But if language habits do not represent classes, a social stratification into something as bygone as “aristocracy” and “commons”, they do still of course serve to identify social groups. This is something that seems fundamental in the use of language. As we see in relation to political and national movements, language is used as a badge or a barrier depending on which way we look at it. The new boy at school feels out of it at first because he does not know the fight words for things, and awe-inspiring pundits of six or seven look down on him for not being aware that racksy means “dilapidated”, or hairy “out first ball”. The miner takes a certain pride in being “one up on” the visitor or novice who calls the cage a “lift” or who thinks that men working in a warm seam are in their “underpants” when anyone ought to know that the garments are called hoggers. The “insider” is seldom displeased that his language distinguishes him from the “outsider”.
Quite apart from specialized terms of this kind in groups, trades and professions, there are all kinds of standards of correctness at which most of us feel more or less obliged to aim, because we know that certain kinds of English invite irritation or downright condemnation. On the other hand, we know that other kinds convey some kind of prestige and bear a welcome cachet.
In relation to the social aspects of language, it may well be suggested that English speakers fall into three categories: the assured, the anxious and the indifferent. At one end of this scale, we have the people who have “position” and “status”, and who therefore do not feel they need worry much about their use of English. Their education and occupation make them confident of speaking an unimpeachable form of English: no fear of being criticized or corrected is likely to cross their minds, and this gives their speech that characteristically unselfconscious and easy flow which is often envied.
At the other end of the scale, we have an equally imperturbable band, speaking with a similar degree of careless ease, because even if they are aware that their English is condemned by others, they are supremely indifferent to the fact. The Mrs. Mops of this world have active and efficient tongues in their heads, and if we happened not to like their ways of saying things, well, we “can lump it”. That is their attitude. Curiously enough, writers are inclined to represent the speech of both these extreme parties with –in’ for ing. On the other hand, “we’re goin’ huntin’, my dear sir”; on the other, “we’re goin’ racin’, mate.”
In between, according to this view, we have a far less fortunate group, the anxious. These actively try to suppress what they believe to be bad English and assiduously cultivate what they hope to be good English. They live their lives in some degree of nervousness over their grammar, their pronunciation, and their choice of words: sensitive, and fearful of betraying themselves. Keeping up with the Joneses is measured not only in houses, furniture, refrigerators, cars, and clothes, but also in speech.
And the misfortune of the “anxious” does not end with their inner anxiety. Their lot is also the open or veiled contempt of the “assured” on one side of them and of the “indifferent” on the other.
It is all too easy to raise an unworthy laugh at the anxious. The people thus uncomfortably stilted on linguistic high heels so often form part of what is, in many ways, the most admirable section of any society: the ambitious, tense, inner-driven people, who are bent on “going places and doing things”. The greater the pity, then, if disproportionate amount of their energy goes into what Mr. Sharpless called “this shabby obsession” with variant forms of English especially if the net result is (as so often) merely to sound affected and ridiculous. “Here,” according to Bacon, “is the first distemper of learning, when men study words and not matter…It seems to me that Pygmalion’s frenzy is a good emblem…of this vanity: for words are but the images of matter; and except they have life of reason and invention, to fall in love with them is to fall in love with a picture.”