U and Non-U

It’s 60 years since Professor Ross published his study of the speech of the English upper class (24991_s113_150Ross), popularised by Nancy Mitford in ‘Noblesse Oblige’.Noblesse-oblige-book-cover-wikipedia His thesis was that by the time he was writing, most of the distinguishing characteristics of the aristocracy had disappeared, but that the one that remained was their use of language, and he catalogued many of its features. Those that were typical of upper class language he labelled U, and those that were not he labelled non-U.

Ross was of his time, and no doubt came to his subject with certain assumptions, but he didn’t claim that anyone else should copy the features he identified. The point is not that you can change your social status by adopting a certain kind of language (even if that may be possible) but that a certain kind of language indicates a certain social status.

Much of his paper is given over to the conventions of the written language and to pronunciation, but it is his findings on vocabulary that have attracted most comment over the years.  Here is a selection of them.

U                                                non-U
bike, bicycle cycle
riding horse-riding
table-napkin serviette
writing-paper note-paper
sick ill
what? pardon?
jam preserve
looking-glass mirror
drawing-room lounge
rich wealthy

Some of these might remain valid, others not. But what, I wonder, are today’s linguistic social markers? Words for meals are one. At least, they are a regional indicator. Middle and upper class southerners have lunch and dinner, where lower-middle and working class southerners and (all?) northerners (and Scots?) have dinner and tea. IMG

Perhaps social markers have shifted to other areas of human activity. James Bartholomew, the author of ‘Yew and Non-Yew’ (1996), suggested that we might now be stratified by gardening. Here are his horticultural equivalents of Ross’s linguistic ones.

1. Knot garden 1. Concrete frog in rowing boat
2. ‘Potager’ 2. Blue, naked lady, ready-made fountain
3. ‘Rooms’ divided by yew hedges 3. White plastic Grecian urns
4. Standard holly 4. Hanging baskets which descend for watering
5. Laburnum tunnel 5. Kidney-shaped pre-fabricated pond
6. Paths of old brick 6. Flower pots which attach themselves to drainpipes
7. ‘Window’ in a yew hedge 7. Mixed colour, concrete paving stones
8. ‘Turf seat’ 8. Rotary laundry line
9. Orchard with old and rare apple varieties 9. Built-in barbecue
10. Arboretum 10. Green plastic dog ‘loo’


Filed under English Language, Language, Society

4 responses to “U and Non-U

  1. I had to laugh at the gardening equivalents. It’s very true here—certain garden features most definitely declare one’s proclivities if not antecedents. I’ve noticed they are surprisingly accurate. 🙂


  2. I thought them spot on for the UK, Anne, and it’s interesting that they apply in the US as well.


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