Berks and wankers: A Canadian reaction to Kingsley Amis’s English.

My father, born and raised in Alberta, pronounced schedule with a sh- sound: SHED-jool. I don’t know whether he innocently inherited this quirk from his parents or teachers or the radio announcers of his youth, or whether he deliberately adopted it at some point to be perverse; whether he used it un-self-consciously right to the end, or whether he clung to it as a badge of linguistic distinction. Knowing him as I did, I think I can say he was free of any desire to lord his fancy pronunciation over anyone. He just loved language, loved to haul out five-dollar words, and since he must have noticed that his schedule was at odds with nearly everyone else’s, I guess he simply preferred it that way, and damn what anyone else thought.

That’s why I adopted it. Pulled in two directions, by the tides of North American English usage and by my father’s influence, I wavered between SHED-jool and SKED-jool through my teenage years, then settled consciously and definitely on the oldfangled pronunciation as I entered adulthood. It was done under the same impulse, no doubt, that makes me favour fedoras and bow ties, get sentimental about long-dead Hollywood actresses, and spend my leisure time re-reading Plutarch.

I can definitely say I never had a desire to lord my fancy pronunciation over anyone. But still my friends would sneer when I said SHED-jool. “What?” I would retort. “It’s how my father says it.”

A few years ago I was having drinks with friends and we wound up talking about words that irritated us. I don’t remember how the conversation went, but I probably mentioned “little ones” (a trendy substitute for “babies” or “kids” that makes me think of Victorian paintings of prancing fairies) and the short-A pronunciation of bathed (as in “bath-ing the little one” instead of “giving the kid a bath”) as two phrases that made my jaw instinctively clench. Someone said how much they despised SHED-jool and everyone groaned in sympathy.

“I say SHED-jool,” I peeped.

“I know,” my friend replied. “And I hate it.”

So I stopped saying SHED-jool, or tried to; I slip back into it without meaning to now and then. It doesn’t come up all that often – say a couple times a year – so it may take me the rest of my life to train myself to consistently say SKED-jool. By then, possibly, some new pronunciation will have come in vogue.

***

In The King’s English, his idiosyncratic, cranky, and entertaining guide to English usage, Kingsley Amis divides abusers of the language into two broad classes:

Berks are careless, gross, crass, and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Some pronunciations Amis identifies as useful wanker-detectors, like hors d’oeuvres (“few non-wankers over the age of, say, twenty-one try to say the words in any Frenchified way”), issue (“to say ISSyou is a piece of pressi-OSSity”) and words starting with wh- (“[n]o affectation is easier to detect than a phoney HW beginning to wh- words”).

I’m innocent of over-Frenchification and I don’t think I’ve ever said ISS-you, but I have been known, when reading aloud, to say HWICH and HWAT; I’ll stop. Amis has no entry on schedule, which of course as an Englishman he would have pronounced as my father did, but I suppose a Canadian edition of The King’s English would include SHED-jool among its wanker-detectors, along with other Anglicisms like ROWT for route and LEZHer for leisure; I’ve used these too. (In the latter case, I say it that way only in mock-grandiosities like “man of leisure” or “at your leisure”, where I think it’s okay.) Herb with a sounded H is the usual British pronunciation (as against North American ERB), but no Canadian has ever complained of my affected H; however toe-MAH-toe, spoken by a North American, would strike even me as highly suspect.

I mentioned Amis’s warning about hors d’oeuvres. He provides three useful pages of common French or French-derived terms along with the non-wankerish, non-berkish way to say them. Despite Amis’s general rule that a speaker should, “when the language of conversation is English, avoid any attempt at exact French pronunciation, which can hinder the flow of talk,” I would identify at least two of his suggestions, if used by a Canadian, as wankerishly Frenchified: penchant, for which he recommends PON(G)shon(g) while mocking Americans “who say penshant, as if they thought it was an English word”, and plaque, for which Amis prescribes “plahk rather than plack”. By contrast, his VALLit for valet and a-TATCH-y for attaché would in Canada be considered much more wankerish than the Frenchified versions, if they were comprehended at all. For macabre Amis memorably advises, “Imagine yourself addressing a Scot called Macarbrough”, i.e. muh-KAH-bruh; but I think muh-KAHB is perfectly comprehensible and better reflects the original French without injecting any distracting foreign sounds into the flow of talk.

