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Why’d you talk so funny? Accent and dialect prejudice

July 27, 2013

Once again, I have been treated to a dose of that most curious of social diseases: I-have-seen-the-light-itis. I-have-seen-the-light-itis [or perhaps that should be “I-have-seen-the-lightis”], no doubt better known as some official term by more seasoned sociologists, is the process of one coming out of a particular culture, travelling “upwards” into the more established / respected system and, rather than keeping all the elements of one’s own culture, changing into the skin of the “higher” group and subsequently finding oneself not only swallowing but becoming the most vehement defender of the prejudices of said group that relate specifically to one’s previous culture.

There are a few examples of this, and it is known commonly as “internalised” prejudice. The acceptance of the opposite viewpoint preps the individual for blaming and disliking others within their group, sometimes to the extent where they refuse to acknowledge their connection to it, claiming to be “different”. This is what you are hearing when you hear Jewish people use the word k*ke (internalised anti-Semitism), black people use the word n*gger (internalised racism) and the scarily wide of range of ways in which women shit on other women (internalised misogyny). This is usually done unknowingly.

Much as these are all important examples, the one I want to focus on today is one which may not have a specific term, though we could name it “internalised dialectophobia”. It relates to accents and dialects, known misleadingly as “regional accents”. This is applicable to the entire world, so adjust specific terms to suit your location, but here in England it is the Dreaded Northerners who get the short end of the stick when it comes to accents.

I have stumbled upon, more than once, the bizarre notion put across by Northerners themselves that anyone who speaks publicly owes it to the world to speak “properly”; that is to say, like me. As it so happens, I speak “properly” by no virtue of my own, and I have to say I have no feelings about the matter in either direction. It’s a voice. It allows me to express myself. The sound of it should be meaningless, but meaning is attributed to it; I am more likely to be considered intelligent, affluent but on the other hand, pretentious and spoiled. Northerners are thought of more as endearing and down to earth, or on the flip side, blunt, uncultured and most significantly, stupid.

Because of this, Northerners often feel the need to change the way they speak in order to be accepted into our Southern-centric country that has a curious love-hate relationship with stupidity, loving to watch it (Watch with a capital W) but hating to see it. Northerners who speak “properly” do so because they have trained themselves to do so; they felt that they were taken more seriously for doing it, without engaging in the injustice of this fact, and eventually were – I can only describe it as ideologically convinced – that speaking like a Southerner is The Way, The Truth and The Light.

This disappoints me greatly. As a person with a huge interest in linguistics, I love the fact that Britain is a dialectically diverse group of countries. It annoys me no end to hear people trying to “correct” this, as though families, communities and cultural history are shameful things to be stamped out. It is the worst kind of pedantry – the kind that claims there is a “right” way of doing things, based on an arbitrary set of precepts made up by God-only-knows (-and-sadly-only-cares) who, bearing no relation to morality or necessity and trampling all over personal freedom.

This whole outlook comes from a misleading starting point. Firstly, in order to identify a regional accent, you have to identify a region. You have to know which location you are talking about. Well, do you? I have no end of trouble trying to identify where one accent starts and another begins. People get so offended when you get them confused; notably, New Zealanders compared to Australians, and Canadians compared to Americans. There’s no objectivity to how similar an accent is to another, so all I can say is that despite concentrated efforts, my poor little ears have trouble figuring out the differences between those pairs, simply from lack of experience. Nonetheless, people will fight to the death to insist their accent is different to and less annoying than another. The way people talk about accents, it’s as though we think there’s this big wall between the areas of the world that have “different” dialects, and never the twain shall meet.

Surely, people are not as closed off as all that? Forget for a moment the amount of migration that goes on these days. What do you think people living on the border of two different territories sound like? In the unlikely event that everyone in an area even as small as that should all sound exactly the same as each other, who’s to say which side they sound more like – perhaps the person directly in the middle of the boundary (assuming you know how big that space is; 1×1 square yard, maybe) switches intermittently from one accent to the other. In our current society, he’d be immediately ostracised both front and back for having the “other” accent, even if they varied minutely from one another. We have a particular dislike for those nearest to us, as if afraid their slightly Different Ways will Infect Our Minds.

