Expert demands legal protection for accents

They are a source of pride for millions of people across the UK, but a new study finds that many fear their accents cause discrimination. Should regional voices be protected by the law?

Steph McGovern is an accomplished BBC business presenter who, like many people from Middlesborough, pronounces ‘poor’ as ‘poo-ah’ and rhymes ‘grass’ with ‘mass’, not ‘farce’. Yet rather than asking for her views, most emails she receives are complaints about her accent. Even employers singled her out; at the end of one job interview, a would-be boss commented, ‘I didn’t realise people like you were clever’.

A new survey has found that issues over accent are more common than previously thought. It found one in three children and adults felt they had to disguise their accents to avoid being judged in important situations. Doing this left them feeling they had betrayed their identity. Some also felt ‘angry’ and even ‘disgusted’.

The academic behind the survey claims that ‘accentism’ is a form of discrimination that should be no more acceptable than racism, ageism or sexism. She says it should be made a legal offence to make someone feel inferior for the way they speak.

The UK has a rich variety of accents and dialects which often give people a sense of belonging in their local community. While accents usually fit into broad categories like ‘northern’ or ‘Cornish’, even places just ten miles apart often have variations.

Linguists believed most accents developed at a time when communities were less connected by transport and communication. Less exposed to the speech of others, they developed local quirks and habits.

While there is no single ‘correct’ accent many people up until the mid-20th century aspired to speak with the ‘posh’ ‘received pronunciation’ (RP) accent, which was associated with the social elite. It was chosen as the accent of the BBC in the 1920s because it was thought it would be most easily understood.

Nowadays, RP has given way to so-called ‘Standard English’ in the media and universities and this is now the one people feel most pressure to imitate. Yet from North Wales to the Estuary English of Essex, regional accents remain as strong as at any time in history. Do they need legal protection?

It’s not what you say…

Some people say that snobbery against accents is awful and it can have a very negative effect on people. While it is not as extreme a form of discrimination as racism, the government needs to show its commitment to an equal society and put in laws to protect people from it.

Yet others say that while discrimination against accents is bad, society is slowly becoming more tolerant of different voices and laws would be a waste of time. It would also be difficult to prove someone had been discriminated against in this way. As long as people can speak clearly, they should feel proud of their heritage in their voice.

You Decide

  1. Should discrimination based on accent be made a legal offence?
  2. ‘You can’t say anything for fear of offending people these days.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. As the illustration shows, writing in a way that actually shows how people pronounce words is difficult. In pairs, try to write a speech that reflects your own pronunciation as accurately as possible. Compare with the class.
  2. Research regional accents online and make a report for your class. How many can you find and what makes them distinctive?

Some People Say...

“It's a fact of life that a strong accent makes someone sound stupid.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t have an accent!
Even people without an accent associated with their local area have an accent – even if it is what is often referred to as ‘standard English’, an essentially non-regional way of speaking. Many often feel pressure to change their accent once they start working or attend university.
Do we just have one accent?
People subconsciously change the way they speak depending to whom they are speaking. How someone speaks to their friends will probably be different to how they speak to their parents. This process is called ‘accommodation’. Someone who has lived in a new place for years and picked up the accent might revert to their home accent when speaking to their parents. Even telling a story about the past can have an effect.

Word Watch

Variations
While Lancashire accents sound generally similar, the ‘Scouse’ accent of Liverpool is highly distinctive. This is because the city was particularly influenced by a huge influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century.
Quirks
Scholars of the Old English period (pre-1066) have identified the existence of at least four distinct English dialects that developed from the Germanic tribes who settled in England from the 5th century onwards.
Received pronunciation
Even when Samuel Johnson wrote his famous ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ in 1757, pronunciation among London’s elite was still varied. The pronunciation of the aristocracy only later became standardised.
Estuary english
The accent of people along the River Thames estuary from London eastwards into Essex and Kent. Experts say the once distinctive London ‘cockney’ accent will have completely merged with it in the next 30 years.
Strong
New accents are developing all the time. One recent emergence is ‘London multicultural English’, which takes linguistic features from a number of immigrant communities.

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