Not too long ago, a fortnight or maybe two, I was with some French friends who happen to live in our fair town, and we got to talking about Game of Thrones.
Who wouldn’t, after all, with the start of a new season almost upon us? What lover of televised drama, intrigue, violence, fantasy, sex and adventure would not be fixated on the latest episode of a tangled tale that has gripped the entire world? (Apart from everyone, of course, whose first concern is getting clean water, food and shelter, avoiding oppression by despotic tyrant rulers and not being killed by a cataclysmic seismic event, a typhoon or a vast, all-destroying war).
Anyway, getting back to the French friends, people I often lampoon, to my shame, about rugby and Monty Python castles and Gallic shruggery, we drifted around to the matter of accents and here’s a very telling detail. I don’t know if it’s from film and TV or if it’s from personal experience, but our Irish ears are keenly attuned to the difference between a Cockney and a Scouser. We know a Geordie from a Cornishman. We know York from Lancaster and Mile End from Mayfair.
These subtle, and not-so-subtle distinctions have, for centuries, served to delineate characters in British-based drama, identifying precisely what station in life each character is expected to hold, thanks to the extraordinarily rigid British class system. Young people from every corner of the island consciously adopt the accent of the hereditary ruling classes when they leave their home towns — the bizarre pronunciation system known as RP, or Received Pronunciation. In other words, what used to be known as BBC English.
What’s not so widely known is that RP is a relatively recent invention. Queen Elizabeth I would not have recognised it and nor would Henry VIII. Those monarchs spoke a version of English that sounded much more like the form of the language that we Irish speak today. In an odd twist of linguistic irony, the language that people of my great-grandmother’s era spoke was closer to Elizabethan English than to anything local, although it was of course overstrewn with remnants of the Irish language it had supplanted, and thus, Hiberno-English.
RP sprang up in the last two or three centuries, driven by political impulses. Before that it simply did not exist, but its development was entirely logical and necessary, if a newly-created aristocratic ruling class wished to establish itself and prosper, as any Mafia might gentrify itself. For one thing, wealthy families needed to find a way of turning their backs on the reality of how they acquired their money. It’s all very well to live in splendour, but when you know full well that your father acquired all that money by being an ignorant, unlettered, violent, thieving brute, it’s not so easy to look down on those less fortunate. What better way of turning our backs on our fathers than to speak in a different way? Nothing new there, as any despairing parent in the 21st century knows.
My French friends, oddly, don’t get these subtleties, and that surprised me. After all, didn’t they invent the word nuance? Yes, they did, but they were brought up in France, and were therefore not subjected to relentless conditioning. They don’t know that upper-class movie Romans come from the Home Counties. They don’t understand that all Bond baddies have an Oxbridge education. They don’t understand that if the leader of the aliens has a Home Counties accent, he is simply evil.
Blame James Mason.
It set me wondering. If Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark sound like coal miners, it sets off certain triggers in my brain, but perhaps it activates even more intense reactions in the skull of a true Brit. Immediately, I’m thinking that this is, as they say, a violent yoking together of opposites. In traditional drama, a powerful Northerner can be a mill-owner, a football-club chairman or the proprietor of a shipping line. But he cannot be a judge, a Classics professor or a king.
Game of Thrones subverted all that, thanks to the device of the parallel reality adopted by its producers. It’s not ancient England, or France or Morocco. It’s something else.
My French friends were still somewhat baffled, so I put it to them this way.
What would you think if the king was from Toulouse?
Oh no! It is ridiculous! This is impossible.