In Britain and most of Europe, some form of U-speak exists: old-money language has certain features that distinguish it from other language. In Dutch, it doesn't really have a name, but it is still very much alive. I believe the same applies to England. The phenomenon is just very hard to research; that is why not much information about it is available on the internet, except about England, partly because of several famous studies on the subject (see Wikipedia). But even there the few reliable sources are several decades old, while U-speak changes continuously.

Do Americans have their version of U-English? How does it differ from British U—or is it very much alike? What are some examples? It might be that the term is just not applicable to American society for some reason (though I doubt that).

It would be best to have some references, like scientific articles or interviews or corpus finds, if such are available.

Edited: Emily Post wrote extensively about what resembles European U-speak to a high degree, in many cases even literally:

People who say “I come,” and “I seen it,” and “I done it” prove by their lack of grammar that they had little education in their youth. Unfortunate, very; but they may at the same time be brilliant, exceptional characters, loved by everyone who knows them, because they are what they seem and nothing else. But the caricature “lady” with the comic picture “society manner” who says “Pardon me” and talks of “retiring,” and “residing,” and “desiring,” and “being acquainted with,” and “attending” this and that with “her escort,” and curls her little finger over the handle of her teacup, and prates of “culture,” does not belong to Best Society, and never will! — Emily Post, Etiquette (1922).

Since America has old money too, and a form of U-English existed there in the 1920s that much resembled British U-speak, it would seem highly unlikely for America not to have its modern variant(s). The problem is that it can only be observed by those who know what to look for, because it is an otherwise very inconspicuous phenomenon.

  • Wouldn't the Dutch equivalent be ABN?
    – FAE
    Jul 15, 2011 at 3:32
  • @ FallenAngelEyes: ABN is broader; it's more like standard Dutch with a standard accent, while U v. Non-U is more about ijskast v. koelkast, meteen v. gelijk, etc. Jul 16, 2011 at 21:06

5 Answers 5


Yes. The most stereotypical example is Ebonics and is a somewhat touchy subject due to the racial implication of calling African-Americans a lower class. The term seems to have officially become African American Vernacular English.

Most other examples I can think of are things like hick or valley girl. The terms are shifty and ill-defined because of the nastiness implied by the overarching terms. But each of those examples have their own vocabulary, mannerisms and idioms.

The Ivy League also has a stereotype associated with their speech but as far as I know it is nothing worth studying beyond humor or general classism.

(By the way, I apologize for all of the Wikipedia links. I am hoping this spawns a few interesting paths through the web.)

  • Interesting, those sociolects. I suppose any group has its mores and lingo, to some extent. U is a bit more specific; Ivy League and Stuffwhitepeoplelike stuff is I think much broader and more wide spread. Apr 12, 2011 at 17:43
  • 7
    I think it's important to note that Ebonics (AAVE), hick, and valley girl are examples of non-U dialects - that's not entirely clear from the answer alone.
    – HaL
    Jun 22, 2011 at 21:59
  • @HaL: Yes, good point. The reciprocal of these examples "could" be seen as the US equivalent to U-speak.
    – MrHen
    Jun 22, 2011 at 22:04
  • 2
    @HaL and MrHen - as far as I could tell, from the wiki article linked by the question U and non-U are not simply about class dialects: "The debate did not concern itself with the speech of the working classes, which in many instances used the same words as the upper class." However, I could be completely wrong about the intention of the question asker -- it may be that the question is actually intended to be just about class dialects in general.
    – Nicole
    Jun 24, 2011 at 0:55
  • What are you talking about, Wil...MrHen? A live action Barbie movie just came out after 12 years of no Valley Girl, non-blonde, or non-U data. Fight fiercely, Harvard.
    – livresque
    Jul 21, 2023 at 12:04

Depends what you are asking.

U speak in English was a parody/attack on the bourgeois middle classes for using clever or fancy terms for things in order to sound more upper class. While the actual upper class didn't use any of these words because they knew they were upper class and the whole point of being upper class is not caring a damn what anyone else thinks.

