So, you more than likely saw the video last week of a hateful horse-faced hooray slagging off people with certain names, much to the chagrin of Holly Willobooby and Philip Scofield. I am sure you wanted to reach through your TV, grab her by the throat and give her a hefty slap. I know I did at least. Nic talked about it just the other day, class, and I am going to throw in my two cents to flog the horse, even if I can’t reach her through the monitor.
Now, Nic is a Northerner and I, for all intensive purposes, am a Southerner. I will hasten to add at this point that genetically, I am proud to say I have Yorkshire and the West Midlands coursing through my veins. By gum, it’s t’truth. However, when I open my mouth, such claims are met with a raised eyebrow as there is little doubt that I am not a native of those parts. Instead, I am cursed (in my own opinion) with sounding like a slightly posh Surrey boy. I was indeed raised in the warm and loving embrace of Surrey and Sussex, and they are wonderful places to have spent my formative years, but there is no kudos for having done so, none whatsoever, unless you are trying to obtain finance for a down payment on a Range Rover or a fine line in hunting tweed.
For my job, they way I sound is great, non-natives do like the BBC accent, they feel it has “class” but there has always been a part of me that has not liked the way I talk at all, there’s no respect for it, no signifier of “class” or background which speaks to the way I feel about my position in society and the world. Now, sounding as I do, people assume that I am upper-middle class or even upper class, and I don’t like being tarred with such a broad brush. Both my parents were teachers, I grew up in Surrey, I even went to private school, I am middle/upper-middle class, that’s not my bone of contention. My beef is with the notion that those three elements, which are fundamental to who I am in the class structure of home, are easily and accurately assessabled on their own.
Here’s why: My parents moved to Surrey for work, not because they necessarily wanted to. As they were teachers, we were provided with accommodation by the school they worked for, slashing our cost of living radically. Because of this, my parents decided that a good way to use the saved cash was to spend it on the education of their children. I am truly grateful for this of course. However, once my parents separated, such levels of education were no longer viable and I was staring down the barrel of state education. I won’t lie, I was not thrilled by the prospect. However, as luck would have it, my mother heard of a school in West Sussex which could offer a solution to the issues we were facing, Christ’s Hospital. CH is a private school, but one with a twist which is vitally important. CH was set up to allow children from poverty and broken homes to obtain an education (Thanks Edward VI) and is to this day governed on this principle. Parents are means tested and therefore pay what they can afford for their children’s’ education. I’ll say that again, they pay what they can afford, for private education. There is a limit of 5 children on each year who are allowed to pay the full fees, the rest of the students have their fees subsidised by alumni who appreciated what CH did for them and now give back to support the school, the children and the history of an extremely special institution.
Because of this, my school years do not fit with the typical preconceptions people may have about private boarding education and I hate to have people assume that where I went to school is the same as schools like Malborough, Dulwich or even Eton, all of which are around or above £30k a year. I am not from such wealth and hate to have people I think I am. My family are not from that world. I am the 2nd person on my mother and father’s sides of the family to go to university (my parents were the first in both cases). My parents got the opportunity to break away from the working class level their family had been bound to for generations, took it, and passed it on down to me. I respect that massively, hence the huge chip on my shoulder when people assume that my family are wealthy beyond average means or that I am some posh yahoo.
Obviously, it’s clear that in Britain, class is important, that we are defined by it and are eager to ensure that we are not painted outside of the class level we believe we are. I am deeply proud of my family’s working class past even if all trace of it has left my accent. Of course though, you’re here for the way that it influences Germany and the UK. If you want to read about class systems in the UK, there are far more noble sources than I. However, Germany is not swayed by the class system as we are back in Blighty. I am not sure why to be honest but I want to look at language and how that shapes the concept of class. Now, having worked in a call centre at one point, I know that if you answer the phone to a man, it’s “Sir” and if it’s a woman, it’s “Madam”. This is all well and good on the phone, but in a face to face exchange, such titles feel stuffy and insincere, ironic even at times. This is of course why we have such a wonderful array of local alternatives. The Geordies say “pet”, people from Nottingham say “duck”, we also have the ever important “mate”, “dude”, “chap”, “fella” and so on. The issue here is that all of them are informal and often limited to a sex. Sure, I may feel ok in calling a female friend “dude”, but I would never call her “fella”, that would just be mental.
If we, in the UK or another English speaking nation, want to show someone respect and be formal in speech, we are stuck with the titles “Sir”, “Miss” and “Madam”. “Mister” does not work at all, it just sounds like you forgot the persons surname. Now, one of the most vital words in the UK is “mate”. It does not only mean “friend”, it is also a signifier that class status is not an issue in the relationship. If I am to deal with a plumber, a barman, a taxi driver, a man coming to read my gas meter, I will, without question, call him “mate” as long as he is male, that is. I have never thought to ask for a surname and call him, for example, “Mr Gladding”. It is a way of showing friendliness, that you’re “ok”, for lack of a better word, with the balance/imbalance of the class levels. In fact, in modern English, with our penchant for extreme language, the graph below shows quite succinctly how our “friendship” language works. NB. This would not go down so well in German.
This is not the German way. Everyone is Herr Whatever and Frau Whoever. Even colleagues who have worked together for many, many years will often refer to one another as Herr Whatever or Frau Whoever. For us Brits, this feels alarmingly cold and unemotional. Then, there is the added element of the grammar of the language itself. German is far from alone in this fact, but it has a formal and informal form. “Du” and “Sie”. Now, apart from making the grammar even more confusing through this, it is a way of quickly and easily showing someone respect and reverence. I was told when studying at school to always use the formal “Sie” form until I was invited to use the informal “du” form with someone. This is a strange notion at first, but once moved on from, it is clearly a wonderful thing. No more do you have to panic for the correct title for a person to show them the level of respect you feel they deserve, you just use the formal form and all is ok. Here we see the main difference when it comes to class divides between our two nations. In the UK we try and show respect or reverence, in Germany it is the standard setting which can, with time and patience, be modified to allow a friendlier, less formal tone to take its place. How simple, how practical is that? Once again, German expediency prevails.