Whodunit sociolinguistics

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In order to pass the time on the long flight back from Paris, I downloaded a set of classic Margery Allingham mysteries. And in reading them, I was struck now and again by interesting and unexpected linguistic trivia. Thus in  Look to the Lady1931 [emphasis added]:

Mr Campion was introduced, and there was a momentary awkward pause. A quick comprehending glance passed between him and the elder girl, a silent flicker of recognition, but neither spoke. Penny sensed the general embarrassment and came to the rescue, chattering on breathlessly with youthful exuberance.  

'I forgot you didn't know Beth,' she said. 'She came just after you left. She and her people have taken Tye Hall. They're American, you know. It's glorious having neighbours again – or it would be if Aunt Di hadn't behaved so disgustingly. My dear, if Beth and I hadn't conducted ourselves like respectable human beings there'd be a feud.'  

Beth laughed. 'Lady Pethwick doesn't like strangers,' she said, revealing a soft unexpectedly deep voice with just a trace of a wholly delightful New England accent.

That last phrase surprised me, since I thought that the British attitude towards American accents has always been rather negative. Thus Yuki Hiraga, "British attitudes toward six varieties of English in the USA and Britain", World Englishes 2005 [emphasis added]:

This paper examines British attitudes to six varieties of English in Britain and the USA. In Britain, there seems to be an ingrained, cross-generational aversion to American English and yet, surprisingly according to Giles (1970), British people rate British regional varieties spoken in industrial conurbations such as Birmingham and Manchester much lower than American English in terms both of ‘pleasantness’ and ‘prestige’. To re-examine this, I designed a practical experiment using techniques used in the field of Language Attitude Studies. The experiment drew on and benefited from the fields of both social psychology and sociolinguistics.Honing the technique used in two preceding studies, Giles (1970) and Carranza and Ryan (1975), the experiment was carried out to investigate British attitudes towards not only one variety of American English, but also other regional varieties of that same national variety. It suggested that the British popular aversion to American English was more complex, highlighting, as a reason, the pervasive influence of British class on accent prestige. This study confirmed the existence of a cross-national, tripartite hierarchical framework of accent prestige, divisible into ‘standard’, ‘rural’ and ‘urban’, first suggested by Wilkinson (1965). Sharpening the focus of Giles’ study, my experiment also found that only Network American was significantly more favoured than British regional varieties.

(For some evidence that evaluations of the "pleasantness" and "beauty" of accents are socially constructed, see e.g. "The beauty of Brummie", 7/24/2004.)

So Hirage found that maybe Brummie is even more stigmatized than some American varieties —  but that hardly gives us Beth's "wholly delightful New England accent".

Were attitudes towards American speech patterns among the English upper classes different in 1931? After all, Edward VIII did abdicate the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936, though it hadn't previously occurred to me that her upper-class Baltimore accent might have been a significant part of her appeal. Or was Margery Allingham just expressing a bit of the perverse irony characteristic of her fictional detective Albert Campion?

Here's an example of a different kind, from Police at the Funeral. Joyce, the fiancée of Albert Campion's college friend Marcus, sets the stage this way:

First of all there’s Great-aunt Caroline Faraday. I can’t possibly describe her, but fifty years ago she was a great lady, wife of Great-uncle Doctor Faraday, Master of Ignatius. She’s been a great lady ever since. She was eighty-four last year, but is still quite the most live person in the household and she still runs the show rather grandly, like Queen Elizabeth and the Pope rolled into one.

St. Ignatius is the fictional Cambridge college that Albert Campion attended. Later on, after the book's first murder, Campion's friend Inspector Stanislaus Oates encounters Aunt Caroline, with frustrating results:

Stanislaus Oates went on grumbling.

‘Just because I speak twelve different varieties of Yiddish and can carry on a conversation with a tight Swede sailor, all of which are invaluable in the East End, I get promoted and promptly sent down on a case like this,’ he began. ‘I tell you, Campion, I can handle an East Lane harridan with Czech and Chinese blood in her veins, but that Mrs Faraday is beyond me, you know. She speaks another new language I’ve got to learn.'

I knew that there was a history of Eastern European Jews living in London's East End, but it hadn't occurred to me that "twelve different varieties of Yiddish" might be needed to deal with them. But it makes sense — as this page on The Jewish East End explains:

The 1901 Census registers 95,425 Russian and Polish Jews as being settled in Britain, and by 1911 the numbers stood at 106,082.  

In addition approximately 20,000 German, Austrian, Dutch and Rumanian Jews had also entered the country after the turn of the century.  

It should be remembered that the census does not count children born in this country in the figures.  The Aliens Act of 1906 was a panic attempt to stop the influx of refugees, but a fortunate change of government meant it was not seriously applied.

The war in 1914 brought the influx to a sudden halt.


By 1914, 90 per cent of all Jews in England would live in the crowded streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and St George's in the East.

