Accentism

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It’s interesting to read that the French are adding “accent discrimination” to their equality laws.

In Britain, we seem to be getting past the stage of despising people for the way they speak. When I joined the BBC in 1979, it was still very rare for a national newsreader to have a regional accent, and the first time I was interviewed for BBC Radio Stoke, the first question asked was “How can a person from Stoke on Trent (with heavy emphasis) get to be head of the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit?” Certainly at that time, my accent would not have been thought acceptable for reading the news. At my interview for the job (a very impressive board – Adam Raphael (Presenter of The World Tonight on Radio 4); Ann Every (Chief Announcer, World Service) and Randolph Quirk; as well as my head of department and a personnel officer), I was asked why I thought RP was used for newsreaders and announcers, but not necessarily for weather forecasters. My answer was that perhaps it had something to do with the content of the message – The News (with definite capital letters) was a statement of fact (how times have changed!) which should be delivered in a neutral tone, and RP was then considered the most ‘neutral’ and authoritative accent, whereas the weather forecast was more a matter of opinion, and on a topic we all ‘suffered’ from, and so more suited to a regional accent, showing that, in the modern phrase, we’re all in it together.

In 1986, a television documentary called “Talking Proper”, in which I took part, included a contribution from a Scottish accented newsreader, recently attached to Radio 4, who had had an appalling letter from a listener, saying “I hear you’re going on holiday soon: I hope it’s somewhere the IRA is interested in.” That newsreader was on a temporary attachment, and so moved on, but later returned to Radio 4, and received nothing but complimentary comments from listeners. I suspect that neither Alan Smith (clearly not RP) nor Neil Nunes or Viji Alles gets abusive hate mail any more. I may be wrong, but my feeling is that the British public is now far more accepting of different accents than it used to be, even thirty years ago.

The British accents that regularly come bottom of the polls for ‘likes’ are mostly those of industrial cities: Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow. Is the dislike caused by a perceived ugliness in the sound, or is it rather the fact that outsiders have a poor understanding of the current social conditions of the area, and still associate the Black Country, Merseyside, the schemes in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the East End of London with slums and ‘dark Satanic mills’?

I certainly can’t imagine a British politician, being asked a question by a Geordie journalist “Can somebody ask me a question in English, please?” as a French politician recently did in the equivalent situation.

3 Comments

  1. Graham, regarding the last paragraph. In the 1950s as my national (military) service was coming to an end, I needed an early release in order to start my first university term in time. I needed the Commanding Officer’s signature. He exploded into a raging fury I’ve never experienced elsewhere. “University? You can’t even speak English”. I grew up in Kent. My accent is still the same today.

  2. Sidney – I can’t say that my accent is the same now as it was fifty five years ago, just before I became a student at Edinburgh, but I’m not aware of making any deliberate decisions to change it. Certainly, I now distinguish singer from finger (many ‘Potters’ can’t hear the difference even when it’s pointed out to them), and I have split FOOT from STRUT, more or less ‘successfully’ (although when I’m tired I’m quite capable of saying ‘gud look’ for ‘good luck’), but in line with what John Wells says about northerners feeling it a denial of their northernness to use BATH rather than TRAP in most cases, I still have the TRAP vowel in bath, and I also rhyme one with wan rather than with won. I find it interesting that many southerners now confuse wonder and wander.
    The consequence of the development of my accent is that now, although I sound northern to southerners, I sound southern to northerners. How do the Kentishmen and Men of Kent react to your accent these days?

  3. Graham, that’s a neater way of putting it. No deliberate decisions to change. And which direction would I have gone? The only RP we heard was the BBC news, without knowing what it was called. And no-one spoke RP in our corner of the estuary coast. The first live RP speakers I ever heard were the RAF officers.
    We were men of Kent, from east of the Medway, but there’s no real difference. I can’t claim to be the first speaker of Estuary English, my parents were closer, born in 1900-1910. The earliest EE speakers I have recordings from were born in 1905 and 1909 (one a bargee, the other a professor with two PhDs and a peerage). The last old vowel to disappear was BATH, [aː] by people born before about 1900 and [ɑː] by those born later. It didn’t disappear of course, it continued as long as those 1890-ers were with us. And that 1900 boundary would be later further away from the Thames.
    What do I sound like if I go back? Like all emigrés I’m a fossil from the time I left, with 1950s slang and 1950s anything else.

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