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Language classes are all good and proper

GENERALLY speaking my mother was not the kind of person to lay down the law.

She spoke in a soft, musical, placatory brogue which anyone with an interest in applied linguistics could have told you had its origins on the banks of the Tweed. Over many years spent in the Lothians, however, it had lost much of its twang but now and then one could detect a hint of Hawick or Innerleithen in the way she pronounced a word or constructed a sentence.

Like most of my friends I was bilingual, having one language for the playground and another for the classroom. My mother, it must be said, preferred the latter and whenever at home I lapsed into the former she would hiss under her breath: "Speak proper."

Instinctively, I knew what she meant. On the TV and radio people did, indeed, speak "proper", a tongue as alien to our kailyard as Swahili or Serbo-Croat. Occasionally, I would mimic them, which necessitated inserting a penny dainty in my mouth, which had the remarkable effect of making everything I said sound as if it was coming from Balmoral. Mostly, though, I spoke as everyone else in my ken did, because to be seen as posh or affecting airs was to invite at best derision, at worst a thumping.

Now, it seems, the tables have turned, and it is fast becoming infra dig to speak what used to be called Received Pronunciation. Rich parents are apparently so fearful of their children's prospects if they're overheard yah-ing like the denizens of Downtown Abbey that they're prepared to spend thousands of pounds on voice coaches in order to have their offspring gabble like hoi polloi.

Where once the Queen's English was the gold standard, now it's an accent that is classless and, to a large extent, characterless. If, for example, you want to be a lawyer or a doctor or - think again! - a journalist, it's best to sound like one of Jock Tamson's bairns.

Having never taken elocution lessons I'm not sure how this is achieved. Over the years, of course, one's accent changes according to circumstances. Sometimes this is conscious, as with those desperate to disguise their past. Otherwise it is part of the maturing process.

If I were to talk as I did when I was 10, I doubt if I would be understood outside the postcode in which I grew up. My accent, as far as I can tell, is that of a Lowland Scot who can be more or less broad on demand. Whether it has ever hindered me professionally I cannot say. What I can say is that there's very little I feel inclined to do about it.

But it is a remarkable and telling societal shift that those who would previously have described themselves as middle or upper class now think it necessary to modify their accents. Time was when BBC presenters spoke like a lord addressing his butler. Today, it's the other way round, and the butler is calling the shots.

Charlotte Green, the much-admired BBC news reader, has noted that her accent is no longer de rigueur for those who hope to follow in her footsteps. "The days of the BBC employing people like me," she's said, "are more or less over." This is increasingly apparent as the national broadcaster offers microphones to presenters and commentators from diverse backgrounds, which is how it should be. A personal favourite is Neil Nunes who came to Radio 4 from the World Service. He has a lush Caribbean accent which, when first heard, grated on the ear, so rare is its like to be heard on the airwaves. But it grows on you and whenever I hear Mr Nunes now I am cheered, not only because he sounds like a real person but because he is an exemplar of the nation's rainbow nature.

Of others, however, I am not so convinced. Listening to football commentary, I am often roused to apoplexy by the mangling of the language and the warping of pronunciation.

No one who has ever kicked a ball, it would appear, knows the difference between "less" and "fewer", "amount" and "number". Nor are they alone by any means. So commonly are they misused that they have become acceptable usage and those of us who point out mistakes are dismissed as pedants. Guilty as charged, M'lud.

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