The enigma of had tea

Ireland greets visitors with a hundred thousand welcomes. New Rochelle NY advertises itself as The Place to Come When a Feller Needs a Friend. Happy, Texas, is The Town Without a Frown. Rather more cryptically, my home town of Edinburgh opts to suppose: “You’ll have had your tea?”

I like to stretch advanced-level English learners who think they know it all by challenging them to deconstruct this equivocal welcome. It’s a marked hospitality outlier amid the hail-fellow-well-met sloganeering of lesser towns.

On the grammatical surface, the structure looks like a future perfect, a sort of retrospective prediction. I ask them if that’s what we mean – that later this evening, having been in this Edinburgh home for some time, you will have had your tea and thus reached a pleasant state of satiety? The answer, of course, is mais non and au contraire. Tea is not on offer. The entire evening is premised on its hadness.

I say we need to sniff around and dig deeper. Might the structure be a modal of deduction? We use these to consider the evidence and draw Sherlockian conclusions – They must be daft / She can’t have meant it / That’ll be the post and so on. So your Edinburgh host is appraising your demeanour and deducing from your satisfied, well-fed appearance that you will – must – have eaten?

If so, its interrogative nature might suggest the conclusion is tentative, inviting a possible denial. Yet you are not welcome (if you are welcome at all) to deny the truth of the deduction, to signal that you are up for some scran. It represents the end rather than the beginning of any conversation about your state of hunger. Part of the clue lies in the form of the question, which is in fact not in the form of a question. There is no subject-verb inversion:You will rather than Will you.

So maybe, then, we have some kind of imperative on our hands? You will do as you are told. Should the question of refreshments arise, you will have had your tea. End of. Period. Except that it’s not a period, as has just been noted; it’s a question-mark.

The rest of the clue lies in the tone: the intonation rises, but not enough for it to be a genuine question. It is rather a statement with a question mark on the end of it for the sake of propriety. It lies somewhere between a polite imperative, softened by a pseudo-interrogative tone, and a modal of deduction inviting affirmation only.

So not easy to classify linguistically. And functionally, it means: nothing of substance is on offer here.

This puzzles my students: what sort of place prides itself on a lack of hospitality? A singular place is the answer. Also a self-mocking, ironic sort of place. Because despite the façade of froideur, Edinburgh can be kindly, and if you play your cards right, you might luck out with a cup of tea, a triangle of cress sandwich or even a wee bitty butter shortbread.

Would that not be tea? In some books, yes, but tea here is surely being used in the working-class sense of evening meal – what the middle classes call supper. Now Edinburgh is quite a middle-class town and I have always wondered why no-one ever said You’ll have had your supper? It must be because (to activate a modal of deduction) the phrase originated in a Glasgow slander. It looks suspiciously like the contrived opposite of those warm-welcoming West-of-Scotlanders’ You’ll be wanting your tea?

Glaswegians like to peddle scurrilities about Edinburgh – they say that it is A’ fur coat and nae knickers, East windy and West endy, that the brass nameplates of Edinburgh are polished with the sweat of their own more authentic town. They resent the Scottish capital with its bourgeois ways and theatrical good looks. Fortunately, Edinburgh can take it and, like football supporters or a political party who wear an opposition insult as a badge of pride, has adopted the phrase as its own.

And of course, no-one ever says it for real. In an age of mass foodbank use and children going hungry to school, a had tea would not be the most politically correct assumption to make. Maybe back in the mists of time, some soor-pussed Morningside matron did once usher a guest through her vestibule with an expectation-managing utterance of that nature. But it has long since become what is known in the trade as a cultural meme – not to say cliché – purportedly expressing something essential and understood about the city’s soul. It is not something to utter in earnest.

There now, I think at my students. You’ll have had your semantics, pragmatics and sociolinguistics of a deceptively simple phrase.