Digby, Lord Jones: the man who took on linguistics and lost

We enjoyed this blog post from Dr. Claire Hardaker who carried out a linguistic post mortem on that tweet!

 

This article originally appeared here on 2 August 2021

Over the past forty-eight hours, an individual by the name of Digby Jones has pulled off a remarkable linguistic hat-trick. In Act I, apropos of nothing, Digby launches into a lengthy complaint about Alex Scott’s accent. He’s doubled-down on it and keeps saying it’s about “elocution”, despite the fact that around 200 linguists have told him what he’s commenting on really is accent, but what would we all know. We’re just PhDs in the subject. Anyway, in Act II, as the backlash mounts, he complains that he is now being cancelled. (Remember, it’s only cancel culture if it comes from the Cancélle region of France. Otherwise it’s just the sparkling white consequences of your actions. At some point I’m going to write a post about what “cancel culture” actually means but I don’t have the strength of character today.) And then in Act III, he tops it all off by describing Alex Scott as “coloured”. If you don’t know why that last one is bad but you’re striving to be a better person, start with this primer from the BBC.

Honestly, it’s been so much that at points I started to wonder if he was a parody account, but sadly not only is he real, he is a mouthpiece for a lot of people who think just like him. So let’s carry out a neat linguistic post mortem just on Act I of this very public body of evidence, and see where a few of the problems kick in.

The Digby G

The whole thing starts when Digby tweets the following:

And yes, all those orthographical choices are his, but guess what? I’m not going to make any comments about them because in this context, this is his mode of expressing himself, and it’s fine. Anyway, firstly, Digby clearly seems to conceptualise speech as being a representation of how we write. A word has a G in it in writing, ergo, in his mind presumably, we should pronounce that letter. This is fundamentally wrong. Take the words “get in the bin” and pronounce each one exactly as spelled. I doubt you’ll have many problems. Now take the word “enough” and pronounce it exactly as it is spelled. Yes. All of it. The U and the G and the H.

Ah.

Worry not. Digby will be pleased to know that he helps us with reinserting all the missing UGHs as we go.

Anyway, that isn’t even the beginnings of the disconnect between writing and speech. Historically we wrote how we spoke, and because of this, older letters and texts are wonderful archives of possible or probable accents from around the country. We can look at old poetry to see which words have been intended to rhyme, and learn about how pronunciations have shifted since then. But then came the printing press, and there was an immediate pressure to start to generally standardise spelling, at least to an extent. We began to try to codify wildly varying speech patterns into consistent collections of letters, and it was a clusterfuck.

Along the way we lost characters like the long-s (ſ), thorn (Þ, þ), wynn (Ƿ, ƿ), eth (Ð, ð), ash (Æ, æ), and ethel (Œ, œ), and we replaced some of these with fudged alternatives such as “th”, and through all this time, language and accents were gleefully skipping on, by now miles ahead. Regardless, desperate to nail down a flowing river, in came spelling reforms, one after another, some horrific blunders, others more palatable, and finally, for about the past century or so, we came to a sort of mangled stasis. The best way to think of the writing we have now is that it’s like multiple blurred, slow-exposure photographs of a small herd of galloping horses (the elite, chosen accents that continue to evolve and shift) all chopped up and glued into a permanent vaguely horse-like montage (writing). It is a frozen mess of various accents from across a long period of time, and as words like “knight” so aptly demonstrate, the way we say things out loud has not only moved on, by now it’s had grandkids and developed opinions on bread-makers.

So, to reiterate as loudly as possible, writing is not speech. It barely even reflects some accents that some people used to speak long ago. And, more to the point, speech is not meant to be a reflection of writing. Writing was meant to be – at best – a reflection of speech, and it didn’t even do that well because (a) only a few accents got represented, and (b) with the combination of the printing press and spelling reforms, the universal pause button was slammed on. In other words, writing hasn’t been reflecting speech for at least a century. That is, until the internet came along and some people began writing how they speak again. (Most people make this exact mistake with dictionaries by the way. Dictionaries are meant to be records of what people say and what they mean when they say it. They are not meant to be authorities that dictate “correct” spelling or meaning.)

