Ain't it the truth
You and your beloved are dining for the first time with your beloved’s parents, at the most formal restaurant in town. Midway through dinner, you belch thunderously. People at nearby tables turn around to look. You blush. You have committed a solecism, a breach of etiquette.
That word solecism derives from the Greek soloikismos, which means the ungrammatical use of words. (The residents of Soloi spoke a dialect of Greek that speakers of Attic Greek found contemptible.) The double nature of that word, equating grammar and manners, reminds us that questions of grammar and usage are often also questions of class.
Or of even greater matter. Our word shibboleth comes from a passage in the Book of Judges in which the Israelites use pronunciation of the word as a test to identify Ephraimites, who said sibboleth because they “could not frame to pronounce it right” and were accordingly slaughtered. In English, a shibboleth is an otherwise meaningless standard by which we identify those who are not like us and therefore — well, you know.
Nancy Mitford’s famous essay of 1956 on “U and non-U” English — upper class and no — established class lines by speech. Paul Fussell’s book Class, published in 1983, set up a tripartite scheme: “Proles say tux, middles tuxedo, but both are considered low by uppers, who say dinner jacket or (higher) black tie.” Our language is full of markers and shibboleths.
In all the years I was growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I don’t recall using a double negative, and I don’t believe that I uttered the word ain’t until I was in college. There was a strong taboo within the family meant to preserve our precarious hold on gentility. (Brought up to be a proper prig, I have since loosened up a little.)
We will see in further investigations at this site that much of the carrying-on about the purported decay of the language involves submerged superstitions, shibboleths and class assumptions. As George Bernard Shaw said in the preface to Pygmalion, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
Not just the British.