That’s just the locational issue. Right afterwards is the question of what counts as a regional accent. Regional accents are… Are… Well, bugger me, I actually have no idea. Since a “region” is any approximate area, it seems sensible to imagine that absolutely everyone has a regional accent, even if you don’t quite know which. Take me, for example. Officially speaking, I do not have a regional accent. I speak in BBC English, or Received Pronunciation.

Only, I don’t really. My accent is actually an amalgam of different influences based on my geography and social class. I went to a comprehensive school (i.e., not private) and was subject to a number of different class influences, personally coming from a middle class background and most of my friends coming from working class ones. They spoke differently to my parents and I, in turn, incorporated both patterns of speech into mine, resulting in my sounding quite distinct from my family, since I spent the majority of my formative years at school rather than at home. Then I moved away to university in a new area and picked up habits from a number of places; Brighton, where I studied, is known for collecting quite a range of people from across the world. The people who I felt culturally closest to were from London, which despite being located firmly in the South and therefore largely thought to be free of this mystical Region stuff, has a wide variety of sort-of similar regional accents.

So, like the sponge I am, I have subtly absorbed all of these influences. I do not enunciate my consonants properly all the time, occasionally slipping into the London habit of removing entirely the Ts from words like “butter” and “matter”, employing instead the use of the delightfully attractive glottal stop. I also seldom “correctly” pronounce all my vowels; in my area, it is common to pronounce the words “fool”, “fall” and “full” in exactly the same way: sort of like “fawl”. My Dad, who was obviously raised in a different time period (which, I might add, is equally as much of a factor in the way people sound as location) has trouble understanding me when I do not distinguish between these. In London, I have been mistaken for Australian by another English person, for no specific reason that I can identify. My best friend, who comes from the same area as me but watches a lot of American television, seems to have learned most of her dialect from the good ol’ USA, but has not picked up an accent exactly; she still speaks in a recognisably Southern English accent, yet pronounces words like “basil” as bayzil rather than bahzil, the latter being typical here – a trait that I have somehow managed to pick up from her.

What should we make of all this? That accents and dialects are greatly variable and that this is not entirely dependent on general factors such as region – some people are unable to shift an accent even if they live on the other side of the world for 40 years. It is dependent on individuals and circumstance as much as anything else. I say circumstance because with the exception of slip-ups mentioned above, to some extent I unconsciously measure and moderate my dialect depending on who I’m with, so I sound more posh with my middle class Dad (a habit known tellingly enough as “upwards convergence”) and less so with my working class friend from down the road (“downwards convergence”) in order that I might speak in ways which are more in the comfort zone of the people with whom I am fraternising. It’s a typical, ingrained part of social cohesion.

I’m blessed that I have an ear for this stuff, since it gives me a lot of insight. I can hear the idiosyncrasies of the way I pronounce things, match them to the appropriate influences and recognise immediately when parts of my speech come straight out of left field. I will, for no apparent reason, sometimes pronounce particular words the way people do from the West Country – a set of accents distinctly different from my own and in no way a major part of my life, being under-represented in the media and a place that I have never yet come close to visiting. This begs the question; if accents are so unfixed, so uncertain, so unpredictable and there is nothing in an accent that is tangible enough to pin down, why are we all so judgemental about the way people speak?

Well, the explanation varies. In the case of people suffering from I-have-seen-the-lightis, it is a simple matter of wishing to disassociate oneself from people who one has been taught to view as inferior for no good reason. Our prejudice towards people in the other half of the country is pretty well-documented in other countries; but because we do not have any reason to personally engage with their distinct set of prejudices, we may judge them for their asinine assumptions, without realising that we are doing the exact same thing in our own homeland – and are just as wrong for doing so as those across the sea.

This lack of engagement relates to our need for comfort zones. Prejudices that are bandied about willy-nilly crawl under even the most resistant skin. You can identify someone as intelligent before you have clocked their accent, if it is a complex one, which will make post-observation knowledge of their home town a confusing spanner in the works of presumption. Even though we are very varied and we like recognising the variation, we think we are better at pinning down the specifics than we really are, and whatever doesn’t fit with our preconceptions rattles us. We like to know what’s what first, so we can verify our prejudices quickly and get them out of the way. It’s almost a compulsion. So, it makes us uncomfortable to be faced with undefinable difference, as this means we actually have to dwell on the unchecked ideas we have about people who are ever-so-slightly different to ourselves. In seeking to avoid this, we immediately ask someone who sounds different where they are from. We need to know.

