An Accent Out Of Place

Rowan Cothliff

We all have differences, be it appearance, hobbies or beliefs. Even in the way that we speak. What we may forget is that something so simple as an accent can affect our course of life, the way we are perceived and the ambitions we create for ourselves.

Recently, I read an article on the feelings of hostility surrounding regional accents in the university environment. It got me thinking about the impacts that accent and dialect place on our lives and even the detriment to our mental health that an ‘accent out of place’ can implicate.

I am northern, however not the most northern northerner you will ever meet. Having grown up in the north with a southern Mum and a northern Dad, my accent formed itself in a way that was a bit of both.

At school in Lancashire, I was deemed to have a ‘posh’ voice and be ‘well-spoken’, leading to interesting assumptions. Some could say that this accent of mine might have even been a benefit, due to the fact that my voice was perceived as a seeming sign of intelligence in certain circumstances; I was made by some of my peers to seem more clever than I had ever really felt. Perhaps that assumption made me want to live up to the persona created for me.

However, a lot of the time, the fact that I wasn’t quite as regional as others played on my mind. In social situations, I would worry that I seemed less funny (in fact I still do), because I couldn’t pull off my jokes or sarcasm with this ‘posh’ voice that I had been made to believe that I had.

I felt more rigid than others and I couldn’t really change the factor that put me in this situation. Other people were probably not even bothered by the difference in my voice, but it had entered my list of insecurities.

Yet, it wasn’t until I had moved on up to sixth form that I had a realisation on a bigger scale of the generalisations placed on people as a result of their accent. At work, my inherited southern pronunciation of ‘toast’ made room for comments such as ‘Oh Rowan, do your maids make “toast” for you up on your estate’ to which I would answer ‘Of course not’.

I have gone from feeling too ‘posh’ to too ‘broad’, when really I am neither

This realisation of the class I had been placed in by my accent struck me the most in an English language class (ironically enough), where we were taking that silly test that tells you what social class you are from. My teacher looked at me before I had even begun and said ‘Oh you’ll definitely be middle class’.

I was taken aback, I was nothing of the sort, as I come from a working class background that I am very proud of and this assumption had been made from the way I speak. There were people in that class, who would have not received a comment like that, that had more yearly income alone from one parent than mine put together.

Were they seen as working class by this teacher, because their voice was broader? The roles had been reversed, our backgrounds had been incorrectly assumed by the resonating sound of our voices.

Then, I came to uni. Where most people I found had a ‘southern’ accent and I was no longer the ‘posh’ one of the lot. In fact, I was quite the opposite. I had become the ‘broad’ equivalent that I had never been before; an accent out of place in both northern and southern terms.

Now I worry that my phrasing or the sound of my voice does not carry itself as eloquently as the RP accents I encounter so frequently now. I have gone from feeling too ‘posh’ to too ‘broad’, when really I am neither.

My experience of accent stereotyping has had both positive and negative assumptions. However, my tame story does not begin to compare to the many stories of abuse and lack of opportunity others receive everyday as a consequence of having a ‘broad’ regional accent.

8 out of 10 employers admit that they made discriminating decisions towards interviewees with a regional accent

In the UK, there are 37 regional accents, by definition being different to that of the ‘standard’ received pronunciation found in the south, predominantly London. You would think that by now we would have learnt that the way in which we speak should not be an all-defining reflection of our character, with many extraordinary examples to say otherwise.

Still, this is not the case. In a 2017 study it was found that 8 out of 10 employers admit that they made discriminating decisions towards interviewees with a regional accent. So, to put this into perspective, depending on where I am in the country my chance of employability changes with my inbetween accent, for someone with a broader regional accent it will be a lower percentage than that.

Yet for someone with an ‘RP’ accent their chance of employability will undoubtedly be higher in all parts of the country. You could have two very different people with regional accents from very different backgrounds, yet they will be looked upon in the same manner to both of their disadvantages. The same goes for ‘RP’ speakers who are stereotyped to be more intelligent and fit for the role, giving them an unavoidable privilege over others.

We need to look beyond the accent.

In denying opportunity to a person, you deny them the support they need to believe in themselves to achieve their ambitions.

The sound of your voice can stop you at the door, stop you from ever seeing the opportunity inside, and stop you from being taken seriously. It can stop you from getting the chance you are more than worthy of. All down to prejudice.

Rowan Cothliff

Featured image courtesy of Jason Leung via Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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