The 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.Email this Post