Reading Practice: Accent Perceptions

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Category: Language Variation

Topic: Accent Perceptions

Difficulty: Advanced

Length: 1,238 words (+ references)

Description: A medium-length academic article discussing accents in the United Kingdom, exploring how people form opinions and prejudices based on pronunciation. 

Accent Perceptions

Pronunciation Prejudice in the United Kingdom

Popular linguist David Crystal warns of ‘a real danger that we will rate unfavourably people whose accents diverge from our own’ (2003, p. 298), which is a viewpoint that has been supported by research within the field of sociolinguistics. Sociolinguists study language variation, seeking to exemplify, explain and explore why and how a language varies between locations and demographics. It has been argued that in the United Kingdom ‘language attitudes permeate our daily lives’ (Garrett, 2010, p. 01), a sentiment which has been attributed to the fact that British society has promulgated the idea for many decades that there is a prestigious and correct way of speaking (Mugglestone, 2007). While this correct English may have been historically associated with a variety known as Received Pronunciation, this accent has become less common in its purest sense in recent years and Standard English now prevails. 1

Before exploring why a culture might favour a standard variety and how doing so might impact that culture, it is first necessary to understand what is meant when linguists use the term ‘accent’. It is not uncommon for those outside of the study of linguistics to be unfamiliar with how the terms ‘accent’, ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ are different. While accents are usually considered to vary in pronunciation, intonation and the use of colloquialisms, dialects also demonstrate more significant grammatical differences – although not so significant that two speakers cannot understand one another. In contrast, languages are demarcated based on their mutual intelligibility. If an English speaker can mostly understand another English speaker even though there are considerable differences in their varieties, then these two speakers are speaking the same language. If, however, mutual intelligibility is not possible, then these two speakers would be using different languages. 2

Although the United Kingdom may possess a small number of individuals who do not speak English as their first language (such as in Wales), the UK is considered by most to be a monolingual nation in that its inhabitants generally only speak one language. While this is assumed to be a normal situation by the British, global demographics highlight that more than 50% of the world’s population likely require at least some functional knowledge of a second or perhaps even third language to carry out day-to-day activities – such as shopping, schooling or employment. Britain’s fairly unique situation has therefore lead researchers to consider whether it is precisely because of this monolingual environment that the UK has maintained a set of distinct perceptions towards certain accent types. 3

It has been argued that governing, televisual and educational institutions have shaped British society’s accent prejudices, and that the ‘myth of the non-accent’ has been publicly advocated (Hall, Smith and Wicaksono, 2011, p. 10). Essentially, accents have not been perceived equally in Britain for some time, with the southern Received Pronunciation or Standard English varieties having been historically considered as the desirable ‘non-accent’. Any other accents, by default, have therefore been perceived as being somewhat inferior.

Such perceptions have been supported by linguistic studies in which members of the public have been asked to rate the characteristics of an individual based on their accent alone. The results of these studies have indicated that concepts of intelligence, education and wealth are generally associated with the standard variety (Bishop et al., 2005). Instead, those who have a regional variety are often labelled as being less intelligent, less wealthy and less likely to succeed in senior positions of employment. 4

This type of linguistic stereotyping has been a concern of sociolinguists since the 1960s, when Andrew Wilkinson proclaimed: ‘[i]f one is to make social judgments [about accents,] one must be clear that one is doing so on social and not on scientific grounds’ (1965, p. 62). The institutions held accountable by linguists for instigating such prejudice are most notably the government, educational policies, and the influence of television. Considering the former, the rhetoric that accent is in some way linked to delinquency was first recorded in government debates during the 1920s (Crowley, 2003, p. 204). Crowley argues that since then several educational policies were introduced to promulgate the use of Received Pronunciation and Standard English in schools up until as recently as the 1990s. These policies were prevalent in both grammar and public schools and would have very likely contributed to both a prescribed way of speaking and to the belief that most accents spoken in the homes of schoolchildren were somehow incorrect. 5