U / non-U is not a 'proper English' vs. lower-class thing

  • 1
    I think you are right, and it's an important point, but it is not really an answer to the question.
    – Nicole
    Jun 24, 2011 at 0:59
  • 3
    Exactly. The real "non-U" are the ones who take Nancy Mitford's satire seriously. Only social climbers feel the need to keep score of everyone's social status like it's a contest.
    – user15260
    Nov 25, 2011 at 14:54
  • This would benefit from a reference. Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh would serve well for this commentary to be an answer even though they died (they did not "pass away," did they?).
    – livresque
    Jul 21, 2023 at 11:52

For the most part, I don't think there is such a speech divide in the USA.

Britain is much more noted for the association of class and speech than is the USA, where speech patterns are more likely to indicate region of origin than social class. In the USA, social class is more likely to be linked to income (money, economic class) than anything else.

(In many parts of continental Europe, regional differences account more for difference in language use than does social class.)

If there is a U / Non-U divide in the USA, then it is more likely rooted in economic status than anything else. You generally won't find impoverished "aristocrats" (ex-moneyed people) in the USA who maintain a sense of exclusivity based on diction or vocabulary used. There, that would be absurd. In Britain, perhaps not.

One may want to reflect on what basis a certain sociolect might presume to claim the title of "upper class". Seems to me more a sense of entitlement than anything else.

In the USA, an interesting distinction could be the difference between what one does and what one has done (in the sense of a causative). I think that would be a marker of social class in that society.

  • 2
    I've found a chapter from Emily Post's Etiquette that describes U American English in remarkable detail (see my question). I think that is strong evidence that this phenomenon is not alien to American society. You may be right that a different notion of "class" is used; but let's call it "old-money speak", then. Feb 12, 2012 at 23:23
  • "If there is a U / Non-U divide in the USA, then it is more likely rooted in economic status than anything else. You generally won't find impoverished "aristocrats" (ex-moneyed people) in the USA who maintain a sense of exclusivity based on diction or vocabulary used." Reference please. What music is the second most popular radio programming FBOFW and ain't too bad off for multimillionaires singing non-U status? Is "greens" U or non-U? I'll have to check my copy of Noblesse Oblige. There is a sociolect that fits exactly what you describe.
    – livresque
    Jul 21, 2023 at 6:23

No, it doesn't exist in America at all. There is no minority dialect for the privileged which the majority buys into. No one who speaks the standard dialect thinks "we're not good enough to talk that way." No one says "you are trying to get above yourself." There are certainly cases of minorities (racial and otherwise) that discourage members from leaning the standard dialect, but there is definitely not a privileged dialect that the majority accepts as superior. Rich people who affected a very formal, old-fashioned dialect would be laughed at.

The closest we might come to it is with technical language. If you aren't really a scientist or a scholar, you aren't entitled to use that sort of language. But it has nothing to do with class.

  • 4
    The point of U vs non-U isn't the difference between other people and the upper class -- it's the difference between other people and those aspiring to the upper class. They seem to be "trying too hard" -- often, using fancy words where the upper class wouldn't. And to a degree, the difference does exist. For example, that guy who's paid to drive your car for you...if you're used to that, he's probably a "driver". If you've rarely/never had that, or if the car's rented, he's more likely a "chauffeur". The fanciness of the latter hints that having a car you don't drive is a big deal.
    – cHao
    Mar 7, 2014 at 0:01
  • Y'all. "There is no minority dialect for the privileged which the majority buys into." Most pop music would beg to differ.
    – livresque
    Jul 21, 2023 at 6:30

AFAIK, the "upper class" use vocabulary less and inflection/accent more. The classical example is the Manhattan drawl ("dah-ling"), or equivalently the Harvard Medical "bottomtooth" inflection (say something about golf while jutting your jaw as far forward as it will go and you'll get the idea). The "Southern genteel" is the Deep South counterpart (think plantation owners, or watch True Blood Season 3 and listen to the vampire King of Mississippi).

If vocabulary plays a part, it's in using financial jargon, or slang for "rich things". Most of this is highly stereotypical, and the financial elite, whether old or new, speak much the same English as the rest of us.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.