(It seems that the Aliens Act is more commonly dated to 1905. Useful in any case to be reminded that immigration panic in England is nothing new…)

In reading that passage Police at the Funeral, I was more surprised by the idea that an Inspector at Scotland Yard in 1931 would find Mrs. Faraday's discourse to be "another new language" — I had the impression that the higher ranks of Scotland Yard in that period would have been occupied by men familiar with U English, if not from the cradle then at least by education and professional experience. But either this was not generally true, or Mr. Oates is being presented as an exception.


  1. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    I would guess that the Inspector doesn't mean "another new language" literally–he means that to understand what Mrs. Faraday is saying, one has to understand Mrs. Faraday, and that's more difficult than any mere language barrier.

    [(myl) That could be. In fact, the communication problems in the interview under discussion were actually caused by the fact that Oates sat in the wrong chair.]

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 9:49 am

    Is 1931 too early for the perceived delightfulness of a New England accent to have consisted of regional expressions like, e.g. "wicked pissah"?

    [(myl) Maybe the wrong time, but certainly the wrong class.]

  3. mollymooly said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 10:52 am

    My impression is that there are many British people who are quite content to listen to Americans speaking American, but don't like their fellow Britons adopting American manners. Exotic = good, invasive = bad.

    FWIW I think Irish people find Australian accents much less pleasant than American accents; though Brits may differ, and the prevalence of Aussie soap operas since the 1980s has probably changed things in both countries.

  4. richardelguru said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 12:30 pm

    Then there was Betjeman's Longfellow's Visit to Venice "To be read in a quiet New England accent" which has the something about sentiments being "melodiously mingled in my warm New England breast".

  5. richardelguru said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

    For 'the something' read 'something' throughout.
    (Can't proofread for toffee)

  6. pj said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 12:33 pm

    I wonder if the 'just a trace of' contributes to the 'wholly delightful' impression? Just slightly exotic and interesting, not alien or threatening or uncouth. She won't frighten the horses.
    It's harder to imagine her 'revealing a soft unexpectedly deep voice with a strong and wholly delightful New England accent.'
    In any case, it seems that that value judgement is probably being presented as implicitly a character viewpoint (Campion's?) with which not everyone – least of all Aunt Di – may agree.

  7. Susan Ransom said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 12:47 pm

    You don't seem to have considered the marketing—Allingham had a huge American following and had every reason to consider their accents delightful. Isn’t the young widow in Flowers for the Judge, in spite of being American, also rather attractive?

    And as to Oates, he is saying something about his own background and Campion’s. Oates has been promoted through the ranks through his own merit, not “from the cradle.” Mrs. Faraday went to school with Campion’s mother and they are still great friends. We don’t know who Campion is, but we do know that his mother is at least a duchess and possibly a princess. Oates would have dealt with people of various ranks in his “education and professional experience,” but Mrs. Faraday, though she is a commoner, is something else. She is not only personally formidable (even to Campion) but has friends in the royal family. There probably aren’t more than a hundred women in England with her combination of breeding, privilege, and bossiness. She is Countess Violet without the sense of humor.

  8. Martyn Cornell said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 3:50 pm

    Minor point: the abducation was 1936, not 1934

    [(myl) Oops — fixed now. Is "abducation" a Joycean eggcorn, or just a typo?]

  9. Brett said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 4:18 pm

    As I recall, the aristocracy being intentionally inscrutable is a recurring theme in the Campion books. It takes many different forms, and Campion is perhaps the most inscrutable of all, for he is mysterious in different ways to the high and the low.

  10. DCBob said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:27 pm

    Nice post! A propos of Hiraga's finding that "only Network American was significantly more favoured than British regional varieties" it might be useful to note that I found that my own version of Network American was closer to Received Pronunciation than it was to all but 10 percent of the English regional dialect speakers recorded in the Survey of English Dialects; and conversely, that less than 30 percent of the English regional dialect speakers had speech that was closer to Received Pronunciation than was mine.

  11. Matt_M said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

    @DCBob: those are curiously precise findings. How did you measure closeness to RP?

  12. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 6:17 pm

    I have lived in Massachusetts for about 60 years now and I have yet to hear anyone say "wicked pissah."

  13. David Morris said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

    Abducation is when you renounce your title as a duke.

    [(myl) I was thinking that it referenced dropping out of (formal) education.]

  14. DCBob said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 7:16 pm

    Matt_M — A feature-based distance based on the approach of Almeida and Braun, applied mainly to vowels and rhotics in 55 words. You can find the details in "Quantitative assessment of English-American speech relationships" (pp.20-22).

  15. Avi Rappoport said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 8:56 pm

    Mr. Oates is very much being signaled as Non-U, not even Middle Class, though he's open to other cultures. This was before movies and much radio, so it would be hard for a lower class police officer to ever hear RP.

  16. Mr Punch said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 8:20 am

    I remember hearing, say 50 years ago, that some British (Scottish?) language organization had decided that the upper-class Boston ("Brahmin") version was in some sense the best English accent. Sad if true, as hardly anybody talks that way nowadays.

  17. Andrew said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:53 pm

    The only word I've seen used by Brits online in reaction to an American accent is "septic" (rhyming slang, "septic tank" for "Yank").

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