Do Accents Hold You Back?

If you were to meet someone on the streets of London, would your opinion of them change if everything else being equal, they approached you with one of these greetings?   Would you think one was a snob or the other an idiot?  Would you answer back as you would normally do or change your greeting to match the tone of theirs?

In short, would you form an opinion of someone because of their accent?   When I moved to the London area, I was always picked on and bullied for speaking differently.  Nobody ever seemed to care or help and that was just how it is in a way that possibly wouldn’t be the case 30 years later.

I love accents and could talk about them all day long. Of course, like everyone, there are some accents I prefer to others.   Some accents are overwhelmingly seen as being positive in the UK, usually happy and enthusiastic voices of Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh and Liverpool though the very same Liverpudlian voice can also alienate many others.

In fact in the last 2 or 3 months I have had several marriage proposals from some of my American tourists that I don’t expect they would make if I wasn’t so very British.  I probably wouldn’t have thought about them either if they weren’t so charmingly American.

People make entire careers out of their accents and if accents are important enough that they can make money from then it is understandable if regrettable that poorly perceived accents can be detrimental in life.

I’m always good with accents, I can tell where people come in the UK, in the USA as well as most African and Asian countries and I don’t judge the speakers one way or the other.

One thing that does annoy me though is enunciation, speaking poorly.  Having an accent, even a strong accent doesn’t mean you can’t speak English correctly and I really cant’ abide the modern trend of having television and radio presenters and actors who speak English even less clearly than people I meet in real life.

Your accent is a part of who you are and can say a lot about where you’re from, but one thing it does not do is demonstrate how intelligent or capable you are and it is unfair that people are judged as being slow or backwards just because of how they speak.

Unfortunately, some people are too quick to judge a person negatively because of their accent and hold often utterly false preconceptions about them. Just because you have a northern accent doesn’t mean your family worked in a mine and, in the same guise, just because you have a plain English accent does not mean that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, are a London gangster or have ambitions to become a criminal mastermind though if you have a guaranteed world dominating plot and need a clever sounding Englishman to deal with your PR then do let me know.

Just as we so often form a first impression of someone from their appearance, so too we seem to judge people based on their accent. I would hope in today’s society, a society in which we are becoming more accepting of differences, people are not held back because of their accents. However, sadly, there are many stories of people being patronised or under estimated because they have a regional dialect.

Like all prejudices in life, whether it be against gay people or stigmatising those with disabilities or mental health issues, we shouldn’t accept it. If someone doesn’t like your accent and treats you negatively because of it then, quite frankly, the question you should be asking is: do you want to be associated with them anyway?

Be loud and bloody proud. Wear your accent with pride though if I can say so, do try and speak clearly and without too much slang if you are outside your usual circle of friends.

Tackling ‘accentism’ – discriminaton against people with regional accents – is as important as the fight against racism, ageism and sexism, it has been claimed.

Prejudice against certain accents is the ‘last taboo’, according to Manchester University linguist Dr Alex Baratta, who says people are made to feel ‘fake’ when they have to ‘posh up’ while talking.

Dr Baratta is calling on employers to promise that job applicants’ accents will not be used against them in the same way as gender, sexual orientation, religion, age and race are ignored.

He said: ‘We should acknowledge that any form of workplace discrimination, to include accentism, should not be tolerated in a society which seeks to be more inclusive.

‘This is why “accentism” should be taken seriously as a problem which affects many of us.

‘Clearly, most people modify their accent not because they lack pride in it, quite the opposite in fact.

‘It’s actually because they fear the negative perceptions others might have of them if they don’t.’

Dr Baratta, who is from originally from Los Angeles, added: ‘George Bernard Shaw’s said; “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

‘I don’t know if one prejudice is better then the other, you’re the wrong colour, the wrong sex, wrong age, wrong accent.’

His call to battle accentism comes after his research showed many people feel they have to change the way they speak to fit in.

Though accent modification is common, Dr Baratta said it can threaten the way we feel about personal identity, often causing anger and frustration.

Meetings at work with ‘posh’ sounding senior managers, he says, can be especially stressful for an individual with a more pronounced regional accent along with job interviews and even speaking on the phone, he said.

Research shows people with strong accents feel they’ve ‘sold out’ if they change the way they speak at work.Dr Baratta’s research is based on an ongoing survey of children, students and staff from different institutions and schools.It reveals that while most people accept the practice and accent modification, a third of respondents say they feel like a fraud when they consciously change the way they speak.

Though accent modification and the relationship between accent and identity are well researched, it is the first time anyone has attempted to investigate how accent modification in Britain affects the way we feel about ourselves.

Dr Baratta added: ‘Many Brits consciously modify their accent in social situations as a means to create a better impression.

‘While this is a common practice, we should not assume that it is accepted by all speakers without issue.

‘As part of my ongoing research, many participants see accent modification as synonymous with selling out and a clear threat to their sense of self.

‘This is especially true in education, where teachers in particular may feel pressure to modify their regional accent in order to be perceived in a more positive light by students and fellow staff alike.

‘My point is perfectly illustrated by an Ofsted inspector who last year told a Cumbrian teacher working in a Berkshire school to sound “more southern”.’

Personally, I refused to ever consciously change my accent and I was treated differently because of it and more than one person at work told me they felt I was unfairly treated my managers, one of whom managed to ignore every single suggestion I made in over 3 years.

Happily I now run my own company with people with accents from the East End of London, Liverpool, Received Pronunciation and Edinburgh and the tourists love each and every one of them.   Whether they get the marriage proposals, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Check out my blog about UK accents.Was it something I said? – Accents and dialects of the world and Great Britain.

 

 

 

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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3 Responses to Do Accents Hold You Back?

  1. Great post as always Stephen – I completely agree about the enunciation. There is no excuse to drop your t’s!!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank-you! Oh yes, that is a dreadful habit. I always get annoyed when BBC or Shakespearean trained actors speak less eloquently than myself, even more so when they are trying to be trendy. Does anyone really think that Tony Blair, born in Scotland, MP in NE England, really did speak with a bit of an east-end twang 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. However, an important question to examine is, “what is ‘correct’ enunciation?” and “who determines what is ‘correct’ enunciation?”. Historically, what is “correct” is culturally and socially constructed and the result of implicit social contracts. In addition, what is “correct” is always evolving.

    I’d also suggest that different accents are, actually, all about different enunciations. In the case of so-called, “Black English” in the United States, this is even more true. Among its speakers, involves a *deliberate* resistance to the White status quo as a way to maintain autonomy and agency.

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