Amis justly complains that “that right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion” by the forces of pedantry and political correctness. He mourns the loss of mar-SAILS for Marseilles – now shorn of its terminal S and universally pronounced in something like the French manner – and such long-established place names as Peking and Ceylon. (Since he wrote, Burma and Bombay have gone the same way.)

I would have liked some advice on what to do with foreign names containing non-English sounds. I vaguely recall a Woody Allen movie where someone’s (Diane Keaton’s?) insistence on pronouncing van Gogh with a guttural -gh sound at the end marked that character as a pretentious twit. I think self-respect demands van GO, and more or less BOCK for Bach and LOCK for a Scottish lake (with just the slightest effort to move the K sound to the back of the mouth; I was once scolded by a Scot for not trying harder, but I don’t see why I should be obliged to croak out non-English sounds while travelling in an English-speaking country). What else? There’s that hopeless German diphthong ö; I say GER-bels and GER-tuh for Goebbels and Goethe. Yet I guess I’m not quite self-respecting enough to insist on George Lewis BORE-jis for Jorge Luis Borges; I say HOR-hay lu-EES BORE-hess because I don’t want people to think I’m a total dummy. (For the same reason, I pronounce forte, in the sense of a strong suit, in the Italian style, for-TAY, even though I’m aware it derives from the French and is correctly pronounced FORT. What use is being right if everyone thinks you’re wrong?)

***

Complaining mildly of the crowding out of the older sense of gay by the newer, Amis concedes that

once a word is not only current, but accepted willy-nilly in a meaning, no power on earth can throw it out. The slightest acquaintance with changes in a language, or a minimum of thought, will show this truth.

But just thirty pages earlier, in his passage on disappearing English place names for foreign places, Amis has demonstrated that words can be thrown out quite rapidly, indeed willy-nilly, if there is a political will behind their banishment. Around the time (1997) The King’s English was published, Oriental, once the ordinary and uncontroversial term in North America for people who traced their ancestry to Asia’s Pacific rim, rapidly became taboo and was replaced with Asian. In the UK, Oriental is still used for our Asians, while Asian generally refers to people from the Indian subcontinent, whom over here we now call South Asians. Since this arrangement – the lexical monopolization of a whole continent by the natives of one or the other of its coasts – seems patently inadequate, I expect it too will be overturned in my lifetime. I’m hoping the helpful word Desi will come into wider use among English-speakers for the people and cultures of South Asia. But I’m aware of no comparable word for East Asia. Mongoloid might have done the trick if it hadn’t been made poisonous by its association with mental retardation.

Right now gay is undergoing a comparable renovation. A friend who works in a library told me about a poster that recently went up in the young adult section with the slogan, “That’s so gay is so yesterday.” In other words, the remaining negative connotations of gay – of effeminacy, uncoolness, overexcitability, trying too hard – are now to be swept away by fiat. I’m sure the campaign will be successful, although, in semi-conscious reaction against it, I lately find myself using or at least thinking gay in the “that’s so gay” sense more than I have since I was a teenager.

In theory there’s no reason why the two meanings of gay can’t coexist, the way black the racial group coexists with black the adjective meaning grim or gloomy. But of course blacks as a group aren’t thought of as particularly grim or gloomy, so the persistence of the other meaning doesn’t threaten them. Whereas gays as a group can be kind of gay, in the “that’s so gay” sense, as a look at the dudes shimmying on the floats at the Pride Parade will demonstrate. So unless “that’s so gay” can be purged of its meaning entirely – say, turned into a synonym for ugly or bland or some other concept that isn’t associated with gays – its use will necessarily be perceived as a slur.

***

Two examples of non-linguistic wankerish behaviour. First is the milk-in-first delusion, which is the notion common among Canadians that it’s somehow classier to put the milk in first when you’re pouring a cup of tea, as the British are thought to do. The irony being that among class-conscious Brits, milk-in-first was once (and perhaps still is?) thought to be rather common; Martin Amis and his peers had an adjective, miffy, that signified hopeless middle-classness. (I’ve written about this at greater length.) The wankerish behaviour isn’t putting the milk in first, or putting the milk in second; it’s passing comment in any way on the order you or someone else put the milk in. Shut up about it. It’s milk.

Similarly, until quite recently in North America it was considered unremarkable, in fact it was the usual thing, to put ice in a glass of Scotch. This is frowned on among Scotch aficionados, particularly those who learned their drinking in the UK. That’s fine; no-one’s saying you have to put ice in your Scotch, mate. But if someone else likes to, shut up, you wanker.

M.

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