Irons in the Fire.

I’ve already posted a couple of excerpts of rumination on the speech of Englishpersons from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series (in The Worst There Is and A Dog Snapping at a Gnat), and to those who may have had enough of them I apologize for posting a third and even longer one from Dawn’s Left Hand (which we’re now reading), but I know AJP likes them, so he at least will appreciate this (“Hypo” is H. G. Wells, “Alma” is his wife; the first speaker is Miriam, the autobiographical heroine, whom Hypo jocularly calls Miretta):

‘I want you to repeat something for me.’ She turned to her food as the patient waiter passed on and Alma’s eye, coming round once more, reassured, took another direction; a happy sense of security closed about her, the certainty that neither his adroitness nor Alma’s permanent readiness to create diversions would prevent the launching of her discovery upon its beneficent career.

‘Say, being careful to speak slowly, “Too many irons in the fire.”’

‘Is this a parlour game? You are a dear, Miriam.’

‘It’s the time and the place and the topic, all together. Speak.’

‘There’s nothing in reason I wouldn’t do for you, Miretta, even to saying too many irons in the fire.’

‘Too fast. I wanted to beat time to the convulsions.’

[…]

‘Every one,’ she said, free to speak at ease, ‘excepting most of the people here and their like, suffer, when they say those words, seven separate, face-distorting convulsions.’

[…]

‘Tooo, men-ny, eye-erns, in, the fy-er. Incessant chin-wagging. Jaws moving round like grindstones. Toom-ny ahns in’th’fah. Just two small snaps.’

‘Labour-saving. I see your point. But it costs beauty.’

‘English vowels are ugly to begin with. “I” deserves all its sufferings. The people I am talking about, whose speech—at least the men’s speech—has been shaped at public school and college, turn it into a German “o” modified. And they do the same with the equally ugly English “a.” “All that has made England great” becomes with them “öl thöt hös möd England gröht.” And they do so not because they recognize that the sound of the vowels is ugly, but for a much more fascinating reason. And the genteel middle classes turn the ugly “i” into “e” or “a”: “refined” becomes “refaned” or “refeened.” Also for a fascinating reason which is not the same as the reason of those socially above them. And they, too, jib at “a.” “Diana, where is your black hat?” becomes “Di-enna, where is your bleck het?”

‘Below these, and for still another fascinating reason, you get “a” turned into “oy” or “ah,” “refoined” or “refahnd.” The only people who preserve the native hideousness of the English “i” and “a” are the cultured middle classes, academics, and all those who don’t care what happens to their faces while they speak so long as their speech is what they imagine to be correct. Respect for beauty is not the cause either of correct English speech or its various manglings, nor of the way English words are accented, nor of the way the English walk. Look at the swing of a Highland regiment. Swirling pipes and swaying kilts, and swinging tread that keeps the body always balanced in movement and never with dead flat foot upon the ground. English march music pounds its beats like someone hitting out, and if you put Englishmen into kilts the kilts would not swing to the march.’

‘Get back to your theme, Miriam. If labour-saving isn’t the point, what is?’

‘There are, of course, people with no ear, or with badly developed speech-organs, speaking horribly, in all classes; but they are not the originators of any of the jargons. And the jargon we are specially considering, the one that is most hated, by those not born to it, because it is upper class and seems supercilious as well as affected, is honest and innocent.’

‘Origin, origin.’

‘Innocent and most desperately interesting. The other jargons, the middle- and lower-class, are innocent too, but less interesting. The middle-class jargon is mincing: originates in a genteel aspiration, a desire to keep the mouth closed. Hence refaned, and nace, and nane. Or, in people with very long noses, refeened, and neece, and neene. The lower-class variations, like the provincial, originate in a hearty revelling in sound, especially in open-mouthed vowels. And when people discuss the possibility of English becoming a world speech, I always wonder which English they have in mind. Speech is the Englishman’s only gesture. Hence its heavy accentuation. All the jargons have that. An undergraduate accents his speech exactly as he accents his walk, in jerks.’

‘Point, Miriam. What is the origin of the speech you, a professed Socialist, are now found treacherously adoring?’

‘I’m not taking sides any more. You can’t have a middle without edges, right and left. Or edges without a middle.’

‘Nonsense. I’m interested in your thread, and have a sneaking sympathy with the way you festoon and tie it in knots. But if you have a point to make, make it. In the straight and narrow way.’