And so, we place a lot of emphasis on accent. We imagine that, when someone speaks in an accent we do not like, it is about the accent. Often, it’s not, but rather about association. I remember clearly that when I was at university, a girl in my class had a strong Leeds accent which I hated. I hated her voice and I hated the words that came with it, so even though I love accents across the globe, I was convinced this was my least favourite. From a distance of a couple of years, I came across the Leeds accent again and found surprisingly that I found it considerably less annoying. I realised that this was because a) the voice didn’t come when it wasn’t wanted b) the voice wasn’t spouting absolute drivel and c) the nasal quality of the voice was not present, the volume was lower, the pitch was lower, the cadence was different; in fact, bar the accent, it was a completely different voice, refuting the whole idea that Accent Is Everything. I’d shaped my feelings about an accent around an individual who I wasn’t keen on, not realising that the accent had little to nothing to do with it.

You are always able to flip a preference on its head simply by embracing exposure. Familiarity with the accent in a positive context, or perhaps just familiarity in general, makes an accent more palatable to the ear, in the way that “ugly” people seem less so once we know them well. Our fascination with sight and sound on a surface level is completely natural; we are finely tuned to notice tiny differences, because anything different may pose a threat. We are wary of difference in case it is negative, which I believe may be responsible for prejudices such as xenophobia – something that once again is usually overcome with exposure, i.e., education. In addition, it is generally accepted that we are more relaxed around the familiar; studies show that children in a taste test prefer the flavour of even their least favourite vegetable to one they have never tried before. This is because the familiar has proved itself to be safe.

However, that’s not a good reason to continue in this vein. Whatever we feel “naturally” or do when we are children is likely to be formed on gut instinct and lacking in reason. That is why, in adulthood, we have to be careful not to assume that what we feel first is correct and justified, and we must take into account that what is “natural” is not automatically what’s right for human beings, whose intellect and progress goes way beyond what nature has instilled in us as a basic mechanism for keeping us safe from potential danger.

Seriously, the argument that natural is better is the constant bane of my life when I’m tackling short-sighted, closed-minded ideas about what humans “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing. Ignore nature. It’s not a sentient, omniscient being who’s written a comprehensive guide to life. If you must think of it as a being, think of it as the mad old bat who wrote a radical political best-seller three centuries ago that has long since been made outdated and irrelevant by changes in public perception reaching far beyond the static ideas expressed in the book. Humans and nature have grown apart, it’s time to accept the split amicably. She doesn’t know better than you just for being older.

No one knows better just for being older. Old ideas are not good ideas. Sometimes, old ideas are very bad ideas (in this uncomfortable time of multiple queries regarding social justice, I’m sure I don’t have to explain which). As for the idea that some accents are more acceptable than others, that nonsense talk is as old as language itself. I don’t have trouble imagining early Homo sapiens being shunned for communicating in a way that was considered not up to scratch by the leading members of the tribe. It may be one of the reasons that we have such a keen ear for tiny alterations; it makes social cohesion and hierarchy easier to establish.

The idea that RP is the best accent in Britain isn’t quite as old as time itself, but it’s still pretty darn old. Ask yourself; who the hell decided that, and what the heck did he know? Accents are accents all over the world, and it’s not even like the most common one is considered the best; I’ll bet if you counted all the other non RP accents in Britain up together (adjust to your own country where applicable) against RP, you’d probably find RP is the slight if not distinct minority, even if it is the largest minority group. This is more likely to be true when you consider how specific and hard to define accents actually are. What, is there like a national accent judge around here?

Television, even in so-called objective institutions like the news, give us a skewed perception of what’s normal. This needs to be examined. What’s really going on here is that power is influencing our ideas about what should and shouldn’t be. The people who make the news and other media live in their own affluent, middle class bubble – an institution that, despite whatever liberated personal opinions might exist for the people living within it, encourages social difference about as much as your Auntie Gwen encourages farting at the dinner table.

