“It is impossible,” writes George Bernard Shaw in his preface to Pygmalion, “for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
Pygmalion was first performed in 1913, and adapted into the brilliant Broadway musical My Fair Lady in 1956, but the play’s views on accents are more relevant than ever. An ITV/ComRes survey of 6000 adults across the UK found that 28% of British people feel discriminated against for their regional accent. Research by the law firm Peninsular concluded that 80% of employers admit to “making discriminating decisions based on regional accents.”
Why is this peculiarly niche form of prejudice so widespread? Well, to start off, a distinction needs to be made between international accent discrimination and accent discrimination within the UK.
I get the pressure to sound “normal.” I moved from India to Canada when I was ten, and within two years I had lost my accent entirely. If you just heard me over the phone, for all intents and purposes I was a bona fide Canuck. Being uprooted and transplanted into a different country at such a formative, impressionable age had some profound effects on my priorities – above all, I wanted to assimilate, and the best you can do as a visible minority is talk and act like people around you.
Western antipathy towards accents from distant countries comes from a relatively straightforward fear of the “other.” In Ontario elementary schools, I was surrounded by kids who had never left their comfortable little sphere, raised in a suburban idyll by close-minded conservative parents, and they were suddenly confronted by this living representation of a highly stereotyped, generally dehumanised and unfamiliar culture. Their racism wasn’t because they were inherently malicious or generally bad people; it stemmed from ignorance. India was about as exotic as you could get without leaving the planet.
Somehow I got through another decade in that icy Northern wasteland. Now, I find myself in Britain, and I notice the accent discrimination towards other regions in the UK has a completely different basis.
Discriminating against an Indian guy for his Indian accent is pretty straightforward racism, and there is no greater fear in the hearts of left-leaning Caucasians than being called racist. But discriminating against another white person for their accent is a more oblique sort of bigotry – the underlying biases are more complicated, less obvious, and thus harder to immediately condemn. Researcher Alex Baratta, author of a study on teacher accent and identity in schools in the south of England, calls accent discrimination in the UK “the last acceptable form of prejudice.” This might, in part, explain why it’s such a prevalent problem among so many people in the UK.
I’m not privileging one form of discrimination over the other, but I am making a distinction here: where international accent discrimination is fuelled by a predictably racist fear of the other, accent discrimination in the UK is motivated by classism and cultural connotation. That is to say, in Britain, it’s not so much what you sound like – it’s what’s associated with your accent, most notably socioeconomic class and education but also concepts as nebulous as friendliness and morality. The ITV/ComRes poll revealed that the Liverpudlian or Scouse accent was regarded as the least “intelligent,” the least “trustworthy,” and the least “friendly.” Cockney also ranks poorly in “intelligence” and “trustworthiness.”
It’s hardly a coincidence that five of the twenty most deprived areas of England are in Liverpool, or that the Cockney accent is inextricably associated with the working class. The “Queen’s English”, or received pronunciation (RP), is ranked by far the highest in terms of “intelligence,” while Devon is apparently the most “friendly.” The survey reveals a discrimination that runs along the fault lines of class and the north-south divide – which are to some extent synonymous biases, given that ten of the UK’s twelve most struggling cities are in the north and none are in the south. RP, of course, is historically the accent of the elite, the capitalists, landowners and aristocracy; and as classes diverged geographically you have the emergence of distinct and identifiable registers of speech associated with socioeconomic class, called sociolects, particularly in cities with strong working-class identities like Manchester and Leeds. Thus, you have an elitist bias towards RP being somehow “superior.”
This sort of mentality has doubtless contributed to the increasing number of “accent reduction classes” in circulation. It reminds me of Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady, training Eliza Doolitle to speak like a lady: “why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” he asks, exasperated. “This verbal class distinction by now should be antique.”
A simple Google search for “accent reduction classes” will reveal a variety of results, though none as dramatically fascinating as Professor Higgins’. Communicate School asks whether “you think your accent stops you from being taken seriously at work or from developing your career,” and promises that you “will be helped to develop a clear, engaging English accent … the standard English accent, otherwise known as Received Pronunciation or RP.” Speakmoreclearly.com states in bold letters at the top of their page that you can “improve your English Pronunciation and speak with a Native British, American or Australian accent in just 15 minutes a day.”
