It was hard to imagine that England in the 1960s and 1970s was suffering a terminal decline in its influence in the world; there was still a presumption that English culture was somehow normative. The accent of particular people in England was referred to as ‘received pronunciation’, as though the speaking of definitive English was confined to a cluster of middle class English people who spoke words in their own particularly idiosyncratic way.
It is a notion that would be dismissed by Gerard Hughes, the Jesuit priest and philosopher, who is interviewed in this week’s ‘Church Times’. Hughes declares,
‘I’m Scottish. And when I’m on the phone to my sister — she’s a Religious — I sound quite different. And if I say mass in Scotland, I say: ‘The Lorrd be with you’. You don’t have an ‘r’ to your name, you lot’.
There would have been people in the 1970s who would have smiled snobbishly at someone pronouncing ‘Lord’ with a long ‘r’, perhaps there still are. The idea of an Oxford philosopher mocking the accents of those around him, prompted a smile. Oxford English, Queen’s English, BBC English, whatever name is given to the form of spoken English some people believe to be definitive, is just the English spoken by particular people. It is not better than the English spoken elsewhere, just different.
Pricking the bubble of pompousity perhaps has a long tradition in Scotland, dominated, as it was for centuries, by England. A woman I knew in the North came from Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. Blessed with a wonderful sense of humour, she would tell a story of the minister on Great Cumbrae who would stand in the kirk on the Sabbath and pray for the islands of Great and Little Cumbrae and for the offshore nations of Scotland and England. It was a view that would have found an echo in a question alleged to be on an Irish examination paper in the 1980s.
‘What is the biggest island off the coast of Ireland?’
The geographer’s answer is Achill. The bubble bursters’ answer is Britain.
There was an insularity in England of the 1970s sometimes captured in the apocryphal newspaper headline, “Fog in the channel: Continent cut off”. Gerard Hughes’ mocking of those whose pronunciation of the letter ‘r’ is so short that it is barely there at all suggests that at least people are beginning to laugh at themselves.