Putting the Accent On Prejudice

Rather than being yet another way to victimize oneself and bleat about discrimination, accentism is insidious, pernicious, and as old as the hills.

“I bet you’re a lass who likes a potato!” exclaimed my ex-boss in a booming mock Yorkshire accent. This bloke was a former university Vice Chancellor and he seemed to find this baffling comment hilarious.

Now, to be clear, I don’t like potatoes any more than the next person does, but he laughed, I laughed. We all laughed. What a comedian.

I replied genially “Who invited Russ Abbot?” and laughed.

He didn’t laugh.

I looked around the group of senior male academics and recognised the sound of tumbleweed…

Naturally, I assumed the group had forgotten about one of light entertainment’s national treasures and started to sing the theme tune to The Russ Abbot Show to jog memories… “You know! Russ Abbot! Songs of joy and tears of laughter are all we need to…” My boss looked astonished briefly and then started to walk away. One of the other men raised his eyebrows, turned away slightly, cocked his head back towards me and mumbled to the person next to him “No decorum.”

Then they laughed.

So here I am.

I maybe the lass who likes a potato and has no decorum but what I do know, from that experience and many others, is how accentism works.

Prejudice Cloaked as Benign Compliments or Personal Preference

Accent prejudice manifests itself as seemingly benign compliments “He’s very well-spoken”, disguises itself as personal preference “I can’t bear a Brummie accent”, or presents itself as intellectual or cultural superiority: “There’s no such word as ‘dunt’; it is ‘do not.’” The thing about accentism, though, is that it’s not really about how we speak: it’s about masking other, less palatable, prejudices with a veneer of acceptable bias. It’s also bound up in other cultural mechanisms that are weaponized as a form of social control: grammar pedantry, cultural capital, and decorum and respectability.

You might think that accentism is no big deal. You might even think it doesn’t exist but accent prejudice is all too real and has serious consequences for those of us with ‘no decorum’

No one knows this better than BBC presenter and Olympics 202o commentator Alex Scott, who found herself on the receiving end of Digby, Lord Jones’s sense of superiority for daring to drop her ‘g’s at the end of a word.

Digby, Lord Jones went to on to splutter:

She’s hot on the heels of Beth Rigby at Sky the Home Secretary for God’s sake! Can’t someone give these people elocution lessons? I fear that it may be aped by youngsters along the lines of the use of the moronic interrogative originally caused by “Neighbours”; on behalf of the English Language…..Help!

In a triumphant response, and with a little help from Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou, Scott showed how her accent is an intrinsic part of her identity as a working-class London woman of colour who’s faced — and overcome — challenges in her life.

Radio station LBC interviewed Digby, Lord Jones following the social media furore provoked his tweet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he doubled-down on his criticisms, claiming that Scott was ‘playing the class card’.

Self-appointed Gatekeepers of Correct English

Some might argue that there’s such a thing as ‘Standard English’. They might even suggest that this is the gold standard against which all other forms of spoken English should be measured. Yet RP or Standard English is no better and no more correct than any other type of speech.

When self-appointed gatekeepers of ‘correct English’ criticise public figures for speaking in regional accents or dialect, supposedly in the interests of what is ‘proper’ and ‘correct’, they fail to appreciate the broader implications of exactly who is being corrected and who is considered improper.

Accent prejudice isn’t all about BBC presenters and rich white blokes who think they should be the arbiters of what’s deemed acceptable and correct.

Since I started researching accentism, I’ve spoken to many schoolchildren from Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster and Sheffield, who told me that they regularly feel embarrassed to speak out in class because their accents and dialect are ‘corrected’, and sometimes even mimicked, by teachers. While some might consider attempts to ‘correct’ regional accents in primary and secondary education to be well intentioned, the result is that it silences children. Those children often take this lack of confidence in their spoken voice into adulthood, which can affect success in education and employment. Accent discrimination, then, isn’t just a pet peeve — it’s a social justice issue that’s been long overlooked.

