Cabbies ranked by class

September 26, 1997

Language: TEFL techniques, the Internet, class and jokes have parts to play in learning and development

Why does a Parisian taxi driver speak with almost exactly the same dialect as a Parisian executive, while a London executive may find it almost impossible to understand a London cabbie?

Anthony Lodge, head of St Andrews Institute for Language and Linguistic Studies, is trying to find out. Professor Lodge is taking forward work from his 1993 book, French - from dialect to standard, with a new British Academy-supported project comparing the development of dialects in Paris and London.

And he thinks one key may be the French revolution.

"In London there is a real contrast between the dialect of the educated and the uneducated. But you won't find a Parisian equivalent of a London cockney."

As language became standardised in the 16th century, in most capital cities the elite actively separated itself culturally from the mass of the population, said Professor Lodge.

"Posh language was an artificial creation to set apart the people at the top from those down below," he said.

In London, and in most major European capitals, strong dialects are gradually disappearing as language is diluted by increasing immigration, the rise of the mass media and disappearance of tight-knit, closed working-class communities. "Cockney is not as strongly marked as it was before," he said. "But such changes have gone much further, and started much earlier, in Paris."

The French rebels' cry of "liberty, equality and fraternity" may have a lot to do with it.

"After the 18th-century revolution, a common language was rammed down the throats of everyone in society. The education system was much more democratic, and people at the bottom of the pile were lifted," Professor Lodge said.

There were also broader demographic influences in the following century.

"The population of London in the 19th century was largely self-generated. In Paris they were not having as many children and more of the city's growth came through immigration from the provinces, which diluted the language more quickly."

Even the 19th-century Franco-German wars may go some way to explaining the phenomenon, Professor Lodge believes.

"In the second half of the 1800s France was clobbered by the Germans. There was much more government intervention in education and a strong desire for a strong French identity against the rising German menace. It wasn't all just philanthropy."

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