Random ramblings and TV-inspired activities

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The what/pardon dichotomy

How I remember rolling my eyes at my mother as she chided, "Don't say "what?", it doesn't sound nice." Her ongoing quest to bring up children who speak 'properly' made me very aware of how I spoke, partly because of being in a permanent no-win situation. We moved house during my formative years, with my accent labelled 'posh' in my new surroundings, thereby setting the stage for ongoing conflict between the desire to fit in with my peers and my mother's desire to avoid us "sounding common". The what/pardon thing became a case in point.

Ironically, I think my mother's concern came from an awareness that, whether you like it or not, people often judge others on the way they speak. I can understand where she was coming from. For instance, it's not that long ago that regional accents were unheard of at the BBC. And you'd still struggle today to find many politicians with strong regional accents or dialects, especially outside of the 'working class' Labour party. It's just that the wider world happens to uses different yardsticks for judgement than that playground.

Even now, hearing the word "pardon" on the lips of others makes me bristle slightly. Sorry, 'pardoners' everywhere. I think the 'pardon/what' war of my youth was compounded by the tendency for the words "I beg your pardon?" to be delivered in outraged tones portending the dire consequences that surely followed any cheek muttered in the parental direction.

As an aside, I was interested to see a what/pardon debate on Mumsnet some time ago. For a snapshot of class-divides associated with otherwise innocent words, Mumsnet's great. There was a very heated sofa/settee/couch and living room/lounge/front room combo thread just this week. If memory serves, in the what/pardon debate, more supporters came out in favour of 'what?' than 'pardon?'.

However, now my daughter has latched on to 'what?', I have rather more sympathy with my mother. There is something about the word "what" that makes my teeth itch. It's not the word, it's the delivery and context. ToddlerGirl has mastered the glottal-stop, so it's delivered with a force I can't quite convey in text. Imagine a Mitchell brother yelling "what?" across Albert Square. Put that voice in a toddler. Put that toddler in the back of my car.

Example: "Look, ToddlerGirl, a tractor!" "What?" "A tractor!" "What?"
"A tractor!" "What?" "Tractor!" "What?" "Over there, a tractor!" "What?"
"TRACTOR!" "WHAT?" "Oh, never mind, it's gone now..."

I don't think "pardon" would sound any better.

I've tried suggesting that instead of saying "what?" it would be more helpful if she could say "what did you say?" or "what do you mean?", partly for the sake of clarity, partly as being a bit more specific in her 'whats' would make it easier on the ear... and it gives me something other to say in response than the phrase "Don't say what, it doesn't sound nice". I find myself choking it down as it starts trying to force its way past my vocal cords, like some genetic reflex...

For all those surly "whats" that assailed your eardrums over the years: sorry Mum.

1 comment:

  1. My toddler is doing exactly the same thing! On the word dichotomy, though, she has started to say 'toilet' to my mum and 'loo' to Dp's, so she's obviously learning about the class war already.