We’re snowed in again. When the forecast said we were in for some serious snow, and remembering last year’s remarkable winter, a good few of my neighbors here on the Surrey-Hampshire border shifted into panic-buying mode. Someone at the gym told me that a nearby supermarket entirely sold out of bread; the queues for the tills (lines for the checkout) stretched all the way down the aisles, and she’d had to wait in one of them an hour and a quarter . This dedicated shopper is also a schoolteacher, and was wondering at the time whether school would be cancelled the next day. (In the end, the snow wasn’t the deciding factor; school was cancelled where she teaches because the heating system broke down, and there is a legal minimum temperature required before students are allowed in the classrooms.)
When I was a kid in Kentucky, on snowy mornings we listened to the radio–with a degree of attention I’m sure we never gave our teachers—to see whether our county, Fayette county, would be on the alphabetical list of schools closed for the day. If they got to Floyd county or Garrard county without mentioning us, we’d groan—and listen again ten minutes later to see whether Fayette had made its way onto the list. If we actually ended up having to go to school, we felt robbed.
Until sixth grade, we could easily have gotten (UK: have got; they don’t use gotten here) to school despite any snow that Kentucky was liable to see; we only had to walk down to the end of the block. And in that school, they tried to teach us not only to read and write English, but to speak it properly.
For starters, we weren’t to say ain’t, which was puzzling because the teachers would say “Ain’t ain’t a word”, as if that settled it. And if I said that they’d just proved it was, because we could understand perfectly what they’d said, it didn’t go down very well.
I didn’t ordinarily use ain’t myself, I was just peeved by the lack of logic. I also didn’t pronounce spaghetti as “buzzghetti”—where on earth did kids get that one?—nor did I pronounce sandwich as “samwidge”. All of these, we were taught, were markers of low-class low-lifes who would never amount to anything. To say you had a “samwidge” in your lunchbox was enough, to hear the teachers talk, to doom you to a life of poverty, with only demeaning low-paid work during those short periods in which you were not actually incarcerated.
So you can imagine how surprised I was to move to England, cradle of our mother tongue (don’t look too closely at that mix of metaphors), and find that “samwidge” seems to be the default pronunciation for much of the country.
At the moment Caroline Quentin, an actress we’re used to seeing in comedy dramas and mysteries, is doing telly adverts (TV commercials) for holiday party food for M&S (Marks & Spencer, an upscale department store, including a grocery department) saying to us several times an hour “if you must have samwidges, make them mini dessert samwidges”. Yet she seems to have found decent employment and somehow avoided imprisonment.
It seems like everyone in the British broadcast media and, in fact, I’d say almost everyone who lives within commuting distance of London says “samwidge”. The exceptions, oddly enough, include the inhabitants of the town of Sandwich in Kent. I confirmed this with the woman who was answering the phone yesterday for the Sandwich Tourist Information Centre. There, they say “sandwitch”. Fine, upstanding people, those Sandwich-dwellers.
Even the posh-voiced announcers on the BBC say “samwidge”. These announcers also interview experts about the economic crisis and ask them to give us the “figgers” on such things as proposed budget cuts, meaning “figures”. And since Ireland’s economy has been iffy lately, they may turn us over to “our island correspondent”; it took me months (okay, maybe I’m a little slow) to realize that they were saying “our Ireland correspondent”.
It used to be that the BBC only hired people who spoke RP—that’s Received Pronunciation, which has been known by several names including simply BBC English, but the name Americans are most likely to know is the Queen’s English. Someone who speaks RP particularly precisely and beautifully is said to have a cut-glass accent, as BBC announcers historically did have. But in recent years the Beeb has started to diversify, so you do hear radio presenters with a variety of regional accents.
I plan to post more about the variety of British accents soon, and I should have plenty of time to listen to the various sorts of speech that show up on British radio while we’re snowed for in the next few days. We’re out of bread, so we won’t be having any “samwidges”. We do have a couple of panettones that I bought as Christmas gifts for friends, but we might be forced to eat them. Surely, if we’re cut off from civilization, our friends wouldn’t want us to starve.