It is the concept of there being an incorrect type of language that many sociolinguists seek to expel. One impact of such perceptions is that when young people go to university with a regional accent, that accent commonly (even if only temporarily) becomes less unique and more standardised. When a person’s language changes in this way, this behaviour is known as accommodation. Such accommodation at university suggests that the British public believe that the way they speak is an indication of their social status. By contrast, it is common for teenagers, particularly adolescent males, to increase the use of slang in high school, perhaps embracing and emphasising their regional accents to establish and display their identities. Sociolinguistic behaviour such as this is not fixed nor is it only the consequence of one aspect of a person’s identity or culture; it is multifaceted. 6

Perhaps even more powerful than educational policies are the media and television, which have reinforced and possibly even created language stereotypes. In the earliest days of television, the executives of the BBC declared that accents had no place on television unless for comic value (Mugglestone, 2007), with actors routinely taking elocution lessons to emulate Received Pronunciation. One can infer from this situation that the general populace of the UK might have had accent perceptions introduced or reinforced, with speakers of Received Pronunciation being viewed as more serious, educated and talented. 7

However, from the 1990s onwards there is now much more variety in the United Kingdom with the accents of news reporters, television shows and politicians having diversified greatly. A British Prime Minister may use Estuary English (Altendorf, 1999) instead of Received Pronunciation, for example – although this may be a more conscious and pernicious form of accommodation than is found in universities and playgrounds. Lippi-Green in fact attests that ‘language… [has] become a commodity’ (2012, p. 61) and that politicians may be accommodating their accents in an attempt to gain more working-class votes. This behaviour by upper-class politicians is perhaps ironic considering the pressures described by many in the working class of attempting to ameliorate their regional accents, leaving these people with identity concerns and feelings of ‘selling-out’ (Barratt, 2014, p. 01). 8

Ultimately, much of the sociolinguistic research conducted on accent perceptions and prejudice has occurred prior to the developments and increasing popularity of social media. When considering now that young people are receiving input from a wider-than-ever-before international market, it may be that the prejudice towards regional accents described here has significantly declined. More research would be needed to determine this for sure. One significant final thought is that the United Kingdom is by no means unique in making judgements based on the way a person speaks, and that forms of prestigious or standardised language exist in many cultures for political and social agendas or for geographical and historical reasons. Next time you hear an accent different from your own, try to reflect on whether you have any preconceived opinions or perceptions about that person and why exactly that might be. 9

Word count: 1,238

Reference List

Altendorf, U. (1999) ‘Estuary English: Is English going Cockney?’ Moderna Sprak, 1 (1), pp. 1-11.

Baratt, A. (2014) Keeping it Real or Selling Out: The Effects of Accent Modification on Personal Identity. Available at: http://www.e-space.mmu.ac.uk/espace/bitstream/2173/335755/3/Keeping%20it%20real%20or%20selling%20out.pdf (Accessed: 19th Nov 2014).

Bishop, H., Coupland, N. and Garrett, P. (2005) ‘Conceptual accent evaluation: Thirty years of accent prejudice in the UK’, Acta Linguistica Hafniensia, 37, pp. 121-154.

Crowley, T. (2003) Standard English and the Politics of Language. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Crystal, D. (2003) The Encyclopaedia of English Language. (2nd ed) Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 

Garrett, P. (2010) Attitudes to Language. Cambridge University Press: New York.

Hall, C., Smith, P. and Wicaksono, R. (2011) Mapping Applied Linguistics. Routledge: New York.

Lippi-Green, R. (1994) ‘Accent, standard language ideologies, and discriminatory pretext in the courts’, Language in Society, 23(1), pp. 163-198.

Muggelstone, L. (2007) Talking Proper: The Rise of Accent as Social Symbol. Oxford University Press: Oxford Scholarship.

Wilkinson, A. (1965) ‘Spoken English in schools’, Educational Review, 17(4), pp. 58-71.

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