‘Narrow; exactly. That’s for action. In speech the straight and narrow way is always either a lie or an exhibition. That is the curse of speech: its inability to express several things simultaneously. All the unexpressed things come round and grin at everything that is said. One day I shall become a Trappist.’

‘Wait; a few years. Meanwhile make your point.’

‘The point is a technique, born of a spiritual condition. A state of mind, if you prefer. But the condition and the technique are so closely akin that you can actually make discoveries about the state of mind by experimentally adopting the technique. It is, up to a point, of course only up to a point, true, that if you speak in a certain way you will feel correspondingly. Anyhow you can know that the technique was honestly born. And is so born again and again, although it now appears to go ahead in its own right as the manner of a single class, and those who grow up in it, or acquire it at school or college, use it quite naturally.’

‘Spiritual condition, state of mind. Point, Miriam.’

‘Concentration. Imagine yourself in a position of responsibility, a prefect in a public school …’

‘Heaven forbid.’

‘A prefect, obliged to canalize all your forces and have all your wits about you, in order to remain the composed and authoritative representative of a code. You won’t spend your strength on elocution, unless you are an aesthete, which is unlikely, since, if you were, you would not also be a prefect. Being a prefect, you will instinctively avoid all sounds that tend to discompose your authoritative and dignified mug. Hence Ieee left myeee bag at the staytion becomes öh löft m’bög at th’stöshn, and all the rest of it. Ineffable, of course, in a sixth-form boy. But it begins there, and then goes through the services, all over the dominions and colonies, and for a reason probably quite easy to find, is rampant in the Indian Civil. Surroundings perhaps. And in the diplomatic, where graciousness and bonhomie are as important as dignified composure, and authority is not specially called for, I will wager that there is less jargon and more face-convulsion. Humbug, in fact: facial animation, to disarm. People who speak beautifully, like those who have beautiful handwriting, are usually either humbugs or charlatans. Not that a touch of these is necessarily bad. Or they are Scotch or Irish. Shaw speaks beautifully. But he’s never been an English prefect or commanded a battleship, or stood on the terrace of an ancestral home gazing out across an empire. So he can afford to let himself go on musical sounds. And be witty in and out of season. That’s all, I think. Just that the apparently deliberate jargon of these Romans is, in its origin, both innocent and inevitable. But there is one frightful exception: the way some, only some, of them elaborate one of the a’s. When they say, for example, “South Ayahfrica,” and call a man a “mayan,” they are quite deliberately drawling. But perhaps, all things considered, it is pardonable, only, being so noticeable, it is the one fragment of their technique that is usually imitated by outsiders and, in them, can be simply intolerable. For all the rest it is surely better to force speech to pass through your composure and take its chance of damage, rather than to be obediently correct and let it throw you into convulsions. At any rate for men, who can so rarely speak quite spontaneously and beautifully. Flowingly, un-selfconsciously, without any definite tone-shape or technique, ugly and beautiful, of accentuation. That seems to be for women. But that is another whole big question. I only wish to show how unjustly the convention of these Romans is condemned.’

‘You’ve done it, I think, Miretta, quite triumphantly. But don’t waste yourself, your curious perceptiveness and your sensitively discriminating ear, on these clan dialects. Learn languages.’

By “Romans,” of course, she means the masters of the latter-day equivalent of the Roman Empire. And “Learn languages” is an exhortation close to my heart.

Comments

  1. Of course this is not RP but a caricature which Dorothy Richardson’s put into her character Miriam’s mouth.

    Miriam voices a strange opinion with her “seven separate, face-distorting convulsions” as if speaking clearly, and enunciating the diphthongs were silly. No real person uses “fy-er” to caricature anyone’s speech; and “eye-erns” is used that way only by Irish people who pronounce “iron” to rhyme with “Byron”. Miriam favours “ahns” and “fah”. This itself is a caricature of posh English speech. Your extract makes me wonder why Miriam, “a professed Socialist”, calls upper-class speech “honest and innocent” but has it in for the speech of the middle and lower class. And that “honest and innocent” speech is an accent of those who “avoid all sounds that tend to discompose your authoritative and dignified mug”.

    I find her attitude bizarre. It strikes me as an ill-assorted jumble of snobberies without a single focus. Readers are surely not meant to take it seriously.

  2. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I am glad to know that I could speak beautifully without being a humbug or a charlatan. Not that I actually do, but you know, if I wanted to!

