DENIED ASPIRATES.

My wife and I have finished Speak, Memory and moved on to Middlemarch in our nighttime reading, and the other day I was baffled by this, in a discussion of social mobility in Chapter 11: “Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: people denied aspirates, gained wealth…” What on earth does it mean to “deny aspirates”? I looked up aspirate in the OED, thinking it might have some obscure sense that would explain the phrase, but no such luck.
Today it occurred to me to use GoogleBooks, and the fourth hit was page 209 of Our Corner, by Annie Besant:

While we praise concision, it is well to remember that it is sometimes carried to excess, brevity being attained by obscuring the sense. Thus we find George Eliot saying: “Persons denied aspirates, gained wealth;” a phrase which for a moment creates bewilderment by reason of the “denied” appearing to be in the active voice.

A light bulb went on: “denied” is passive! Persons who were denied aspirates [i.e., dropped their aitches, i.e., were lower class] gained wealth! Bless you, Annie Besant, and bless you, internet!


Incidentally, a few pages later in the same chapter occurs this amusing and impressively sensible passage:

‘What must Rosy know, mother?’ said Mr Fred, who had slid in unobserved through the half-open door while the ladies were bending over their work, and now going up to the fire stood with his back towards it, warming the soles of his slippers.
‘Whether it’s right to say “superior young men”,’ said Mrs Vincy ringing the bell.
‘Oh, there are so many superior teas and sugars now. Superior is getting to be shopkeepers’ slang.’
‘Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?’ said Rosamond, with mild gravity.
‘Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class.’
‘There is correct English: that is not slang.’
‘I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.’

Comments

  1. I think removing the comma would have added impressively to the clarity. Note the hypercorrection of sensible “people” to legalistic “persons” in the quotation of the quotation.

  2. Vance Maverick says:

    I read it the other way — people who could no longer add spurious aspirates to the beginnings of words gained wealth. (I can’t come up with a solid example, but I know I’ve seen added initial H’s in Victorian eye-dialect.) Either could work.

  3. people who could no longer add spurious aspirates to the beginnings of words
    But what does that mean? Why would anyone no longer be able to add spurious aspirates to the beginnings of words?

  4. I’m not clear on who is doing the denying. (I can’t accept “society” or “the world”, like in the parallel “people denied those advantages”, because aspirates are free.)

  5. They went out of fashion, they came into fashion, they went out of fashion… in dribs and drabs they moved.
    This is why North Americans mainly say ‘erb for herb (and it sounds _so_ American!), but most everyone says ‘our for hour.

  6. Vance Maverick says:

    Sorry — I’m guessing that Eliot’s referring to a person in whose dialect/accent “ear” is pronounced “hear” (made-up example). This person would have to deny him/herself the aspirate in order to seem educated and gain wealth.

  7. Odd. I read it the opposite, continuing the parallel:
    “Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: (some) people denied aspirates, (some) gained wealth…” meaning some dropped their Hs (slipped downward) and some got money (higher footing).

  8. Vance Maverick says:

    The problem with that is the syntactic irregularity of the parallel. Verb, verb; participle, verb. Unless you mean that someone who drops his H’s is “denying” them, like Peter denying Jesus.

  9. Surely it means “denied aspirates by their birth”?
    Love the correct English is a slang…

  10. Surely it means “denied aspirates by their birth”?
    Yes, exactly, just as we say those born into poverty are denied the advantages the well-off take for granted.
    Love the correct English is a slang…
    Yes, it’s one of the many passages that pull me up short and make me think “That gal was a smart cookie with unexpected insights, and I would love to have been seated next to her at dinner.”

  11. @Vance: That is how I read it. If they’re slipping downwards, their speech is getting “sloppy” and they’re no longer saying aspirates they once did. A straight parallel.

  12. Ah, that does make sense. But I don’t think that “those born into poverty are denied the advantages the well-off take for granted” is quite the same–in that case, would you say that their _birth_ denies them the advantages, or that the world-in-general (prejudiced by their birth) does the actual denying? I’d say the latter.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    I agree with Vance and The Ridger: there has to be a syntactic parallelism in this sentence, as there is in the previous one, so “denied” has to be a past tense (active) verb, not a (passive) participle. It would be different if there was no comma.

  14. I don’t recall that passage, but that’s no surprise. I have a singular poor memory for prose.
    The Hat’s explanation sounds sensible. But I think there’s something about the aitch-less classes adding spurious aitches (or should that be ‘haitches’?) when trying to sound more ‘edumacated’. They essentially don’t know what ‘the rules’ are so they hypercorrect. Ear becomes hear, our becomes hower (as does hour), out becomes howt and so on (I think). It might even affect Wales, Welsh, well, one, I imagine, if they try to aspirate what, where, when too.

