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Scouse: a class accent

Michael Calderbank speaks to Tony Crowley, author of Scouse: A Social and Cultural History

February 18, 2013
10 min read


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


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Michael Calderbank How far has your own experience of being judged on the way you speak – as a ‘born-and-bred scouser’ – made this question of language so central to your concerns?

Tony Crowley If you grow up in Liverpool you can’t help but have a sense that you speak (and are largely spoken to) in a form of language which is different from others. You get that understanding in all sorts of different ways, not least through the fact that Liverpool speech has figured very commonly in major modes of British popular culture since the 1960s.

In fact, one of the points of the book is to show that the idea of ‘scouse’, as currently understood, coincides with the inception and development of popular culture in Britain from the 1950s on (no one used the term ‘scouse’ to refer to the language of Liverpool before 1950). But there is also the fact that if you come from Liverpool and move away, particularly if you move away through education – in my case to Oxford University – you are soon made to feel that your language carries with it all sorts of connotations in terms of class, regionality and masculinity in particular. Oxford was full of people who very generously – sometimes in coded ways, sometimes not – made it clear that you didn’t quite belong there, that you could literally be placed outside very easily, and that you were marked by your sub-standard language.

That was a familiar and tediously repetitive process and one which I only really began to understand properly after reading aspects of Raymond Williams’ work. Anyway, one thing led to another and I did a PhD on ‘Standard English’ – the history of the term and concept – which began to unravel and challenge some of the nonsense associated with that complex and misleading phrase. And that became the first of a number of books in which I’ve tried, in general terms, to understand the question of language in history and history in language – or, I suppose, to use shorthand, the politics of language.

But, yes, the work is rooted in my own experience as a ‘scouser’ (a category which I historicise and question), though I think being on the sharp end of linguistic prejudice is hardly the prerogative of people from Liverpool alone.

Michael It’s interesting the way that scouse picks up such a particular status as signifying working class – as opposed to just signifying place.

Tony Yes, it always signified class and place, and more often than not class. That’s not surprising in one sense. Liverpool is an overwhelmingly working-class town with deep roots in particular types of working class traditions forged in the heyday of the port as a site of casual labour. It was associated with major actions of British trade unionism in the 1960s, although the image of Liverpool as a militant town is far from the truth. An urban socialist town is about right, I think, though even that is relatively recent in the making.

Liverpool has been a solidly Labour city only since relatively recently. You have to remember that the working class vote was split along sectarian lines for a long time. Protestants voted for the Conservative and Unionist Party, while Liverpool had an Irish Nationalist MP at one stage.

The city became culturally popular for all sorts of reasons in the 1960s and 1970s – for some obvious reasons, of course, though there was a lot going on culturally beside The Beatles, Z-Cars, The Liver Birds and all, lots of national comics, singers and of course a very important literary and artistic scene, particularly towards the end of the 1960s. So it varies historically from being a fashionable and trendy accent, to the despised form of the truculent, dishonest, rude scouser of the Thatcherite imagining. In some ways all of these are just mirror images of each other. For lippy scouser, read imaginative and creative user of language; for rude and truculent, read witty and irreverent etc. The reality is a bit more complex.

Michael You challenge the dominant assumption that the emergence of scouse as distinct from the rest of Lancs language is a direct result of post-famine Irish immigration, and suggest that the distinction seems to have developed prior to this. As you say, the standard account doesn’t really explain why scouse is so different, say, from Manchester speech. And places like Bristol have similar histories re slavery, immigration etc but nothing like as distinct an accent as scouse appears to be from other speech in its locality. Why might this be?

Tony We don’t really know. I argue that there was a distinctive form of language in Liverpool which appeared towards the end of the 18th century, and that this was built upon, changed and developed by successive waves and patterns of immigration to the city in the mid to late 19th century and beyond. And the language of the place was always open – to local Lancashire and Cheshire practices, to be sure; to Welsh, Scottish and Irish influences too; to the effects of large numbers of people from the rest of Britain and then, of course, from elsewhere in the world, especially America. It’s important to remember that Liverpool was the gateway of empire for a long time and that it drew people in all the time.