    She really does think about these things too much, though.

  3. And as a writer of italic cursive, I am clearly a charlatan!

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    While mocking the natural speech habits of the privileged is assuredly less repellent than mocking the natural speech habits of the unprivileged, it’s still juvenile.

    This is just the flip side of the attitude: “Oh, I just love the [insert name of oppressed group]! They’re so wonderfully authentic.” Members of the group in question tend, mysteriously, to be unimpressed by this.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    That is the curse of speech: its inability to express several things simultaneously.

    This statement is so egregiously wrong as to demonstrate that the speaker has in fact never given the matter any serious consideration at all.

  6. Yes, I do indeed like them – and her (I particularly like ‘you can’t be both an aesthete and a prefect’) – and appreciate this excerpt. The styles of speech she quotes are so transient. Many of her examples have disappeared during the past century: öh löft m’bög at th’stöshn is right out of Brief Encounter, The middle-class’s refaned, nace, and nane is something you read in the William books but I never encountered it (b.1953) myself.

    Of course this is RP
    No. Not only is it as Rosie says a caricature but it’s an example that the speech of the middle & upper classes in the UK & Ireland is often quite far from the perceived standard of RP. A perfect RP accent is Michael Aspel‘s (starting at 1:07), the former BBC TV newsreader, a Dan Rather equivalent. And now here’s Will Sharpe, upper-middle background (Winchester & Cambridge), someone you’d perhaps expect to speak RP; but it’s really changed in the past thirty years, he has Cockney and northern bits in his speech. The same with Johnson, the PM, (he’s a good example of ‘Speech is the Englishman’s only gesture. Hence its heavy accentuation. All the jargons have that. An undergraduate accents his speech exactly as he accents his walk, in jerks’) who pronounces vowels in ‘prorogation’ and ‘to’ as pror-oagation and tu as if he were a Cockney (Prince Harry does this tuu).

  7. It’s juvenile in the sense that young people tend to question things, mostly some embodiment of the status quo, by mockery. That should be encouraged.

  8. PlasticPaddy says:

    On reading refaned or nace I pictured Miss Jean Brodie and the Creme de la Creme of her students. Was this sort of regionally accented educated speech intended?

  9. I always thought–did I read it long ago, or is it only the casual inference of an American?–that pronunciations like “refaned” and “nace” were hypercorrections of Cockney speech.

  10. While mocking the natural speech habits of the privileged is assuredly less repellent than mocking the natural speech habits of the unprivileged, it’s still juvenile.

    She’s a young woman, not a graybeard judge. And do you never mock anybody? Even with a couple of good friends? If all your utterances are consistently sensible, well-judged, and inoffensive, you’re a better man than I.

  11. And you’d make a boring character for a novel.

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    I wonder how many people would consider Miriam an interesting one!

  13. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    The linguistic comments I remember from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie are the contrast between Miss Brodie’s ‘English’ “Good mawning” and the “Good morrrrning” of the rest of the staff (emphasised as if to rhyme with ‘scorn’), and the policewoman who asks Jenny if she saw something ‘nesty’, and prompts Sandy to comment that people who say ‘nesty’ are ‘neither one thing or the other’. (Presumably Miss Brodie and half-English Sandy would say ‘nawsty’?)

    But I don’t think there’s any explicit criticism of Edinburgh English, or even the Scots of the Cowgate – Miss Brodie is hardly held up as an ideal example!

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    My record of posting here proves conclusively that I am invariably sensible, well-judging, inoffensive and boring. I need say no more. Si monumentum requiris …

    Fair points, AJP, Hat. “Autobiographical heroine” surely does not preclude the possibilty that DR is in fact mocking her younger self to some degree, moreover.

  15. I wonder how many people would consider Miriam an interesting one!

    My wife and I do, and we’re actually reading the novels.

    “Autobiographical heroine” surely does not preclude the possibilty that DR is in fact mocking her younger self to some degree, moreover.

    She definitely mocks her younger self.

  16. And it always bemuses me when people react to things characters say in novels by treating them as 1) direct expressions of the author’s views and/or 2) components of an instruction manual for life.

  17. David Eddyshaw says:

    Well, to be fair, there are authors who intend exactly that, though hardly any worth reading.

