Words in the News

The politics of accents

Written by Stan Carey

Our accents are an intimate part of who we are, central to how we express ourselves in speech. They can reveal things about our identity and background, such as where we come from or lived for a long time, what kind of education we received, and what our economic class might be. Accents signal things about us even more immediately than vocabulary and grammar do.

After appearing on UK television recently, Labour MP Angela Rayner was insulted for her northern English accent. Describing the experience, she says she was called ‘thick’, ‘a disgrace’, and ‘an embarrassment’, and was told she ‘can’t speak properly’. After a barrage of abuse on Twitter, Rayner asserted pride in her accent – and rightly so. She said people have always underestimated her because of it, and that if anyone thinks she is stupid just because she speaks ‘like a Mancunian’, then ‘more fool them’.

Linguist Rob Drummond, talking to the BBC, condemned the abuse and said Rayner ‘has an authentic accent for the region – the social background she has. It’s part of her.’ This gets to the nub of the matter. Accents, like other aspects of language use, are sometimes a cynical excuse to judge other people – because they come from a particular area, are in a certain social class, or were educated to whatever level or not. Thus language becomes a tool for stereotypes, prejudice, tribal hostility, and often misogynistic abuse.

These attitudes reflect power differences in society. Nonstandard dialects are often wrongly associated with lack of intelligence, criminality, and other negative attributes. They’re even censured in schools because they are considered inferior. In a previous article on accent prejudice, I wrote that criticising someone’s accent ‘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.’

Author Dreda Say Mitchell, in a recent piece in the Guardian, says that throughout her appearances on broadcast media, one theme has been constant: ‘why do I refuse to speak English properly?’ The very idea of ‘proper’ English tends to be bundled with classist bias. Mitchell’s suggestion, though, that language is ‘a means of communication, not a symbol of social status’, misleads. It’s both, and more, which is why this pattern will keep playing out until more people learn to listen to what others say instead of making bad and irrelevant assumptions about their character and moral standing based on trivial phonetic differences.

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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.

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