A foreigner’s guide to class in Britain

No American who comes to Britain late in life will fully understand its class divisions. You have to be steeped from childhood in the toxic brew of British class snobbery to catch all the nuances and signals—the accents, the clothes, the first names, the last names, the words for meals.

Example: I was listening one of Radio 4’s strange radio dramas and one of the characters was a self-involved, snobbish, clueless upper-class twit named Lulu. My completely random and occasionally involuntary research into class in Britain has taught me that Lulu is the perfect name for an upper-class twit in Britain.


Yup. Lulu. A name to aspire to if you aspire to be an upper-class twit.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that my research didn’t offer me the word twit. That’s my addition. Let’s take it as an interpretation.

Irrelevant photo: near Minions. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant Photo: Bodmin Moor. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Where and when I come from, Lulu was the hapless central character in the Little Lulu comics. It was one of those names history had left behind and it would have taken the combined efforts of all the gods humanity ever believed in to protect the child whose parents named her that. To me at least, it still carries those overtones.

On the other hand, Trevor and Clive, which Americans think of as quintessential English upper-class-twit names, are just names in Britain, with nothing twittish about them: they’re just what some people are called.

I’ll  skip over the ways clothes signal class. I’m dyslexic in fashion, so you shouldn’t take my word for anything related to it. But the words for meals? Someone who knows the signals can tell your class from what you call the evening meal. But full understanding isn’t as simple as memorizing a list. You also need to know what part of the country a person comes from, because everything turns into its opposite when you cross some invisible north-south divide.

No, don’t ask me. And if I’m wrong about it, blame someone else. I’m American. I can’t be expected to understand the nuances. But that north-south divide also has something to do with class. I think.

Then there are the accents. This island (and that leaves out Northern Ireland, which is outside of my experience) compresses so many accents into a small space that spontaneous combustion is a real danger. All those accent molecules rubbing against each other can generate serious heat. Some of the accents are class or regional (which relates to class, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but others are national, as my writers group pointed out to me and as I had sort of known without really knowing it: Britain isn’t one nation, it’s four—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales—all compressed into one country.

And if you’re a Cornish nationalist, you can make that five nations.

And each nation has at least one accent. Think there’s such a thing as a Scottish accent? You’d be wrong about it. The Edinburgh accent is different from the Glasgow accent, and your intrepid researcher recognizes the Glasgow accent only by her inability to understand it.

Will it surprise you to learn that a whole lot of call centers are based in Glasgow?

I’m sure Scotland has other accents as well, but I live a long way from all of them so I’ll quit before I expose any more ignorance.

Cornwall isn’t recognized as a nation yet, but it was once its own country, with its own language, and the Cornish have very recently been recognized as an official minority. All the signs are that the county will soon have some political power (or the illusion thereof, she said cynically) devolved to it. Whether that will lead to recognition as a nation I don’t know, but it certainly has its own accent.

Incomers and the children of incomers don’t tend to pick it up, though. They choose from a grab bag of other accents and how they fix on one rather than another is anyone’s guess. Presumably they pick the ones that mark their class or education or aspirations. Or maybe they don’t pick, they just acquire, without a clue about what they’re committing themselves to. That’s the way I acquired my own accent: with no idea what I’d be signaling for the rest of my lie.

The regional accents (and there are scads of them) are looked down on by the kind of people who think it’s important to look down on these things and on the people who have them. Some middle class people will swear they don’t have an accent because the culture approves of the way they talk, and that keeps them from hearing it as an accent–it’s too clearly right to be an accent. And some will have shed a regional or more working class accent to achieve a middle-class accent. In fact, some people will send their kids to private schools just so they can pick up a middle-class accent. This is called received pronunciation, or RP.

When an abbreviation goes into ordinary speech, you know it’s worked its roots deep into the culture.

Depending on the kind of work you do, you may need to lose your accent to pick up a job.

You want proof of how much RP matters? Type Received Pronunciation into the U.K. version of Google and the predictive feature will offer you Received Pronunciation Training before it bothers with Received Pronunciation Definition. Everyone knows what it is, what matters is how to get it.