  15. Tom Wootton says:

    “‘Ard boiled heggs”, was by no means an unusual type of pronunciation by those feeling oppressed by a perceived lowness of birth.
    Naturally the aspirate was not pronounced, but feeling the lack of it, there was a felt need to show its presence where it was not needed.
    Hence the slightly comic pronounciation.
    I’m sure there must be examples in Dickens, but this specific one comes from the TV adaptation of The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

  16. there has to be a syntactic parallelism in this sentence, as there is in the previous one, so “denied” has to be a past tense (active) verb, not a (passive) participle.
    No, it’s quite impossible as an active. Do not be misled by the comma; punctuation was used very differently back then.

  17. John Emerson says:

    I wonder how much of Eliot’s observation about correct English was due to the fact that the standardization of English was still in process, or had just been completed. I haven’t studied this, but in my casual reading it seems that most writers before 1820, or perhaps even later, used non-standard spellings and grammar pretty often. As far as I know, they didn’t follow a different standard; there just was no enforced standard at all.
    In conjunction with Boswell he’s amusing, but Sam Johnson has a lot to answer for. Boswell and the other commenter (Mrs. Williams??) frequently do disagree with Sam.

  18. J. Del Col says:

    She’s talking about unexpected upward mobility.
    Those without ‘aitches’ could now make money.
    It seemed clear enough to me on the first reading.

  19. Curse English irregular verbs! I’m not saying I insist on that reading (as in I read-present tense) but that was how I interpreted it (read-past tense). I can now see the other interpretation.

  20. Meesher says:

    You get the phantom aitches where someone knows that *some* vowel-initial words get the aspirate in the prestigious dialect, but not which, hence Tom Wootton’s “ard boiled heggs.”
    It’s a similar effect to to the addition of prestigious /r/ after final vowels, as in JFK’s alleged “Panamar.”
    I’ve heard that pronouncing the name of the letter “haitch” or “aitch” is a shibboleth splitting Catholic Irish from everyone else in the British Isles, respectively. I’m inclined to doubt that, but without evidence.

  21. Breffni says:

    Meesher: what you’ve heard about the “haitch” shibboleth is more or less true. I’m not sure about southern Protestant speech; I haven’t noticed either way. A Lexis Nexis search of Irish newspapers gives 702 hits for “a HSE” (Health Services Executive) to only 65 for “an HSE”, so to date at least, “haitch” has been a de facto standard in Irish English. This may change: I notice certain RTE broadcasters using “aitch”, and it may even be a house standard, but I don’t know how influential that’s likely to be. I would certainly use “a HSE executive / report” if my audience was primarily Irish.

  22. J. Del Col says:

    She may also have been indulging in ironic wordplay on ‘aspirates’ and ‘aspirations.’

  23. David Harmon says:

    I like the idea of “haitch” — normally H is one of two English letters whose name does not present its primary sound (The other is W).
    In the original quote, I read “denied” as passive right off, but missed “aspirates” — I thought it was some archaic format of “aspirations”. (And surely that “slant pun” was in the writer’s thoughts!)

  24. fimus scarabaeus says:

    exasperated it is to be one of those of us that ” ad a heducation while fishin’ ‘unting’ and shootin’”
    before auntie beeb went visual, it be common as dirt to ‘ear the ‘eadmaster spout diction to us that never ‘ad ‘eard henglish spoke propar like.
    See if thee get an edufication then thee lose the wit to make some brass as thee give up using ones mitt to muck about in the mire.
    Many a plumber makes as much any doctor.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    I, too, was completely misled by the comma. Two words: Second Amendment.

    A Lexis Nexis search of Irish newspapers gives 702 hits for “a HSE” (Health Services Executive) to only 65 for “an HSE”, so to date at least, “haitch” has been a de facto standard in Irish English.

    I wouldn’t count this as evidence, because the abbreviation may be meant to be pronounced in full rather than as an abbreviation. I’ve often seen a rather than an in front of abbreviations that begin with L, M, N, R or S.

  26. Breffni says:

    David Marjanović wrote: “I wouldn’t count this as evidence, because the abbreviation may be meant to be pronounced in full rather than as an abbreviation.”
    Good point; I’ve seen that practice too (e.g., “a SLA researcher”), and I hadn’t thought of it. So I’ve done the same searches under “UK Broadsheets” (in the UK, HSE means mainly “Health and Safety Executive”). The figures are 170 “an HSE” to 13 “a HSE” – and 5 of those 13 hits are in reference to the Irish HSE, possibly in the Irish editions of the titles in question: I found it hard to tell.
    So UK broadsheets clearly favour the “spelled-out” reading of this abbreviation (and presumably other non-pronounceable ones). Assuming that Irish papers share this preference, the simplest explanation for the Ireland/UK “a/an HSE” split is that Irish subeditors tend to read H as “haitch”.

Speak Your Mind

*