Now, the whole idea of “accent reduction” implies that there is some transcendental, clarity-based speech that we can all take part in, free from accented cultural baggage – in short, that these outsiders and regionally accented folks are learning how to speak Proper English. But we should always be suspicious of these narratives of origin.
Because what is Proper English, anyway? British English? But then what of the vast diaspora of different accents in Britain – would a Glaswegian and a Welshman be able to have a conversation? The English in England, perhaps – but then an Englishman from Cornwall sounds completely different from a Mancunian. Hell, even in the single city of London you find massive variance in accents when you go from East to West. So what people really mean by “proper English” in the UK tends to be the small subsection of middle-class, educated Britain who speak received pronunciation.
I shouldn’t have to explain why the idea of a transcendent version of English is fundamentally classist nonsense. As Saussure pointed out, language is arbitrary – that is, there is no particular reason that the object of “pottery” should be attached to the sound-image of a “pottery.” It is a random noise which has been arbitrarily attached to the concept by consensus. Thus, the way in which “pottery” is pronounced matters even less; the sound-image already means nothing in and of itself, so why concern yourself with whether the word “pottery” should be pronounced with a glottal stop or not?
Once you dispense with the antediluvian elitism of the “Queen’s English” advocates, what you are left with are the practical reasons. People lose their accent because, realistically, it’s beneficial to do so. I lost mine and as a result I’m more likely to relate to and thus make friends with Americans and Canadians alike; many other immigrants and regionally identifiable Brits have lost theirs because a so-called “neutral” accent makes them more likely to be hired, more socially apt, and gives them a better chance of assimilation. “I’m from the West Country,” explains comedian Bill Bailey, dry as ever. “I lost the accent, because, well, I wanted to get on in life, really.”
Now I’ve grown up a bit, and I live in this culturally anomalous in-between stage where I sound Canadian and look Indian, where I can’t speak Tamil but I can rattle off French. And I’m happy with that, weird as it is, but I do wish I could go back and tell my ten-year-old self to care less about fitting in. Because what would be the end result, if every Brit and immigrant who wanted to assimilate or, indeed, get a job, spoke the Proper English that was prescribed to them? Some universal, clear, easily-understood accent?
I don’t think so. If anything, it would exacerbate these accented class differences even further – because despite all classpirations and desires to assimilate, you’d still get plenty of unabashedly working-class Northerners and immigrants who worked in industries where they didn’t have to care about being linguistically amenable to North Americans. So yes, there are many people trying to sound “neutral,” but there are also many people who couldn’t care less about it and retain their accent, cultural baggage and all.
But more importantly, why would we want a universal accent any more than we’d want a universal ethnicity or language? To invoke an age-old cliché, variety is the spice of life. Middle-class existence and capitalist globalisation are fundamentally homogenising, but that doesn’t mean we need to surrender to it. Yes, I find Glaswegians difficult to understand at times, and Scouse is occasionally incomprehensible to me, but I don’t dismiss those people as uncultured and in need of education or a better upbringing – I just feel the compulsion to learn their linguistic idiosyncrasies, just as I would want to learn a new language. The fault’s not their’s for being unclear, it’s mine for being uneducated in their pronunciation.
In fact, I find these regional UK accents irresistibly charming. I’m fascinated by the personality evident in every syllable, every glottal stop and variation in diphthong. It’s evidence of a brilliant force of national character, a rich and localised cultural heritage that we don’t really get in our young country of Canada.
Speech is such a fundamental part of our relationships; it’s the very basis of how we know each other, intellectually. So instead of seeing accents as a filter through which meaning must pass, we might start to see it as an essential aspect of that meaning. Accents don’t obscure what you’re saying– they enhance it. Think of it this way. Every time someone says something to you in an unfamiliar or unique accent, they’re distinct from anyone else saying the same thing; their statements are tinged with the multifarious hues of their upbringing, their origin, and countless centuries of history.