The richness of accent: Bane or blessing?

Like any other language, English has changed over time. The accent in which it is spoken is key to how someone is viewed, influenced by many factors: country or region of origin, social and educational background, working environment, friends, and your own sense of identity

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Fri 27 Jan 2023, 9:01 PM

Last updated: Sat 28 Jan 2023, 2:51 PM

Glossophobia, or a fear of public speaking, is a common fear that can border on panic. Two bright sparks — one from Nigeria and the other from Bangladesh — got something of that when they were recruited as lecturers some time ago by a UK university, soon after they completed their PhD research in Britain. They were experts in their fields, but since both were new to teaching they had to undergo a certificate course on teaching in higher education, along with their lectures in their first year in the job. Hadiza is from Nigeria and Lutfur* from Bangladesh, both from different subject fields, very comfortable with their subjects, and enthusiastic about teaching their students, who were mostly from the west of England and Wales.

But in their first lecture itself they realised something was not right. They insist it was not glossophobia, they had given several research presentations previously, but agree it was a variation of the phobia: they were not sure if the students understood the content of their lectures due to their accents. Lutfur realised that he tends to speak fast, and hoped that slowing down would smoothen his accent and make the lecture easier to understand; Hadiza tried similar measures. It got to the point when both obsessed about their accents, judging themselves harshly, despairing, and struggling to improve. Their dissertations on the teaching course focussed on the challenge of accents of foreign-origin lecturers in the UK.

To their relief, as the academic year progressed, they not only passed the teaching course with Merit, but also got very positive mid-session feedback from students – and none of them mentioned their accents. Hadiza and Lutfur’s accents are among many spoken across the Anglosphere, with countries and continents developing their distinct variations, such as American, Asian, south Asian, Caribbean and African accents, along with many sub-variations within them. Most vowel and consonant sounds are hard-wired from childhood, a speech-sound framework that mostly remains throughout life; in other words, most of your accent is for life, even if you try to alter it in adulthood.

In multicultural Britain, a diversity of accents is a reality; several English accents exist, developed over the centuries. George Bernard Shaw famously wrote that, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, reflecting how accents communicate information about background, upbringing and the community people belong to.

Experts point out that the UK has some of the highest levels of accent diversity in the English-speaking world: traditional ones such as Brummie, Cockney, Mancunian, Tyke, Geordie, Scouse, and newer accents such as Estuary English, General Northern English, Multicultural London English, Urban West Yorkshire English and Received Pronunciation (RP). They reflect differences in the region people come from, their social class background, their age and their professions. Diaspora communities for whom English is the second language carry over some of the phonetics and ways of pronunciation from their first languages. Asian English with some words imported from Asian languages went mainstream with popular sitcoms such as Goodness Gracious Me (1996-98) and The Kumars at No. 42 (2002, 2003).

RP is also known as Queen’s English, BBC English or Southern Standard British English, referring to the accent that is associated with people from the upper and upper-middle-classes. What is known widely as the British accent originates in RP, which developed in public schools and universities of nineteenth century Britain. Roughly based on the accents of London, Oxford and Cambridge, it became associated with the ‘establishment’, gained status, and was later adopted by the BBC as its broadcasting standard.

‘Accent’ and ‘dialect’ are often used interchangeably in the discourse, although in strict linguistic terms they refer to different aspects of language variation. Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library, writes that a dialect is a variety of English that differs from other varieties in three specific ways: lexis (vocabulary), grammar (structure) and phonology (pronunciation or accent). Accent, on the other hand, refers only to differences in the sound patterns of a specific dialect. In other words, dialect is the umbrella term for a variety of linguistic features, one of which is accent.

“For many years, certain English dialects have been viewed more positively than others. Many of us make assumptions based on the way people speak — judging certain dialects or accents as too posh, harsh, aggressive, unfriendly, ‘unintelligent’ or ‘common’. Unfortunately, many individuals have suffered as a result of this irrational prejudice. No one dialect is better at communicating meaning than another. The fact that some dialects and accents are seen to be more prestigious than others is more a reflection of judgements based on social, rather than linguistic, criteria”, Robinson adds.

Many people report being mocked, suffering jibes in schools, workplaces and other environments, but there are also others for whom accents have been a gift. When private television news began in India in the 1990s, reporters hailing from various parts of the Indian sub-continent were told not to try to modify their accents because the variety of accents added value to content, and helped viewers to connect with the ways in which piece-to-cameras were rendered.

