Pronunciation prejudice

Posted by on May 13, 2016 in Blog | No Comments
Pronunciation prejudice

Today’s news declared that northerners should modify their accents (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/12/trainee-teachers-from-northern-england-told-to-modify-their-accents).

We’ve been here before.

Being a northerner, I have come up against this prejudice since I travelled south in 1987. Fortunately for me, my long-standing boss was from Belfast: he recognised my worth to the company and I became his ‘proofreader of choice because of [my] meticulous attention to detail and sharp eye for inconsistencies’. Three other colleagues from the same company, one of whom was the Managing Director, thought sufficiently highly of me to offer to write testimonials for my website long after I left the company (http://www.foolproof-proofreading.com/about/testimonials/).

Colleagues were mostly southerners. It is true that one was brought up very close to my hometown, yet her northern accent was indiscernible. She had attended Oxford; I had attended the local comprehensive and began working at 16 in a job in which I excelled and still excel. The more I worked at the London company, the more that colleagues saw my qualities.

On another blog, I mentioned this same London company and the way that fellow professionals sniggered at my use of the word ‘spelk’ (http://www.foolproof-proofreading.com/etymology/). I was hugely embarrassed, a trait that comes from constantly being seen as unintelligent due to accent, and one that seems to bypass many who attend university, especially elite universities. Of course, I knew that the word was as valid as splinter, but it and I were shunned, despite its impeccable heritage.

There has been a great deal of research into the subject of accent prejudice: it has been shown time and again that employers favour those with a so-called ‘standard’ accent over those with ‘regional’ accents (is Kent a region, I wonder? Essex? Sussex?), and recruiters tend to disregard academic merit when interviewees have a noticeable non-RP accent: they tend to prefer those whose ‘non-accents’ expose a privileged upbringing – a posh voice equates to a high IQ, it seems.

Received Pronunciation (RP) is regarded as belonging to those whose parents are sufficiently wealthy (and insufficiently moral) to have schooled their progeny in the private sector (public schools, as they are (mis)named in the UK (keep up).

As Dr Alexander Baratta, the Linguistics lecturer who conducted the research says: ‘The trainee teachers I spoke to believe that they are being judged for how they speak and not what they say, and asking them to modify their accents made them feel inferior.’

When the class system disintegrates in the UK, we will all have a decent shot at life; until then (and then seems to be a long way away), those of us from ‘the regions’ will continue to suffer prejudice.