    However, I don’t think it’s that uncommon for authors to smuggle in their own opinions by putting them in the mouth of an appealing character, only to claim a sort of plausible deniability if anybody calls them out on said opinions.

    To put opinions that you yourself strongly support in the mouth of a repellent character must take considerable discipline, and to really pull it off aesthetically you’d need to be a very good writer indeed.

  18. However, I don’t think it’s that uncommon for authors to smuggle in their own opinions by putting them in the mouth of an appealing character, only to claim a sort of plausible deniability if anybody calls them out on said opinions.

    Sure, but so what? Whether or not they are “actually” the author’s views (at the moment of writing), to discuss them as if that’s what they were, rather than as a piece in the mosaic of a work of fiction, is reductive and pointless. All of life is not an op-ed.

  19. To put opinions that you yourself strongly support in the mouth of a repellent character must take considerable discipline, and to really pull it off aesthetically you’d need to be a very good writer indeed.

    Oh, I think you exaggerate. It’s like marveling that actors can portray people very unlike themselves; “that’s why they call it acting,” as they say.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    I can’t say I’m coming up with many examples of authors putting their own cherished opinions into the mouths of unpleasant characters at all, let alone making good literature out of it. I don’t mean cases where the author simply represents the character as an odious hypocrite (that’s easy): I mean where the author truly depicts some nasty piece of work as motivated by all the right ideas (again, “nasty piece of work”, not “flawed hero tragically led to do evil despite the noblest intentions.”)

    I think it’s quite an imaginative leap to actually believe that some of the people perfectly genuinely on your own side are actually quite horrible, perhaps harder than realising that there are people out there with truly disgusting opinions who are in other respects really quite nice.

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    (On the other hand, I suppose that’s what families are for.)

  22. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    AJP Crown:
    “Many of her examples have disappeared during the past century: öh löft m’bög at th’stöshn is right out of Brief Encounter, The middle-class’s refaned, nace, and nane is something you read in the William books but I never encountered it (b.1953) myself.”

    Funny you should mention Brief Encount, as IIRC the tea-room lady speaks with that sort of hyper-correct lower middle class accent, featuring “refaned” etc.

    Anyway, here’s a nice blog post about it: https://www.englishspeechservices.com/blog/refayned-english/

  23. I think it’s quite an imaginative leap to actually believe that some of the people perfectly genuinely on your own side are actually quite horrible

    Oh, I’ve had no problem with that for the last half century, since moving in “progressive” (antiwar, antiracism, etc.) circles in my college years. Lots of people with good ideas are bad people. I would say, in fact, that unless and until one understands that, one has no business trying to make pronouncements about politics.

  24. Melvyn Bragg interviews Kathy Acker in 1984. No connection (except that it’s a woman writer), and probably no one reading this will be an Acker fan or even enjoy her very non-traditional writing (which I’ve been a fan of since buying Blood and Guts in High School‎ in 1986), but I want to put the link here so I can find it in future; it’s full of great images of New York in the early ’80s (my city!).

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suppose that it depends rather a lot on how important the opinion in question is to you. I, for example, am perfectly happy to remain on cordial terms with someone who erroneously believes that Edinburgh is a better city than Glasgow (perhaps with a sotto voce “there, but for the grace of God”) but I do not feel I could ever truly love a Chomskyite. We are not called upon to do the impossible.

  26. I do not feel I could ever truly love a Chomskyite

    You’ve slipped back to “people with bad ideas.” We were talking about bad people with good ideas.

  27. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    Glasgow is welcome to believe itself better, as long as I don’t have to live there.

  28. The Edinburgh/Glasgow thing is sort of like Petersburg/Moscow; we don’t really have an equivalent in the US, because nothing can even pretend to compete with New York.

    *waves cheerfully at Angelenos*

  29. David Eddyshaw says:

    We were talking about bad people with good ideas.

    Stalin denounced Marrism in Pravda. Got to give the guy credit …

  30. Petersburg/Moscow

    Do you mean Нерезиновск vs Поребрик-сити?

  31. That’s it!

  32. Anyone who knows Russian should check out Olga Lukas’s Поребрик из бордюрного камня for many examples (with illustrations).

  33. Andrej Bjelaković: IIRC the tea-room lady speaks with that sort of hyper-correct lower middle class accent, featuring “refaned” etc.
    Yes! I was vaguely thinking it was an imitation that John Cleese occasionally used but I couldn’t quite place it. Of course it’s the Norwegian blue. I wonder where Cleese picked it up. It sounds like a trade union shop steward or a traffic warden or a local council official, someone Peter Sellers also might have imitated. And as Geoff Lindsey says, the accent is as dead as the parrot.

