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Accent prejudice in the mainstream

© BANANASTOCKThe rules of TV-watching change at Christmas, with the result that even a habitual tube-avoider like me can end up seeing shows like Channel 4’s Big Fat Quiz of the Year. I didn’t expect it to contain material of any great sociolinguistic interest, but it did, and it wasn’t good.

On at least three occasions during the show, one participant, comedian Kevin Bridges, had his Scottish accent mocked. For no reason I could discern, celebrity Mel B and presenter Jimmy Carr ridiculed Bridges’ normal speaking voice as though it were absurd or incomprehensible. (It’s neither.) It may have been good-natured ribbing – common enough among friends – but the imitations seemed snide and mean-spirited, not congenial.



Bridges defended his ground, at one point briefly adopting an RP accent to make some comedy out of the situation. The third time it happened, he called it ‘unacceptable’ and ‘racism’. He was joking, but I suspect he’d also had enough of the unfunny and unnecessary jibes about his accent. Because of editing we can’t tell exactly how it all unfolded, but that was the last of the accent ‘humour’ that I noticed in the televised cut.

Such behaviour isn’t surprising among children and teens, who may not know any better. ‘You talk funny,’ a young boy at football training said to my brother-in-law, who speaks English with an Italian accent and was amused by the comment. But as we grow up we get used to hearing other accents, some like our own, some not, and we see nothing to gain by making fun of them. Quite the contrary: phonetic diversity can be a source of cordial fun and interest regardless of any background in linguistics or dialectology.

Maybe I don’t watch enough TV, but hearing blatant accent prejudice from adults on a mainstream show took me aback – even though accent diversity among BBC presenters is a seemingly endless debate, and there have also been attempts to curb schoolchildren’s native accents. Accentism is rife in academia too. In a recent article in the Telegraph, Dr Katie Edwards recounted appalling experiences of having her accent mocked to her face, and described how accentism intersects with other prejudices, such as those of gender and race. Sufferance of one creates space for another.

Dr Edwards believes, with some justification, that the problem lies in attitudes to class. Criticising someone’s speech, whether it’s the sound of their vowels or their use of ‘improper’ regionalisms, is often a socially sanctioned way of expressing distaste for their socio-economic status, educational history, or area of origin. It says nothing about the person with the accent except bare facts or probabilities about their background. But it says a lot about the person making the criticism, none of it favourable.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

17 Comments

  • I agree with you in finding this depressing, Stan. Opinion seems to be divided between those who relish regional accents and those who find them unacceptable or inferior, often on the spurious grounds that they are harder to understand. My children report that when people hear they grew up in Birmingham, they often attempt a (woefully bad) Brummie accent. Both of them speak pretty standard English but that is just grounds for incredulity – you can’t really come from Birmingham unless you speak like (comedian) Frank Skinner or (broadcaster) Adrian Chiles. I don’t think there’s any doubt, though, that the range of accents heard in the media is broader than it has ever been, and that as time goes on it will become the norm and cease to be even commented on, let alone mocked.

  • It’s horrible that your children, or any children, have to face that kind of behaviour, Liz. Imitations of accents, even when not meant unkindly, can make people very self-conscious about their normal speech. Accent diversity in mainstream media has definitely improved, but the same narrow-minded attitudes persist. In his book Phonetics (1973), J. D. O’Connor wrote: “If it is true, as we surmised earlier, that younger speakers pay less attention to correctness and prestige in pronunciation this may well be a sign, and a welcome one, of change in our social attitudes.” Forty years later, it’s not at all clear to me whether improvements in this area have been substantial.

