all the same. (I’m not talking in broad terms here, where racism kicks in on sight for some people and religious atrocities are happening in the Middle East.) British culture is riddled with tiny stratifications, where a nuanced vowel or dropped consonant can convey a vast hinterland of information to the alert listener, who – crucially – may then act differently. It is a case of the way something is said carrying more weight than the meaning of the words. As a woman, I am alive to this parallel communication track more than perhaps a man is.
Why should people know how to pronounce obscure names like Majoribanks (‘Marchbanks’), Belvoir (‘Beever’) or St John (‘Sinjin’), if they have never seen them before? The ridicule heaped on mispronunciation is the sound of a threatened club closing ranks. And they never forget. Everything else they hear from the mouth of a mispronuncer (yes, I may have just invented that word: relax) is tinged with the memory of that ridicule. I used to think the US state Arkansas was a different place from the ‘Arkinsaw’ everyone talked about on the radio. You bet I remember the day I brought that up in conversation.
I learned many words from reading books. I remember reading Tristram Shandy on the bus to and from work years ago, using a piece of paper both as a bookmark and a ‘new word list’, writing them down as I went along and looking them up in the dictionary when I got home (this was before smart phones). I had no idea how to pronounce some of them. You can’t tell where the emphasis is on the page. ‘Sesquipedalian’ was one of my favourites: brilliant to read, terrifying to say out loud. In case you were Found Out.
These days I am older and way more assertive. Using a word you learned in a book for the first time in conversation is something to be applauded, not laughed at. Learning is always better than shutting off. We are programmed to fear making mistakes. We are so stupid.
Now I’m teaching my younger child to read, these ridiculous spellings come up a lot. Sometimes I tell her where the word has come from, and that modern English is a wonderful gallimaufry of words we’ve pinched over the years from all over the world. Sometimes I admit our language is very silly.
There is a place for precision. I used the adjective ‘younger’ just now. Some of you will now know I have only two children. Some of you won’t have picked up that nuance. I do care if a word has evolved specifically to freight a precise meaning very efficiently, and I delight in the bespoke thought we can convey in a single word. That’s what a lot of poetry is, after all. I would feel sad if we lost that energy of attention; if our language landscape were to become rounded and banal. I would miss those spikes. But that is not the same as judging other people, and letting how they say things colour my reception of what they are actually saying. That is what we should listen to. That is what’s important.