Why are Brits obsessed with the word ‘posh’? My experience of social accents in the UK

The moment I moved to the UK five years ago, people started describing me with a word that I couldn’t even properly translate into Italian: posh.

When I was at school studying English, I learnt that posh could mean snob, or chic and elegant. There isn’t, however, a perfect equivalent of the word in my language. It felt really strange to be called something I couldn’t even place in my mental dictionary: was it meant as an insult or as flattery?

I started noticing this word was everywhere in the UK: it was on television, it was in the papers, and sometimes it was even at university. So I discovered that Brits are obsessed with the word posh, and they like using it for labelling the people they talk to. Posh, in fact, is mostly about the way you speak.

People in Britain assume I am posh. Some of them manage to spot my carefully disguised continental accent in my creole RP, but they will inevitably notice that my my bath is a ‘barth’ and my laugh is a ‘larf’.

They will inevitably notice that my bath is a “barth” and my laugh is a “larf”

When they ask for an explanation I never know what to tell them: sometimes I’ll say that it’s because I’ve been here a while, sometimes I talk about my childhood crush on Daniel Radcliffe that made me watch Harry Potter ad nauseam in my formative years and other times I blame one too many Downton Abbey episodes.

This whole idea of ‘social accents’, as foreign as it might have sounded to me five years ago, is inherently inscribed in British society. It’s something that has been going on for centuries and that was used by the upper class as an instrument to accentuate the divide between them and the rest of the country.

You would imagine that in 2018 this wouldn’t be the case anymore. Unfortunately, even if Britain loves to lull itself in the idea of finally being a classless society, how you pronounce your ‘As’ still determines your place in the world.

On the news it is not unusual hearing of people resorting to elocution lessons to overcome the hostility and discrimination their native accent has caused them. In fact, a 2013 poll found that 28 per cent of people have been discriminated against because their accent wasn’t posh enough; and a part of them even believes this affected their work and their job interviews.

Steph McGovern, a BBC reporter, has recently suggested that the reason why she earns less than her colleagues is because she doesn’t sound posh enough. A similar thing happened to TV presenter and chef James Martin, who believes himself to be the object of discrimination because of his Yorkshire accent.

Accents are certainly not a new thing to me: Italy prides itself in hosting up to 27 different regional languages and infinite different accents all over the peninsula. But speaking Italian with a Sicilian accent instead of a Roman or Milanese one will not cause people to look down on you.

Accents should only be the indication of your place of origin and not of the luck you had at the birthright spin wheel. A couple of minutes of careless chat with a stranger shouldn’t be enough for them to assume where you studied, for how long, and the figure of your parents’ bank account.

I quite enjoy the look of amused confusion on the faces of those who call me posh when I turn out to be an outlier on the posh scale, both foreigner and working class. I believe this sends them the right message: posh is just a word.

It is a word that will not go away soon, rooted as it is in the language of my country of adoption. But no matter how many times I will be looked at because of my long ‘As’ and enunciated ‘Ts’, I still believe that my enjoyment of a “barth” or the opportunity of having a “larf” shouldn’t place me in any obsolete social “clarse”.

I still believe that my enjoyment of a “barth” or the opportunity of having a “larf” shouldn’t place me in any obsolete social “clarse”

 

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