Accents

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The other day I introduced a new co-worker to my pub quiz team. My American and German friend said that they really loved his accent; he’s a well educated British guy…well aside from the British and guy part, I said I assume he was well educated – you can tell from his accent. I was trying to explain to them that while, on the surface, it seems that Britain doesn’t have class systems anymore, you can tell a person’s upbringing, education and “class” by their accent.

Accent is a funny thing. I read a paper when I was in uni about how different accents make you feel certain ways, and so companies take advantage of this – for example, the Scottish accent will make you warm to the person and feel calm, so they put a lot of Scottish people in call centres. I had trouble in uni because of my accent – I have a typical RP, or “Queen’s English” accent, which usually tells people that you are well off and posh and stuck up. So this is how people thought of me, despite me telling people that I am normal, went to an average school and lived in some pretty rough areas when I grew up. People would take what I said and twist them to make it sound like I was looking down my nose at people, or just make rude and snide comments about my accent.

In Britain there is a north-south divide which I wasn’t even aware of until I went to uni. I’m from the south, and while people sometimes make jokes about Liverpudlians, or maybe about people from Newcastle, there’s rarely any bad mouthing of people from the north in general. The stuff I experienced at uni in Liverpool was just one part of it – when I was dating a guy from Middlesborough and I went to go stay with his family up there, his uncles and cousins had lots of stories and comments about how rude and stuck up and horrible southern people are. So when someone speaks the way I speak, all these images are brought up for a lot of people – even though I’m not like that.

On the flipside, my accent can (sadly) help me out in the working world – or at least in England. I’m not sure how true it is, but I’m told that people with RP accents are more likely to score top jobs and make good impressions in interviews. In an article I read this week, too, a brain surgeon comments that him being an East London boy is an unexpected thing, given his profession. Again, this comes down to accent – people don’t expect people with a “rough” London accent to do such a skilled job as brain surgery. Another good example is this woman from BBC News –

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Most BBC news presenters have “clean” southern accents, but she has a very strong northern accent. She’s the business woman on the show and often explains all the complicatedĀ economical news, but some people find her accent very off putting, or out of place in this job.

Even my American friend couldn’t understand when I explained all this to her, so I think maybe, in the English-speaking world at least, it’s a British thing. Are there stereotypes or prejudice placed on certain accents where you are from?

Comments

  1. That really surprises me that your American friend couldn’t understand why accents can seem out of place! In my experience, outside of local news and specialty shows a national broadcaster would never have regional accents. These days there’s so much political tension between ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ that your accent can suggest your political views, and your accent and slang can even stereotype you to a certain racial or ethnic group as well as economic class in the US.

    I was born and lived all my life (until about a year ago) in mid-Atlantic/East Coast US, but my parent’s are British and since I learned to speak from them, when I was little I had their accent (my friends tell me they have Queen’s English/BBC accents, I don’t hear it at all!). Some of the parents of other students thought I’d been sent to a fancy boarding school abroad. It’s 98% gone now, but some people still hear it as soon as I meet them, while people I’ve worked closely with for a year can’t hear it at all. Last week a German from Berlin told me I don’t sound British, but I don’t sound like most Americans do, either.

    • She’s from San Fran so maybe they don’t get as much of this kind of thing there? No idea…

      My friend has a British mum but is American and I spent the longest time trying to place her accent when I first met her!

  2. Oh, this is such a good post. I speak RP as well and I was always made fun of at school for it. In Japan I adapted the way I speak to sound less ‘British’ as I was fed up with my American friends making a big deal out of it.
    I’ve always found the north/south rivalry thing ridiculous. I’m from the Midlands and when I was at uni mixing with people from all over the northerners saw me as a southerner, and vice versa, Stooooopid.

  3. Definitely not a uniquely British thing. In uni one of the issues that often came up in my comm classes was credibility, and there have been studies testing how the perception of credibility changes with the speaker’s accent. In one study, they had people listen to the same speech given by speakers with different accents, then rate the speakers on how credible they thought they were. The speakers with the British (Oxford-style) English had the highest rating, whereas the southern US (Texas) accent was among the lowest.

  4. We did a module on accents in English Language for A-level. We talked about some survey that was done in the late 90s or early 2000s. People were played a tape of different accents and asked to rate the speakers according to different things. People from the north-east were apparantly considered “friendly but thick” – you can imagine how that went down at a high school in Northumberland!

    When I first went to uni (in Nottingham) I still spoke with a northern accent (I’ve lost it now). Nobody seemed to look down on me, but I did get asked to “say Byker Grove” a lot. Soooo annoying!!

  5. It’s strange to see how this ‘class’ thing is still valid up to now. I sometimes have the impression that Brits would make for better Germans. Just because of their “Befindlichkeiten” towards others.
    So is this accent thing also valid in Germany? Probably not as much as it is in the UK.

    • Oh wow I didn’t know that!

      • This is such a great post! I went to a convent school when I was little an probably spoke a little more standard English (with a Singaporean accent of course) and got made fun of at secondary school because I wasn’t using Singlish enough. I’m not sure if I have an accent but even before getting married foreign friends claim that I don’t sound like a typical Singaporean. No idea why…in Japan I adopted a foreign accent (half Brit/American depending who I’m out with) so people understand me. It’s really strange but it seems that I’m pretending to put on a Sg accent when speaking to ppl back home.

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