Speech is an Indicator of Social Status

‘Regional accents’, often a euphemistic term for those accents perceived as ‘working-class’ or ‘common’, are spoken by those with the least social status. This lack of status is not due to the way they speak but because of prejudice towards other aspects of their identity: colour of skin, nationality, wealth, and gender to name but a few. Speech is merely an indicator of cultural capital, which is the reason so many university students attempt to ‘lose’ or ‘neutralise’ their accents in their first year and prestige professions are less likely to employ those with ‘non-standard’ accents. Far from being a minor issue, accentism acts as a veil for the expression of other, less publicly acceptable, forms of prejudice.

When I first started presenting radio I discovered pretty quickly that while it’s all right for Alan Titchmarsh to be ‘nobbut a lad’ as a broadcaster, women with regional accents have a trickier time of it.

I received plenty of ‘feedback’ from listeners who couldn’t abide my Doncaster accent and simply had to take the time to look up my email address and write — an often long and officious — email to tell me so. Some even sent letters, which, given how novel hand-written post has become, was actually quite exciting despite the litany of criticisms enclosed.

I wasn’t aware that I had an accent until I started university as a mature student, straight out of my days of sales-repping for a brewery.

In the first couple of weeks in class, I discovered that whenever I contributed to seminar discussions, my comments would be followed by a series of eerie echoes from the other students as they repeatedly tried out my vowel sounds for themselves. Usually there’d be a bit of laughter involved and I learned pretty quickly to respond by saying ‘I really like your accent too.’ It was a subtle way to get them to stop — or at least it seemed to be more acceptable to the tutors than my initial reply of ‘shut yer face, you tit’.

It turns out that very few people I’ve met like to think they have a discernible regional accent and instead believe they speak in a neutral voice, one that doesn’t betray the region in which they grew up, or, more to the point, the socio-economic status associated with the region in which they grew up. Because that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it? I frequently hear friends, students, colleagues, teachers, and parents talk about ‘rough’ or ‘common’ accents. And about ‘correcting’ school kids’ accents because they sound ‘ignorant’, because it’s not ‘proper’ English.

The prejudice that’s instilled through accentism is very difficult to dislodge, mostly because it’s not visible and it’s not acknowledged.

Accent Prejudice: Individual Issue or Structural Problem?

Those commenting on the slew of articles generated by Digby, Lord Jones’s tweet expose the conceit that accent discrimination is a problem that needs to be addressed by the individual experiencing it, rather than a broader social issue that scaffolds more insidious forms of prejudice.

During her time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, MP Esther McVey attempted to take on accentism by suggesting that the onus for tackling accentism is on those facing discrimination in employment. She argued that people should retain their regional accents in order to normalise accent diversity and make it more acceptable in prestige industries.

Come out and be proud, all you Scouse lawyers and Brummie high court judges: be yourselves and be loud about it, for then all accent snobbery will slip away as your colleagues realise you’re OK really, rough diamonds begrudgingly accepted by smoothies from the home counties.

McVey sidestepped the wider social issues underpinning accentism by encouraging people to take pride in their accents, as if the issue is one of individual shame rather than good old-fashioned social class prejudice:

You’ve got to make sure you have good diction, you’ve got to make sure you’re clear, that you’re speaking good English … The more people don’t lose their accents, the more commonplace it will be to hear accents across a range of careers in, for example, universities, the legal profession or in broadcasting … That way we’d see regional accent discrimination become a thing of the past. Accents shouldn’t be a stick which is used to beat people with — anyone from any walk of life can achieve whatever they want, regardless of what accent they have. Be proud of your accent — it says a lot about you and your heritage.

McVey argued that speaking with a regional accent hasn’t held back her political career, but individualising opportunities as a product of personal characteristics like hard-work and determination undermines or even dismisses the role of structural prejudices that prevent those from more disadvantaged backgrounds getting the same career breaks as others.

Perhaps this isn’t much of a surprise from a champion of Thatcherite self-empowerment, the ‘I haven’t got anything I haven’t worked for all my life I’ve never had anything handed to me on a plate we shared one shoe between five of us in our house and I didn’t eat anything but mouldy bread until I was 21 but now I have a four-bedroom house, a Rolex and Merc and there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same you lazy arse whinger’ school of rising like a shining phoenix from the ashes of poverty. But McVey’s assessment that anyone from any walk of life can achieve whatever they want is deeply flawed, naïve — and glib.

