Accentuating prejudice

This post popped into my Twitter-Feed the other day:

It’s deeply distressing that in this day and age someone should be targeted and vilified for their dialect, something that forms such a strong part of our identity.  But prejudice against accent is something that we have all grown up with – either positively or negatively.

I have interviewed a lot of people over the past couple of years.  One topic that tends to come up, particularly with those who have been either geographically or socially mobile, is that they have come across some form of prejudice against their ‘strong’ Somerset accent.  One person told me that they had been told at school that they would have to get rid of their accent.  Another was teased, both at school, but also in their professional life (although that was, they admitted, friendly teasing).

For my own part, I have to admit a rather embarrassing level of ‘snobbishness’ of my own.  I was born in Bristol and lived there up to the age of about 4, when the family moved to Bawdrip, just outside Bridgwater, moving to Puriton a few years later.  My upbringing has always been around Bridgwater, although (and perhaps crucially) my parents are not from the area (mother from Lancashire, Dad born in Yorkshire to Yorkshire parents, and by-gum don’t we know it, despite him living in Bristol from the age of about 8!).  My sister, nearly 2 years younger than me, has a Bridgwater accent (although her rather hilarious recent adoption of her ‘BATH’ vowels now rhyming with ‘CALF’ rather than ‘CAT’ does make me ‘laff’ a bit!).  I, however, do not.  Sure, I was called a ‘snob’ at school because of my RP accent, and unbeknownst to the people calling me that, they were right (having made the decision at about 8 that I wanted to sound like one of the Famous Five!).  I already had a bit of a hybrid accent anyway, what with having two northerners for parents, so my ‘BATH’ vowel rhymes with ‘CAT’, and my ‘HUT’ vowels fell into the ‘BOOK’ category.  This was only heightened when I went up to Uni in Lancaster for 3 years, but now, having lived in Ireland for 14 years, I have lost those rounded ‘HUT’ vowels.

Everyone modifies their accent to an extent, depending on who they are talking to (ever found yourself sounding slightly more Scouse when talking to someone from Liverpool?).  But casting assumptions on someone because of their accent is something we all do subconsciously.  There are studies in the realm of ‘Perceptual Dialectology’, often also called ‘Folk Linguistics’ that look at attitudes towards accents and dialects.  Sometimes they are a survey in which participants are free to respond with whatever words they choose to describe speakers of that dialect.  Other times they might be very targeted surveys that ask participants to rank people for certain pre-defined characteristics, like trustworthiness, friendliness, intelligence, economic status, etc. We’ve all heard the classic example of BT employing speakers from the Newcastle in their call centres because they were all ‘deemed’ to be friendly and trustworthy.  Somerset, incidentally, tends to fall in the ‘trustworthy and friendly but stupid and poor’ category.

We are all guilty of judging people based on their accents.  It’s was lazy journalism and Channel 4 ‘reality’ shows are made of!  But to take those judgments seriously and start to attack people for them is not OK.  So I say all-hail the regional-accented politicians.  They are representatives of the people, and what better way to do that than through the language they actually speak!

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2 thoughts on “Accentuating prejudice

  1. At grammer school in Minehead over 50 years ago the teachers never thought I’d pass “use of English” exam because of my strong accent. Having lived in London for over 40 years I still have a hint of accent. I notice that the accent is dying out in Minehead now. Is that because of TV?

    1. That’s a good question. A few years ago I would have said ‘no, TV has no influence’, but there are studies looking into this. The thinking is that our language use is influenced by interactions, and you don’t interact with you telly. No matter how much you shout at it, it doesn’t shout back! But there is a chance that people might pick up pronunciations or words from programmes they watch, and pass them along into their friendship groups, particularly if they are one of the more influential people in the group. So perhaps indirectly television is having an effect. However, there are so many other things that can impact and influence language change, and that’s what my PhD is about. Would you like to take part?

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