As usual, the system has its own gravitas that goes beyond individuals, because tradition is like big growth of impenetrable ivy that restricts progress for no good reason, other than that it has been allowed to do so for so long, we have all forgotten to check up on it and see if it’s started taking the piss. In a lazy way, we like tradition. It’s almost cosy and calls back “simpler times” – i.e., times that we sort of remember from when we didn’t know any better. Or, times that our grandmas sort of remember from when they didn’t know any better.

What newscasters show you is what they want to see, based on what’s gone before. They themselves have been influenced into believing, however unconsciously, that there is a right way to talk about The Truth, and This Is It. So, the idea is perpetuated, no matter how ridiculous and untrue. It’s a throwback to an older time when class paid a huge part in society, and the shaping of public opinion ran firmly from the idea that middle class was the right of some people and the dream of everyone else.

To state that our choosing of RP as the The One True Accent was arbitrary would be to suggest there was no conscious and insidious social construction at work, which I suspect is untrue; it’s just a theory, but I’d imagine RP resembles a naturally occurring accent that once existed in a specific region, and that this region was where many of the first public schools [note: prestigious private schools] popped up, then available only to middle classes or higher; after which, overtime, this manner of speaking was tweaked to a precise standard and gained a snobbish overtone, as these things often do, since they indicate one’s ability to conform and thus, to succeed. Consider it a subject that should have died with Latin, but somehow didn’t.

Stigma from peers or seniors, chastisement from school masters and, for those outside the right area, elocution lessons to prepare for integration into these prestigious circles (a concept still live and kicking), would all have played a part in shaping a public school boy’s perception of what was socially acceptable for the educate few. Time passes, and the educate few eventually becomes the educate masses, and unrealistically we expect antiquated ideas about Proper Behaviour to spread to everyone throughout the education system, despite the fact that education is now compulsory across all social classes and regions, with all their various inherited attitudes, values and cultures.

To expect young children to make a concentrated effort to talk exactly the same way, right down to the last syllable, as kids halfway down the country from them just because they’re learning the same subjects as each other is nothing short of ludicrous – when you consider that in other parts of the world, people living within a few miles of each other speak different languages entirely and still somehow muddle along perfectly well, often learning to be bilingual, which if anything tends to aid education. Also, if you’ve been to high school, you’ll know that teenagers and individual subcultures create their own words and dialect, with the specific intention of changing the old ways, in order to find a language that best expresses the ideas which they have developed for themselves. It’s called progress, and pedants hate it. Yet, this is how Britain typically works; get rid of the old systems but keep the old expectations, thus oiling the old prejudices.

History repeats always itself: a small group of people with power use it to decide how things Ought To Be, and others agree because they are given no choice. They are cold-shouldered out of all the major institutions because they refuse to conform, quite rightly not accepting that they should have to. Then, the people who are fine with blithely adapting to the views of the masses also play by the rules of the game (even better than the people who invented it, to the point where they become the biggest champions of a bad system) and look down on people who seem unwilling or unable to do so – thinking of them as at worst, trouble-makers and at best, needlessly stubborn.

The problem is that we have no idea how manipulated we are. I am bored to tears of the declarations of people, both North and South, that particular accents are difficult to listen to, because they are “harsh” or “ugly”. Excuse my French, but what the fuck is up with that shit? There’s no such thing as an objectively ugly or harsh sounding language or accent. Depending on where you are, you might recognise that one is more guttural, hissier, louder, more heavily enunciated (etc) than your own. You might not think it entirely unaided; you can never be sure how much of what you think is heavily instilled in you by other people, who deep down just want to keep things the same way – be that nationwide, or just in specific areas that make a sport out of dissing people in the next town over.

That said, you are entitled to your preference; it just doesn’t mean anything. It indicates no entitlement. People shouldn’t have to shut up, change their careers or change themselves just because you don’t like their voice; for other people, these very traits may be something that they like – I love the Danish language for its guttural sound. This concept isn’t different for accents, it’s just that we feel more free to judge if the person speaks the same language as us or lives in the same country. Hey, we’re all British / American / Whatever, right? We can just accept that some British / American / Whatever people are better than others. I mean, like, no offence. It’s just true.

