Talking Down: the Demotic Speech Ideal in Twentieth-century Britain

In June 1940, just under a year into World War II, George Orwell reflected on the failings of government communications. ‘There is still nothing in really demotic speech,’ he wrote, ‘nothing that will move the poorer working class or even be quite certainly intelligible’.

In these comments, Orwell was articulating a version of ‘the demotic speech ideal’. This is the idea that there is something politically valuable in vernacular ways of using English. It is an idea that Orwell developed in a number of his essays, and in his novel 1984.  But it wasn’t his alone, and it’s an idea that persists today.

The demotic speech ideal raises a series of questions. First, since Orwell’s time – when arguments for demotic speech really came to the fore – has the language of British politics become any more vernacular? Studies seem to suggest that it has. The linguist Michael Pearce found that Party Election Broadcasts came to sound more like spontaneous speech and less like writing over the late twentieth century. And the political scientists Judi Atkins and Alan Finlayson found a shift from high cultural allusions – Shakespeare, the Bible – to everyday anecdotes in Party conference speeches over the same period.

There’s certainly room for more research there. But assuming that political talk has become appreciably more vernacular, we might ask whether this has been the political success that Orwell and others suggest it should be. Studies such as those conducted by IPSOS Mori and the Hansard Society into perceptions of our political leaders suggest, if anything, the opposite. We do not seem to like, or trust, our political leaders any more than we used to, even if they do maybe sound a bit more demotic. Perhaps this is because, as the authors of a recent study called The Good Politician suggest, ordinariness is a surprisingly difficult thing to live up to. In any case, not everybody seems to like informality. The archive of the Mass Observation Project from the 1980s, for instance, includes a good deal of correspondence complaining about the inappropriate informality of authority figures.

Finally, it is worth thinking about what is really meant by ‘demotic speech’ in the first place. What kind of talk is it? In the British political imagination, it is bound up in a complex set of ideas about class, status, informality, ordinariness, and much else. It is the ‘language of the man or woman on the street’, as one recent politician put it. But what that man or woman actually sounds like is less well defined. And given the diversity of people and of streets in the United Kingdom, it is hard to imagine that it really could be defined. 

Indeed, vernacular English is often imagined in quite stereotyped terms, as sentimental and arational, and as lacking in things like abstract vocabulary – things that we might think quite important for political discourse. It is seen as a tool for those in charge to reach the people, but not as a medium for the fundamental processes of political decision-making itself. One World War II report for the Ministry of Information suggested that there were some words suitable for Whitehall, and others suitable for Whitechapel. It doesn’t seem like that idea has gone away.


Arts Matters

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