By Richard Cauldwell

09 June 2014 - 09:46

'Prejudices about accents are undesirable, but powerful, and very easily learned.' Photo by Marc Wathieu on Flickr under Creative Commons licence.
'Prejudices about accents are undesirable, but powerful, and very easily learned.' Photo ©

Marc Wathieu, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Are some accents better than others? English language teacher and author Richard Cauldwell examines the prejudices against various English accents and the effect they can have on one's sense of self-worth.

What is an accent?

An accent is a colouring or flavouring to your speech that influences the sounds and shapes of words and sentences. These flavours attach to vowels (in Birmingham you might hear ‘lake’ sounding close to ‘like’ as in ‘Where’s the like?’) and consonants (in Ireland you might here ‘this’ sounding close to ‘diss’ as in ‘Diss is the way’) and word stress (in the USA you might hear ‘MOmenTAry’ instead of ‘MOmentary’).

Accents are associated with social groups: regional such as Birmingham, or social such as upper-class. Everyone has an accent, no-one is accent-free. And for every accent there exists, there's somewhere a group – or groups of people – who react badly to it. These reactions are the result of prejudice – an unreasoned jumping to judgement. No accent is immune from such prejudices, even those we use as reference models for pronunciation such as Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American.

Some examples of prejudiced reactions to accents

People may say one of the following (or more likely think it quietly to themselves) upon hearing a particular accent:

  • You sound posh
  • You’re a racist
  • You hate Catholics
  • You sound so sexy
  • I don’t trust you
  • You're uneducated/stupid/slovenly
  • You're no good at your job

Everybody has prejudices about accents – I certainly do

Over the course of my lifetime (60-plus years) I have held and expressed prejudices about other people's accents. Many of these prejudices were firmly in place at the end of my formal education (boarding school and Oxford). They included prejudices about Northern Irish accents (my family background is from the South of Ireland), white South African (in my early/middle adulthood, there were many protests against apartheid) and American accents of any type (sorry, no excuse). I like to think that, over the decades, my studies and my experience of working with people from a wide range of backgrounds have led me to abandon these prejudices. However, I still have prejudices that I find difficult to control in relation to one particular accent. I will come back to this later.

Prejudices about accents are undesirable, but powerful, and very easily learned. They persist despite the protestations and efforts of experts and academics. Academics tell us that no accent is linguistically superior to any other. Compilers of pronunciation dictionaries often explain that the pronunciations that they suggest are not the only ones possible.

The appeal of labelling accents 'right' and 'wrong'

But the reality is that the wider world, including the teaching profession, likes the idea of simple rules which tell us what is right and wrong. As teachers, we like to be able judge our students (and sometimes our colleagues, and newcomers to the profession) on the basis of these rules. We thus treat these dictionaries not just as useful reference tools for teaching, but as a source of ‘right answers’ and ‘the truth’. If you deviate from these rules, you are somehow to blame.

These dictionaries, and the pronunciation keys derived from them, provide reference models of the spoken language. These models are useful for teaching intelligible speech, but they do not represent ‘the truth’, they do not represent ‘the right way’.

Inner-city accents and broadcast media

Within the UK, people have prejudices about the inner-city accents of Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool, which place these accents at the bottom of a league table of approvals. But this situation is changing (slowly) as more and more sporting heroes and heroines with these accents appear in the broadcast media.

And some individuals modify their accents to sound more 'refined' when talking to people outside their immediate circle of family and friends. They become bi-accented.

This option is not so easily attainable for non-native teachers of English, who are often made to feel bad about their accents. I’ll come back to this point in a moment, with some appeals at the end. But next, confession time.

Hostility to RP

The accent which excites prejudiced reactions in me is the one that has been recently named Conspicuous General British (CGB) – referred to in the past as Refined Received Pronunciation. It is the accent that has been held up as ‘the one to learn’ since the early decades of the twentieth century. Very few people speak it. And those who are said to do so (senior members of the royal family, officers in the Royal Navy) are unlikely to wield influence over my employment prospects.

But I am not alone in my reactions to this accent. As Cruttenden tells us, there is a considerable amount of hostility to it. Jacob Rees Mogg (Member of Parliament) recalls when he first stood unsuccessfully for election in Fife, Scotland: 'I gradually realised that whatever I happened to be speaking about, the number of voters in my favour dropped as soon as I opened my mouth.'

Accents and social groups

Sky News ran a report recently in which an 18-year-old woman was trying to sound less posh, because she didn’t like ‘random people’ telling her that she must be rich and from a privileged background.

The trouble for me is that one of the social groups I have the strongest family and emotional ties to are my cousins in the West of Ireland. And to them, my accent sounds ‘posh’, that is, RP-like. Yes, some people would say that my accent is the very one that I have these prejudices about. Hey ho!

Accents in the classroom

Let me end by making some final pleas to teachers of English:

  • Don’t judge yourself by your accent.
  • Don’t judge your fellow teachers by their accents.
  • Recognise a reference model such as RP or General American for what it is: a useful example for teaching and learning intelligible pronunciation.
  • A reference model is not ‘the truth’ or ‘the right way’ but a reference point around which many flavourings are possible.
  • Do not use reference models as an attainment target or attainment model.
  • Control your own prejudices about accents used in reference models.

Lastly, it's worth being reminded that people can be accented – even highly accented – and still be intelligible and comprehensible.

Find more seminars for English language professionals live-streamed from the UK.

Richard Cauldwell will be presenting on this topic at a British Council seminar, live-streamed from London on 10 June 2014.

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