  • accentism intersects with other prejudices … Oh yes. My son has a (fairly mild) Yorkshire accent and is at university in Bath. He reports occasions where, on opening his mouth for the first time to fellow students/colleagues, the assumption is that he must be ‘hard/not to be messed with’ because he has a northern accent (i.e. anyone who comes from ‘the North’ must be a bit of a thug). Still – I guess that is genteel Bath talking – where even the most ‘rough’ student areas feature cupcake shops …

  • I saw the same programme, Stan and thought that Bridges handled it well, but then he’s a professional entertainer who is undoubtedly confident enough to brush it off with some wit. It’s so depressing to see it used against younger people though. My dad told me of when he moved from Portadown in Norn Ireland (sorry…) to England that the nuns at his school tried to wash his Irish accent out with soap. Less drastically, when my brother and I moved from south London to Wiltshire in the 1970s we were reminded to have “Ts Ts Ts in your mouth!” rather than the slovenly glottal stops we’d picked up from our Cockney peers. Then again, I suppose some stereotypes can work to your advantage, if as in Kerry’s son’s case, he’s viewed as tougher than the effete students of Bath! Don’t mess…

  • I have no problem at all with regional/dialect accents as I spoke with a Geordie one myself until we moved to New Zealand. These days what annoys me most is the poor diction which seems to go with (some) regional accents. If we could separate these – improve diction while keeping the regional accent I would be much happier.

  • Yep Dan – that’s right – Tom has conceded that these perceptions can come in handy when walking past disgorged punters of boozy nightclubs – well – wine bars, in Bath …

  • Dan: I thought he did too – it was a clever and graceful response to the poor behaviour of the other two. It’s common enough for mammals to pick on perceived outsiders and use/abuse them for the sake of group cohesion, but you’d expect better from adult humans!

    Bert: That’s a good point; diction can almost always be improved.

  • Accent prejudice is alive and well in the U.S., but it’s not as class-based. People who hate New York accents or Southern ones are not using them as code for, I don’t know, urbanity and rurality or something: they are plain and simple prejudiced against New Yorkers or Southerners. This is even more obvious for Jewish or Spanish or African-American accents.

    Of course it’s also true that we don’t have a widely used non-local accent. Announcers may use one, but politicians never would: the only Presidents since the invention of sound recording who don’t have regional accents are Reagan (an actor) and Obama (a special case)..

  • John: It makes for an interesting comparison – and a dispiriting conclusion. Accent prejudice will manifest regardless of its particular flavour or motivation, just because people often aren’t tolerant of or well-disposed towards other people, especially those a little different from them, and language is an easy basis on which to express that antipathy.

  • It’s more than that, I think. Language is the most powerful force known for the creation of communities: when a community comes into existence with multiple languages (not diglossia, but real multilingualism) it’s always a bit unusual, and when it persists (like Switzerland since 1848), it’s a bit of a surprise. So those who speak like us are Us, and (the inevitable dark side) those who don’t speak like us are Them.

    As for diction, I assume this means that when a particular accent or dialect merges words that another keeps apart, there’s a barrier to understanding. Tell us, Stan: since you don’t merge horse-hoarse or witch-which, do you occasionally double-take when listening to anglophones (now the vast majority) who have, relative to you, poorer diction?

  • John: I don’t remember ever doing such a double-take, except when reading puns that don’t quite work in my accent! In ordinary discourse context tends to minimise any potential ambiguity in utterances from people with those merged forms. Nor would I think of the speakers as having poorer diction, even if I like the fact that my dialect preserves a distinction others have lost.

  • I wonder what you think of a related phenomenon on Irish radio: the use of English accents in Irish radio. Are they deliberately used to give a product or service an air of ‘class’ (something no usual Irish person would admit, suffused as they are by their casual Anglophobia), or is it just chance that the person chosen to do the ad is English? I’d also be interested to know what the average Irish person’s reaction is to these ads. I cannot, unfortunately, think of any concrete examples.

  • Sorry, I should have made it clear in that comment that I meant, specifically, the use of English voices in Irish radio advertisements.

  • That’s a good question, Ian. I’d be surprised if chance had anything to do with it in most cases. What the desired effect is would depend on the particular English accent and on the ad, but anything close to RP probably is aiming to confer an air of class on the product or service, as you suggest. Other English accents might be used for their charm or perceived euphony, or to trade on the popularity of Coronation Street, etc. I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you how “the average Irish person” reacts to such ads, but it would make for an interesting survey.

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