Anyway, back to G dropping. This idea that there is a G to drop comes from writing, and this is entirely nonsense. I mean, I get why people struggle with this. It’s hard, at first, to do this. Writing is so ingrained as a part of our linguistic reality that we struggle to separate it from speech, but honestly, you have to try. Forget writing and the Gs therein with the same fortitude that you disregard the Gs in “gnome” and “sign” and “foreign”. You accept that they’re there but you also accept that pretty much everyone chooses not to say them. They’re not there for fun. They’re sad little linguistic ghosts. Once upon a time they would have had a job but then they died in harness and now we all just pretend like they don’t exist and primary school teachers cry into their coffee at breaktime wondering if they can stand another day of teaching kids how to read “tricky words”.

I hear you, teachers.

If we think just about speech, then, and accents in particular, what we have are multiple equally valid realisations of the same part of a word. For instance, someone from Yorkshire might pronounce “boat” with a long, flat O sound, and someone from Twickenham might produce it with a bendy OHW sound, closer to that found in words like “row”. And that’s absolutely fine. Same vowel. Different realisations. Neither is more or less correct. In exactly the same way, some people will use an F in a position that is written TH (remember, speech is not writing!) and this is also fine. And some people will produce something closer to a K-sound at the end of a word like “thing”. NONE OF THESE ARE WRONG because writing does not reflect speech and all accents are valid. In exactly the same way, it is just as valid to end “rowing” with a blended G, with a hard, clear G, or without a G.

The Queen’s English

Another problem in Digby’s post is that he is also operating from a position of believing that some accents are “better” than others. He is clearly not talking about comprehension. He understood Alex perfectly. His tweet exemplifies that. He was so completely able to understand her that he wrote out a long list of words she said, purely to critique them. So if it’s not about comprehension, then it’s a different “standard”, and realistically the only other one is that some accents are just inherently “better” than others. He’s wrong. They’re not. All accents are equally valid and worthy.

The difference between perceptions about accents is that for a long time, people in positions of power have promoted their own voices, and derided, mocked, and belittled different voices. And the punching almost universally goes downward. It is no coincidence that “good” accents correlate with royalty, wealth, power, and that “bad” accents correlate with the working classes, minorities, marginalised groups. It is also no coincidence that, following on from this, “good” accents are seen as indicative of intelligence, expertise, importance, and that “bad” accents are linked with crime, buffoonery, expendability. The upper classes didn’t “learn to speak properly” because they’re upper class. They spoke however they liked and people emulated it. It was, and still is, class aspiration, expressed linguistically.

The stereotyping of accents has been normalised to such an extent that in Hollywood accent has been (and continues to be) an extremely lazy shorthand. We are trained that a southern British accent probably means a supervillain who will be central to the plot. A regional accent probably means some sort of manual labourer or comedy sidekick; someone to laugh at, if they don’t die first. Digby has consumed all this and more, and on the one hand he either believes the frankly absurd notion that we should all speak as we write (hand to god I would pay actual money to watch Digby live up to this) and/or he’s internalised the idea that Alex Scott’s accent does not sufficiently emulate a “better” standard – that is, the one prescribed for the commoners by the more privileged, wealthy classes – and thus it is “bad”. This is a point I come back to shortly.

Those who have done their homework might point out with bewilderment that Digby’s own accent is very far from “posh” too, and at first that might seem almost impossible to reconcile with his criticisms of Alex’s accent. But remember, the privileged and powerful don’t adhere to the (linguistic) norms. They set them. And they gatekeep and police them, all whilst flouting them at will. The privileged can speak how they like. In fact, the nobility regularly G-drop, with their “huntin’ and shootin’ and ridin’”. By contrast, the “lesser” must abide by a “proper” standard set by the elite. Alternatively they can try to exactly emulate the upper classes and be derided as social-climbing, pretentious sycophants – a behaviour that is severely policed by nearly everyone, because the idea that rising through the ranks is only for the “allowed” few has been widely internalised. Or they can use their own accent and be criticised as “lazy” and “unintelligible”. You know, whichever.

