If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do
Why, you might be selling flowers, too.
– Henry Higgins, My Fair Lady
Everyone knows writers are fascinated by words. I am no different. When I was growing up, I would spend hours reading the dictionary, investigating a word’s definition, etymology, and its phonetic representation. For this last, I’d assemble the word using the provided key, puzzling out the open vowels and constrained consonants.
The young voice that pronounced those words hasn’t changed much. It remains a mix of my father’s Cornish-inflected Wiltshire and my mother’s smoother Estuary/Kent: an accent that never stood out as I was growing up, except when we spent summer holidays with family in either Cornwall or Lancashire. (I loved these trips: with no holidays abroad, they were the very edges of my linguistic world.)
It wasn’t until I got to my thirties and quit my job to go to university that my voice – not the words I know, but how I say them – started to matter. I was questioned and corrected, told I sounded more Surrey than Swindon, and called Australian more times than I can count. It wasn’t too bad; I shrugged it off and went about my day. Cambridge was very different to my work making cars, and I had books to read, papers to write. I worked hard. This interest in my voice never really stopped, though. Mostly, it was gentle. We were acknowledging difference, and that can be fruitful and friendly.
Then, while studying for a PhD, I organised a post-graduate conference called ‘Writing Communities’, where papers could be delivered on community-facing research. After selecting complementary abstracts and helping with travel arrangements, I was looking forward to just being with my fellow academic students and hearing about their research. The day was going well; stimulating discussion, ideas being shared and critiqued, helpful suggestions coming thick and fast in the leafy surrounds of Falmouth University.
I’d bid for, and won, a small budget for the event, but it wasn’t quite enough to cover everything. Despite my financial struggles, I bought expensive cake and some extra drinks. It was this latter I’d left in the car, so excused myself during the coffee to ‘fetch the water’.
And then one of the delegates laughed in my face. ‘Wah-uh?’ they shrieked, throwing up their hands and looking around to see who else had heard. ‘What’s WAH-uh?’
I blushed. ‘Well, my accent is part Estuary English, part West Country,’ I said. ‘And so has a glottal stop that gets more prevalent when I’m tired.’
Shrugging, I walked away, embarrassed, unsettled, but mostly confused. Before coffee, every one of us had loudly applauded the work of historians who’d documented community stories to preserve variations in accent and dialect. We were championing linguistic diversity, celebrating authentic voices with their region markers inflected in both grammar and tone.
But not, it seemed, when it came to me.
Sometimes I wonder why that person was so shocked at my pronunciation. Did they feel cheated? Up till then, had I unthinkingly inhabited some middle-class disguise, with my voice like some sort of forged passport with a glottal-stop mistake? Had they tried to shame me out of their own frustration at having read me wrong, at having wasted networking time on someone like me, with no capital or connections to exploit?
Worst of all is the suspicion that it was just genuine, uncontrollable shock that someone with my background was not only studying for their doctorate, but had convened a successful conference, and was just doing rather well with the whole student thing.
As with most writers, my worries get transmuted into my work. My fiction collection, Exercises in Control includes a re-telling of a song from My Fair Lady. This is the 1956 musical based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, where Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower-girl, is ‘trained’ out of her accent by a professor of phonetics. The song from My Fair Lady that I rewrite, ‘Just You Wait’, is a pure revenge fantasy. This violent protest is sung by a browbeaten, exhausted Eliza, who has been forced to recite Tennyson through a mouthful of marbles.
In this song, the film’s Eliza imagines her persecutor dying of fever, drowning, or being shot. My Eliza is less fantasist, more survivor. A celebrated singer, she refuses to speak even as she reclaims the sounds of language by tattooing phonetic symbols over her body.
Looking through my notebooks, I can see that I began drafting this story, ‘The Higgins Method’, shortly after the Writing Communities conference. There was no connection in my conscious mind, so I wasn’t aware that this story was a way to exorcise my own confusion about my class. And really, what class am I? Am I the working class of my hardworking parents? Or am I the middle class of my (late) education of Cambridge and a PhD?
While researching this article, I took a ‘what class are you’ test on the BBC website and came out ‘Precariat’, which was the most deprived class group. (This is most certainly wrong unless we are talking purely about income.)
But what, I wonder, is right? This is not just idle curiosity on my part, as it has direct influence on my writing career. For example, when a working class writer prize or festival is announced, am I allowed to enter? I’ve come to terms with the fact that my background excludes me from many aspects of a writer’s life… but does my education do the same?
I am genuinely confused by this, and by the need to be identified in such absolute terms. And I tend to keep quiet more, or not speak at all, just like Eliza in my story. Linguistic snobbery (just think for a minute about the aggression in the phrase ‘well-spoken’) limits people from diverse backgrounds. The medium is the message, yes, but when the medium is as natural and powerful as the human voice, we should pay attention to what people say instead of how they say it.