Call Her Daisy-Ray

John Sturrock

  • Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol by Lynda Mugglestone
    Oxford, 354 pp, £35.00, February 2003, ISBN 0 19 925061 8

In his 1957 classic of demystification, Mythologies, Roland Barthes found a new argument with which to reopen the troublesome case of Gaston Dominici. Dominici was a septuagenarian Provençal farmer who in 1954 was tried for the murder of three members of an English family who had been camping close to his land. He was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment and he was eventually let out after doing only six years, his guilt having come to look less and less sure. (The case still hasn’t expired: there are dozens of Dominici websites on the Internet, some of them coming out for and some against him.) In his brilliantly tendentious commentary, Barthes suggests that the illiterate farmer was condemned in part because he didn’t speak the same language as the authorities who tried him. Or rather, he spoke the same language in name only, French, ‘the clearest there is’, as Barthes sardonically notes; but the sub-Alpine patois in which Dominici, his family and his neighbours can be imagined giving their statements would have been less than consistently transparent to the lawyers and judges conducting the trial. Because he was a French citizen, however, there was no question of him being allowed an interpreter, since that would give the lie to the principle that French is a single language covering the whole nation, any one speaker of which is to be assumed capable of following what any other speaker is saying. This assumption was, for Barthes, a ‘myth’ that might in such a serious instance have proved fatal, with the perhaps innocent Dominici being condemned out of his own mouth, not for what he did say but for what he couldn’t.

It wasn’t just his underdeveloped syntax and murky accent that told against him, but the psychological typecasting – ‘profiling’, our police forces now call this – to which they gave rise in the minds of those who were riled or frustrated when they lost track of what he was saying. In the village café, farmer Gaston might have merged decoratively with his rustic kind, but removed to the formality of a criminal courtroom he was an affront. What sort of man still needed to speak in that obscure and backward idiom halfway through the 20th century, in a country that prided itself on its vigilant and inclusive education system? The answer is just the sort of peasant patriarch, the Old Man of the Mountains, whom you could suppose all too readily turning violent, as Dominici was accused of doing, after being thwarted by the husband of an English camper he was looking to rape. What in fact might have brought the guillotine down on him was the prejudicial association in many minds between deformities of language and acts of delinquency, an association made all the more glibly when the delinquency is an act of violence. Why doubt that when an English jury hears evidence being given in a sociolect normally heard only in the mouths of television or film hoodlums, some at least of its members will presume that whoever speaks that way for real when on trial is capable of committing all manner of nastiness? It may be only a short step from putting the boot into the English language when standing in the dock to being sent down for GBH.

Lynda Mugglestone might have risked stretching her brief in Talking Proper to touch on dark possibilities of the kind Barthes raised in connection with the Dominici affair, that the conclusions other people jump to when they hear us speak and don’t like the sound of it may turn out to be more than simply disparaging. As, let’s say, when we find ourselves on the point of being mugged: do we, as Mack the Knife leans in, tactfully downgrade our vowels and give away our PIN in tones we hope he might find himself at home with rather than ones that will convince him resentfully that our credit limit is well worth tapping into? Such extreme tests of our vocal resources are not for Mugglestone, who, for all her startling title of News International Lecturer in Language and Communication at Oxford, steers clear, as a careful academic always will, of situations that would carry her beyond her sources. These have to do with class or, as her subtitle has it, with ‘accent as social symbol’. (I’m not sure that the master taxonomist of signs, C.S. Peirce, would have allowed accent to be classed as a ‘symbol’, which for him was a sign related to its object by convention, when the more refined term would be ‘index’, or a sign related to its object as a matter of fact, which an accent surely is.)

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