Indeed, the very act of criticising Alex for some of the exact same linguistic features that he himself demonstrates tells you precisely where Digby thinks Alex stands in the hierarchy. I can imagine that when Digby speaks, he thinks of his regional accent and his dropped Gs and Ts as “authentic”, “unpretentious”, and “sincere”, if not positively noble. But for people like Alex, an entirely different double-standard kicks in. She is not, in his view, “worthy” enough to set the norm, and certainly not worthy enough to be above it. Suddenly, then, these features are no longer authentic, or unpretentious, or sincere. Instead, his tweet implies that her public presentation did not genuflect sufficiently to old privilege. Remember, she can’t exactly parrot the upper classes because that would make her a Hyacinth Bucket-style laughing stock, and she can’t use her own accent because that’s “not good enough”. She has to hit some middle-ground of “speaking properly” where she erases a large part of her own identity – any of the parts Digby might find uncomfortable, of course – and stays safely in her place, doing as she’s told. It’s the linguistic equivalent of telling a woman in the street to smile. It’s a policing of “allowable” identities. It’s an enforcement of a centuries-old “do as I say, not as I do”. Dukes (even pretend ones) don’t tell monarchs how to speak. But they sure as heck tell the peasants, even if they don’t then follow those same standards themselves.

And that takes us back to the last and ugliest undercurrent running through all of this.

Accent as power

Digby is a white 65-year-old upper-middle-class ex-Minister and a Lord. He attended one of the oldest public schools in Britain (current fees £40k per annum for a boarder). He is the poster boy of the public school system – that one can be highly educated, and even have experts take the trouble to correct his errors, and yet he will still loudly double-down on his mistakes and declare himself the victim here. Digby has been showered with endless lucrative opportunities to such an extent that they make several embarrassing appearances in his Wikipedia page.

And his comments were primarily aimed at Alex Scott, a 36-year-old Black working class woman who has risen to prominence not through a mere accident of birth, but through talent, application, and unrelenting grit in the face of innumerable obstacles and challenges and discrimination. I can see how someone like Digby might be terrified of her. On every measure she eclipses him, but that’s a Digby problem, not an Alex problem. For completeness, his criticism did also take in Beth Rigby, a 45-year-old middle-class white woman, and Priti Patel, a 49-year-old Ugandan-Indian woman. Despite having (as far as I can tell) absolutely no linguistics credentials to speak of, these are the people Digby thinks himself qualified to publicly deride for their accents, and it has not been lost on many commentators that all three of his targets are younger women, and that one is Black and one is of Ugandan-Indian heritage. What an intriguing inference of superiority he’s making.

And in light of that, this one line in his tweet especially stood out to me:

How interesting. He wants Alex to “ape” (ugh… see?) his idea of “proper” language, but he doesn’t want others to “ape” her. I wonder what the problem could be there? Why does it matter if youngsters speak like her? Well, let’s think about it for a moment. Digby is the son of privilege, class, and rank, and it is therefore no shock that he should strive to protect and promote what he sees as hallmarks of that same system. This system has been good to him, even if it has been brutal, exploitative, and murderous for people like Alex. I suspect underneath it all, if he could articulate it, Digby’s biggest concerns might be what this dropped G symbolises.

This dropped G is a Black woman publicly choosing not to linguistically curtsy to power structures that have tyrannised the working classes, minorities, women – people just like Alex – for centuries. This dropped G is a prominent young voice demonstrating to a massive audience that it’s okay to disregard an ancient status quo that has literally carried the wealthy and privileged like Digby. This dropped G is a disdain for the belief that some ways of speaking – and the people attached to them – are “better” and “worthier”, usually for no greater achievement than being born to the “right” parents.

This dropped G is a sound that doesn’t exist in Alex’s accent, and in the silence where Digby thinks it should be, I suspect he hears his obsolescence.


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