In this context, it’s no newsflash that accentism continues to be rife and yet many of the of the Protectors of Correct English’ do like to kid themselves that their dislike of ‘regional’ accents isn’t about anything as banal as class and socio-economic status — good gracious, no! Go and sand that chip from your shoulder! — but more about consideration for the listener, especially the international listener, who simply can’t understand English spoken with an accent other than one that’s been carefully neutralised and RP’d right up. That, my friends, is a load of old bollocks.

A Welcome Bit of Rough

You’d think that by now accents would be a non-issue. After all, some of the most iconic characters on our screens speak with a regional twang. I’m from Yorkshire and I hear loads of flat vowels like mine on TV. Sean Bean, for example, recognised and harnessed the power of a bit of northern soul decades ago and he’s rarely strayed from using his own South Yorkshire accent in his film and TV work since; his character in Game of Thrones, Ned Stark, spoke with a now iconic Yorkshire accent that signified Ned’s authenticity, integrity, and honour. All hail the latest Dr Who, Jodie Whittaker, who’s famously kept her Yorkshire vowels for the role. Yorkshire accents, along with those of the North East, are amongst the regional accents considered to be both the funniest and the most trustworthy. We’re salt of the earth, ee by gum, we are.

However, all this regional accent appreciation doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in the language snobbery showcased by Digby, Lord Jones and his ilk.

The idea that some pronunciations are outright ‘wrong’ is a commonly held myth. It’s clear from the public debate around Scott’s accent that many still subscribe to the idea that accents should be carefully neutralised and ‘standard English’ should be RP.

Is Accent Prejudice Outdated?

However, the values we associate with accents are class-based, whether we like it or not, and when we hear a regional accent and assume the speaker is thick, uneducated or simply ‘sounds dreadful’, then we’re perpetuating ingrained ideas about class that really shouldn’t get the time of day in 21st century England.

‘Rough’, ‘common’, ‘thick’… these are all words we use to describe regional accents. What kind of words might be used to describe RP? ‘Proper English’, ‘well spoken’, ‘good English’, ‘Queen’s English’. It doesn’t take a PhD in Sociolinguistics, then, to see that the very language we use to talk about standard and non-standard forms of English betrays our social values. What exactly are we saying is ‘proper’, ‘correct’ and ‘good’ when we describe RP?

Well, for a start, RP is only considered the most prestigious form of spoken English because it’s spoken by those with wealth and status. It’s up to those without wealth and status to attempt to ape and perform the attributes of those who do if they want to stand the best chance of ‘fitting in’. Those who speak non-standard English can expect to find it more difficult to be accepted into elite universities and more difficult to complete their degree once they’re there. Those with regional accents are less likely to be recruited in prestige employment sectors such as the media, academia, medicine and law.

It’s not all bad news, though. Regional accents are also associated with positive attributes, such as honesty, authenticity and humour. This works great for characters on Emmerdale, Ant and Dec, and Cheryl I’mnotsurewhathersurnameis but for most of us these positive associations are outweighed by negative ones, especially for women.

For some men who’ve managed to break into the corporate elite in spite of the way they speak, a regional accent can become a strength and worn as a badge of honour, an emblem of their personal prowess — yes, I’m looking at you Lord Alan Sugar! For women working in the same sectors, however, having a regional accent can be far more difficult to negotiate. Why is having a regional accent different for men than for women? Perhaps it’s because speaking with a ‘rough’ accent is unexpected; it’s a transgression of ideal femininity. It’s not ‘ladylike’ and, no matter how much we regionally-vowelled women may rail against it, that becomes important because speech is a social symbol and we are judged on our pronunciation.

Rather than being another ‘ism’ invention by the snowflake generation — yet another way to victimize oneself and bleat about discrimination — accentism is insidious, pernicious, and as old as the hills.

Instead of jumping to criticise those who communicate in different ways than the ones we’ve been taught are right, proper and correct, perhaps it’s time to think more carefully about who and what we’re dismissing as wrong, improper and incorrect? Maybe the underlying assumptions of accentism are more troubling than many of us are willing to accept.

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Katie Edwards

Author and broadcaster. Rep’d by Jon Wood at Rogers, Coleridge and White Literary Agency. https://linktr.ee/KatieBEdwards