Illustration: Edd Baldry

But as to why scouse became so clearly identified with Liverpool – almost to the extent that the boundaries of the dialect and the city were perceived to be almost identical – well, that we don’t know, though my own suspicion is that it was tied up with a developing sense of Liverpool as a place apart from the mid-20th century. One interesting point in this regard is that some oral historians of the Liverpool working class argue that Liverpool speech didn’t sound scouse until late in the 20th century – a fact which is confirmed if you listen to recordings even of the mid-1950s.

Michael Now that you’re based in the US, how would say that distance from Britain and the assumptions we inherit about speech and language has given you a different perspective? You say at one stage someone praised your accent when reading Shakespeare and it made you reflect on how there is nothing ‘natural’ about how we evaluate certain forms of speech and sound.

Tony I do think that there’s more of a sensitivity to forms of cultural and linguistic history in Britain than there is, say, in the US, although this is often exaggerated. There are these socially significant linguistic distinctions here too. There’s a lot of work on Pittsburghese, for example, which shows remarkable affinities with the development of scouse.

But the distance from Britain has made one thing very clear. That is that the cultural weight attached to linguistic features and forms of difference is produced in and by a given social history. Not only is linguistic prejudice one of the few remaining acceptable social prejudices (there is plenty of prejudice around, but a lot of it is no longer socially acceptable), it is alive, well and doing its work of cultural and social placement very well, thanks very much. It always amuses me when people talk about broadcasting, or popular culture, or globalisation, or whatever, levelling or homogenising linguistic difference. It seems to me that misses precisely the work that cultural differentiation does.

Michael Becoming aware of the history and uses to which constructions of cultural/linguistic difference have been put in a society that privileges certain forms of identity over others is presumably a key step towards contesting these valuations. Is there a sense that there is a politics of culture that is still to be fleshed out and developed, which somehow got lost or marginalised in the development of ‘cultural studies’?

Tony Oh yes, for sure, and I think the issue here is particularly pressing within education. At the heart of any educational system is the language we learn, and I think the whole question of the way so-called non-standard forms are evaluated (which is to say often caricatured, devalued, rejected) remains highly significant. In my PhD, which Raymond Williams examined, I tried to show how what was supposedly a term of linguistic description was in fact a highly weighted term of social discrimination and cultural evaluation. So Scouse is in a sense a continuation of a project I started a long time ago, trying to unpack the ways in which our language is categorised, described and evaluated.

On the other hand, it’s also critical of the way in which ‘identity’ has often been used to repress issues which I happen to think of as much more important in the end. That’s to say, I’m more interested not so much in who we are, but in how we might live once we change the fundamentals of our economic and social system in open and democratic ways. In that sense, Scouse is no more than a clearing exercise, an attempt to say, okay, let’s look at how this powerful mode of representation was constructed and what some of its effects are, but I always try to explain why what was happening was taking place at particular times, whose interests were being served and why.

So it’s a limited project with the aim of gaining just ‘that extra edge of consciousness’ (Williams’ term in the introduction to Keywords, I think) that might help people to get a start on the process of cognitive mapping – where they are and why, in historical rather than simply personal terms. A politics of culture? Well, maybe, but I doubt if that will come from cultural studies in the academy. That’s a field which has not only lost its way, in my opinion; it’s been thoroughly tamed and domesticated.

What political/cultural work is Scouse doing? In the end, I suppose that’s for others to judge. But I’ll say this. At the launch of the book at the Museum of Liverpool in October, there were 120 people who turned up (they closed the doors on latecomers). I gave my talk, and then I was engaged in some of the best, most difficult and most rewarding discussion of my academic career – and I doubt if more than a few of the people were academics. It was the same at other launch events. There’s a passion for history, for debate and exchange, for contestation – as long as people can be engaged, can connect, can make the links. If Scouse facilitates any of that, I’ll be happy with it.

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Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


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