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

British politics is often gripped by the idea that members of the political class should speak more like ordinary people.

They should be clearer, less abstract, more conversational, more colloquial. During World War II, George Orwell gave a name to this idealised variety of English. He called it ‘demotic speech’. And like many of Orwell’s ideas, it has broad political appeal. Tony Blair was once praised for his everyman style. But, equally, the recent success of the Brexit party was put down, by one of its MEPs, to his ability to ‘understand the language of the man and woman in the street’. The linguistic research that exists on this topic suggests that demotic speech forms have indeed become more prominent in British political language. But the picture is still not straightforward. This change does not seem to have corresponded to any more significant democratisation of political life, nor does it seem to have done anything to increase trust in the political class.

In this talk, Dr Joe Spencer Bennett asks how British politicians and institutions have imagined the ordinary English to which they have aspired, and what their motivations for idealising it have been.

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