    Would any British accent group today initiate a shift designed “to sound as if one belonged to a higher social class than one really does”?

    No, they wouldn’t. In terms of income, education & prestige people in Britain are as upwardly mobile as they ever were but this wouldn’t gain you anything. Quite the reverse, I suspect. You’d sound like a wally.

    Thanks, Andrej!

  34. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    You’re welcome!

    The only other example I can think of is Sgt. Colon in the audio book version of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (the ones Stephen Briggs narrated).

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re “considerable discipline” for the writer to put his own ideas in the mouths of certain unheroic characters, that controversial fellow Leo Strauss once noted that we find “in the greatest literature of the past so many interesting devils, madmen, beggars, sophists, drunkards, epicureans and buffoons,” and theorized that this was how writers with interesting thoughts that if otherwise expressed could get them in serious trouble with the political/religious/etc authorities of their day managed to get those controversial ideas out on the table with a wink and a nod for serious consideration by their readers. I expect 19th century Russian lit (which not only our esteemed host but no doubt others here know much more about that I do) might be a fruitful source of examples relevant to this hypothesis? As well as 1917-1991 Russian lit not written in diaspora, of course.

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    BTW I am modestly disappointed that no one has yet risen up in high dudgeon to proclaim that of course he or she is a huge Kathy Acker fan and hat has misjudged his audience. Not sure if I can make that claim myself with a straight face, although I expect she was more interesting than many of the other folks she got pigeonholed with (although I can’t say how much blame she might bear herself for how she got pigeonholed). I have seen some youtube clips of her live-performance collaboration with the Mekons, which struck me on balance as a failed experiment but perhaps nonetheless an experiment worth having tried and thus no negative reflection on anyone involved.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JWB:

    I was wondering about Russian literature in that very connexion (I thought of Ivan Karamazov but he really doesn’t fit the bill.)

    It seems to me too that if anybody were to do this right it would be the great Russians (and in fact I was half-hoping that Hat and our fellow-Hatskis would duly produce lots of examples.)

  38. I have seen some youtube clips of her live-performance collaboration with the Mekons, which struck me on balance as a failed experiment

    Quite so, but how well would, say, Dostoevsky have fared in collaboration with the Mekons?

  39. Not that I’m comparing Kathy Acker with Dostoevsky; I didn’t say she was great, just that I liked her.

  40. She was, by the way, a big fan of 19th-century Russian literature and once compared NYC to prerevolutionary Petersburg. (Not very successfully, but still.)

  41. S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador is about how a bunch of deplorables (unreconstructed Confederates and Afrikaners, Mafiosi, pieds-noirs, former Waffen-SS, etc.) create something like an environmentalist utopia in an AU California (though for the Indians, not so much). In the front matter, Stirling quotes Larry Niven as follows: “There is a technical literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot’.”

    Note also that one of Heinlein’s characters is a benevolent government bureaucrat.

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    Note also that one of Heinlein’s characters is a benevolent government bureaucrat.

    I take it this is a shocking twist for Americans?

  43. Not for me, but it’s a shocking twist for anyone familiar with Heinlein’s post-1950 libertarian (certainly not reactionary) political opinions. Dr. Ftaeml also counts as a benevolent government employee, though he’s a non-human person.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    The Edinburgh/Glasgow thing is sort of like Petersburg/Moscow; we don’t really have an equivalent in the US, because nothing can even pretend to compete with New York.

    *waves cheerfully at Angelenos*

    Well, “there is New York, and there is America”…

    The Viennese, of course, actually believe the rest of Austria is countryside. 🙂

  45. Dubliners have been known to say that there is Dublin, and then there is the rest of the country, which is grass.

  46. Paris and the French desert.

  47. BTW I am modestly disappointed that no one has yet risen up in high dudgeon to proclaim that of course he or she is a huge Kathy Acker fan and hat has misjudged his audience.

    I will second that. Also not a „huge“ fan but she was certainly an influence back in college. I also have that Mekons CD packed in a box in New Hampshire somewhere.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    Never heard la France profonde described as a desert, unless superbled counts.

  49. I thought it’s a saying, but apparently it’s a book.

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