Only, it is offensive. Anything that marginalises, telling a group of people “my way or the highway” is oppressive, no matter from whence or whom it comes. And while we’re all going “your accent is interesting, but I just can’t understand it” we are forgetting who is really to blame for that; us, and the people like us who came before. And the people who came before. And so on and so forth. It is not mature to assume that other people owe you, in your bubble, to speak the language you understand best. When a person uses a word you don’t understand and you complain about it, reasonable people will tell you that your best bet is to improve your vocabulary in order that this does not happen again, because random TV presenters can’t be expected to make allowances for your education or lack thereof.

The same is true for accent and dialectical difference, though because of our media bias, it is harder to get exposure to dialects compared to vocab, which can be found conveniently in a comprehensive list. Still, whilst it is considered easy to pick up new languages when you are in a foreign country because you have to do it, apparently it is damned-near impossible grasp the concept of someone who rhymes the vowel in “bath” with “bang” instead of “arse”. I remember sitting with a friend once, watching a fishing documentary (I wish I didn’t remember that) which involved the guy on the TV giving us a lengthily, and unfortunately to my ears, perfectly coherent exposition about the art of fly fishing as distinct from other types. My friend turned to me and exclaimed: “Why aren’t there subtitles?! I can’t understand a word this guy is saying.” As for the guy on TV… He was Scottish.

I mean, seriously? We can’t understand Scottish people? You mean, the people from that country directly above us who speak the same language, operate under the same government and are subject to more or less the same media influences as us? That is clear proof of marginalisation on an extreme scale. No wonder a good many Scotts want independence; they might as well not be a part of the UK for all the mind we here in South England pay to them.

But in a way, my friend’s irate reaction was understandable; as a black man, he was used to seeing anyone from Africa, no matter how mild an accent they possessed, being accompanied by subtitles every time they spoke English, whilst white men with strong accents different to “the norm” that he personally couldn’t understand weren’t subject to the same treatment. The core of his annoyance was that he had interpreted from this an inbuilt assumption by the makers of the program that a person could be understood by virtue of being white, which in turn assumes the audience is all white.

This feeds into the accent debate perfectly. The assumption that the majority audience is one thing in particular alienates people who are not. Northerners have to put up with under-exposure because the majority of the people making the shows are not from the north, due to deep-seated prejudice from employers inside the institution about the intelligence and ability of Northerners, dating back to Christ-knows-when. Consequently, those who are in charge come from a culture that encourages them to assume that their majority audience is people who are like them, i.e., people from the south. If you don’t think so, observe the tendency in reverse; try watching a localised channel in a part of the UK far away from London. You see if any one of them sounds like a BBC spokesperson. They won’t incorporate them into the show, even though they potentially could, simply because us BBC speakers are not the audience.

That in mind, it makes sense that a broadcast sent to a national audience represent the whole nation, not just the tiny pocket that live around the broadcasting station. It occurs to me that the argument that people on TV should reflect the majority audience (or in the case of RP, I suspect merely the largest minority audience) is directly counter to the years and years worth of work that has gone into trying, with varied success, to create a more multicultural dynamic on the screen. Dialect is culture and is perfectly valid, particularly on the news, which is supposed to reflect the truth – and what greater truth is there than: not everyone in the country is white, Southern and middle class?

I call this awakening a cultural education: learning to accept that other people are different to you, including their tendency to speak differently. It is their right, as much as it is your right to speak like yourself. Your inability to understand is not the fault of the people who won’t change to please you (an idea, I might add, that assumes everyone can easily change, which is not even close to true) but rather the fault of people who think it is not necessary for you to understand, because the whole world should adapt itself to your specific characteristics, as if your characteristics are intrinsically better, rather than a lucky accident of time and place that means you happen to assimilate the characteristics of people in power, and therefore are permitted by society to stay as you are without being subject to inane commentary.

In short, if you can’t understand someone because of their accent, it means they have been under-represented and it is time to make a change. Don’t worry if you can’t understand someone at first; provided that institutions like the BBC continue on their (belated) gradual campaign to expose us to the glorious variety of accents and dialects that make up the flavour of this country, you will quickly pick it up and surprise yourself how much you can learn without trying. We deny ourselves a great deal by refusing to accept that variety, however slight, broadens horizons and allows for a better, more well-rounded world. Now is a good time to shoot for a broader perspective. Preferably in the form of a broad Yorkshire accent.


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