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UK accents: it's not what you say, it's how you say it

By Helen Ashton and Sarah Shepherd

17 May 2013 - 11:30

English speakers with regional accents are often judged by how they speak, but is this a good thing? Accent and dialect coaches Sarah Shepherd and Helen Ashton explain.

Accents define us the moment we meet others. They pass on information about our lives – where we are from, our age and even our parents’ histories – and they form an identity that gives us immediate membership to an oral tribe. Often this information we are transmitting does nothing other than inform the listener, but what if the way we speak really could change the path of our lives?

Recent research suggests that some judgments made by listeners to an accent are more than simply banter between the borders. Accents can affect how intelligent or attractive you are perceived to be, and can potentially affect results in exams, trials and job interviews.

The UK has a population of around 65 million, most of whom speak English as part of their daily life. For such a small, densely populated land mass full of people sharing a common language, the UK has a huge variety of distinct regional accents, often existing very close to each other – Brummie, Glaswegian, Scouse, Cockney, Multicultural London English (MLE) and Geordie, to name a very few. All of these accents are defined geographically, yet there is one accent that seems to represent us Brits internationally – Received Pronunciation or RP.

Research consistently shows us that RP or the ‘Queen’s English’ gives British speakers the best headstart in life – RP speakers can relax with the knowledge that they will probably earn a few brownie points in that exam/job interview/trial by sounding ‘a bit posh’.

Why? Given that RP has no discernible geography, how did it manage to become the most desired accent on our little group of islands? Well, it’s no secret that power attracts emulation, and it seems that over the last few centuries we have shifted from admiring those ruling the nation to trying to speak like them in the quest to climb the social ladder. As a strategy, this worked in the 1800s, and whilst so much has changed since, this particular mindset remains largely the same.

Accents create variety in speech and form part of our rich cultural heritage, like forms of history and diversity that we can hear. But they are also a form of history in the making. As younger generations discover all that speech has to offer, they claim its expressivity for their own, with new words being created in schools up and down the country.

To some, this just isn’t ‘proper’ speech, the same people who would have ‘standard speech’ – whatever that might be – taught across the UK, and internationally. Supporters of such ‘standard speech’ need to ask themselves this: do you really talk exactly like your parents spoke? Accents evolve across generations; trying to preserve speech is like trying to catch the proverbial wave: impossible.

The question remains for the UK – do we want to waste our energy preserving an accent standard that ultimately does little other than create additional hurdles for our regional, youth and immigrant populations?

Or shall we try to truly embrace the multiculturalism we claim to support and nurture, and start thinking instead about new standards of listening?

Voice and dialect coaches Helen Ashton and Sarah Shepherd presented yesterday’s webcast, ‘The politics of pronunciation‘, as part of the English Effect exhibition at the British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN.

 

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