In Britain too, several television presenters and journalists retain their accents. Huw Edwards, who often presents prime time news on BBC in a calm demeanour, has a distinct Welsh accent. Marcus Bentley, the voice of reality show Big Brother, has a famously Geordie accent and says he was hired because of it: “Channel 4 loved the way I said ‘chickens’. It’s a ridiculous way to get a job”. Presenter and producer Jessie Aru-Phillips hails from Liverpool and says her accent sets her apart from everybody else, while broadcaster Adrian Chiles tells the BBC that his Brummie accent has been an advantage for him. Jess Phillips, Labour MP from Birmingham Yardley, says that “One of the things that we have to do is be able to communicate with people and actually I think my accent has been my greatest gift”.

Kirsty Major, deputy opinion editor for The Guardian, hails from Liverpool and moved to London; she writes: “I considered actively softening my accent, but concluded that to do so would be to lose a little bit of myself. In England, regional accents can be mapped directly on to the old boundaries that separated the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. My own accent is the result of more recent history, when my Irish and Welsh great-grandparents chatted with their neighbours who would have spoken with a Lancashire lilt. Accents shift and change, and the only thing we should lose is the hierarchy in which we place them. They weave a tapestry across the country that tells a story of who has come and gone before us, and we’re all the richer for it”.

Experts say research in the United States has shown that bias against certain accents can lead to unequal access to employment, housing, and education; similarly, speaking with a regional accent in Germany has been shown to incur a wage penalty of approximately 20 per cent when compared to speaking with a standard German accent. The situation is less researched in the UK, but new research suggests the situation is similar.

The research by Sutton Trust titled Speaking Up: Accents and Social Mobility says that a ‘hierarchy of accent prestige’ has been entrenched in the UK for centuries, with RP the dominant accent in positions of authority across the media, politics, the civil service, courtrooms, and the corporate sector. This is despite less than 10 per cent of the population is estimated to have this accent, almost exclusively from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Public attitudes to different accents, the research says, have remained largely unchanged over time, with the standard RP accent, French-accented English, and ‘national’ standard varieties (Scottish, American, Southern Irish) all ranked highly, while accents associated with industrial cities of England, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham (commonly stereotyped as ‘working class accents’) and ethnic minority accents (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) are the lowest ranked.

Peter Lampl, founder of Sutton Trust, says: “Many young people who don’t feel like they have the ‘right’ accent are worried about the impact on their careers, and many have been mocked, criticised or singled out during their education, work and social lives. I faced this myself when I was 11 years old. When I moved from Wakefield to Surrey, my broad Yorkshire accent stood out at my new school and resulted in me being mercilessly picked upon and ridiculed, and I learned to develop a Surrey accent in order to fit in. This is a common experience for those who are geographically or socially mobile. But this need not be the case… This country has learned to be more diverse in many respects, but there remain taboos about accents. We must embrace the diversity of accents to enable those from all backgrounds and parts of the country to have the chance to succeed”.

The research highlighted some key themes about accents in Britain. Self-consciousness and anxiety about accent bias are highest during university, particularly when approaching the end of a degree and facing entry into a chosen career. As many as 35 per cent of university students reported being self-conscious about their accent: higher than professionals in the workplace (23 per cent). Many students reported having been mocked, criticised or singled out in educational settings due to their accents (30 per cent of university students and 29 per cent of university applicants). This was also experienced by professionals in work situations (25 per cent). Employees report higher levels of being mocked or singled out for their accent in a social setting (46 per cent).

In earlier life stages, the research says that the region of origin (particularly the North of England and the Midlands) plays an important part in accent anxiety. In the mid-life stage of professional employment, social class differences are more prominent. At all life stages, respondents from lower social grades report significantly more mocking or singling out of accent in workplace and social settings. For both university applicants and university students, those originally from the North of England were the most likely to be concerned that their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future (29 per cent of university applicants and 41 per cent at university from the North, vs 10 per cent and 19 per cent respectively for those in the South, excluding London).

For those in senior managerial roles from lower socio-economic backgrounds, 21 per cent were worried their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future, compared to 12 per cent from better-off families. Similarly, 29 per cent of senior managers from working class families said they had been mocked in the workplace for their accent, vs 22 per cent from a better off background.

According to the authors of the research — Erez Levon from the University of Bern, Devyani Sharma from Queen Mary University London and Christian Ilbury from the University of Edinburgh — it is common to hear people say that they do not have an accent, but every person has one that signals some aspect of their social background: “It is also a human universal for individuals to have biases towards or against certain accents. This is an inevitable consequence of human cognition, which relies on fast processing of complex information, based on past experience. Because accents are often linked to specific regions, cultures, ages, genders, and social classes, they tend to trigger social stereotypes”.

(*) Names changed on request.

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