So when we went to London, to work, I probably did have quite a Hull accent. so if you went into a bar and you asked for, say, a rum and coke, you’d say ‘rum and kerk’ and they were like ‘What? What? What d’ya want? What d’ya want?’ So you’d have to say ‘a rum and cOke’ and make a really conscious effort to not make your vowels flat like that…to be understood. It’s like…odd, so you go back to your family and they go ‘ooh you’re talking like a southerner now, why’re talking like you’re from down south?’ and then you’re kind of like between two places. Like ‘ooh you don’t sound like us’ but ‘oh you don’t sound like you’re from here’ and you’ve got that going on cos you’re just trying to make yourself understood. I think that is quite interesting like you and your sister have both been brought up in Leeds with us as parents and the same family, going to the same school, but you sound different in the way you speak and it’s probably to do with the people, the friends, you hung out with at a young age. So, you know, you’ve definitely got like that northern accent that I think probably people from down south will tell that, but Ella’s is more northern. And you can just kind of put it down to perhaps the friends you made in your class when you were at school and how they spoke, and I think kids do particularly…they do lots of things to fit in. If they’re hanging out with the naughty crowd they start to do the same things, they want to fit in with their friends, and there’s lots of ways that children do that. Sometimes the way they speak, the way they behave and…as you’re growing up I think cos you just wanna find that acceptance.
(Excerpt from a conversation with my mum, a nursery teacher born in Coventry and raised in Hull, who works in Batley.)
As my mum pointed out, we often reflect the nature of our environments in order to fit in, so the way we speak undoubtedly becomes affected because of that. Looking back, I remember how I used to sound; it would always be ‘nerrrr’ not ‘no’ and ‘Elluhhh’ not ‘Ella’ when I was whining to my older sister, and I’ve often wondered why that faded so much. My close friends in Leeds not having regional accents probably had an affect, and I distinctly remember after primary school feeling conscious of making my voice more ‘standard’ in an attempt to blend in. I remember being vaguely aware that my family didn’t sound like many of the more privileged people I began encountering at secondary school; I also remember the friends I had who went to less middle class secondary schools maintaining their stronger accents, showing that we do often reflect our environments. Now that I’m older I don’t worry about sounding like I fit in as much, but it’s strange to wonder how I might sound now if I never cared in the first place.
Dr Robert Mackenzie is leading a major project on ‘accent discrimination’ in the UK, which is something I had never given much thought to. Despite having personal experience with gender bias at Goldsmiths and knowing of racial bias taking place, it had never really occurred to me that there is accent discrimination on an institutional level. Mackenzie proposes that accents should be protected in equality laws, helping people to unlearn the bias if it is outlawed. Currently in the UK, a potential employer is allowed to not offer you a job on the basis of your accent. This type of discrimination adds another layer of bias against groups who already struggle with unconscious or conscious discrimination based on race and gender. If you are a woman, a person of colour, or both, and on top of this you have a strong accent, then your chances of being graded lower in educational institutions could be stronger. I asked my dad, a teacher in secondary school about this:
I’ve only taught in inner city schools with a very diverse cohort of native and non native speakers so I’ve experienced or witnessed little accent bias because of this. However in more affluent areas and schools, particularly private schools, accent bias is a problem where a strong regional accent is associated with a lack of intelligence.
Mackenzie also argues that it comes down to people’s expectations of each other; with some people tending to make racialised assumptions on how someone should sound based on how they look. The research of social linguists in this field prove that people still often associate a ‘standard’ southern accent with traits such as intelligence and ambition, and traits such as honesty and friendliness are associated with ‘non-standard’ northern speakers. These assumptions don’t benefit anybody- conversely, they produce binary opposites that mean you could either be less what Mackenzie calls ‘socially attractive’ and more employable, or more ‘socially attractive’ and less employable- in short, a lose-lose situation. However, this view could be generational and dependent on factors such as whether you come from a sheltered or privileged background.
Often being thought of as a fun topic of discussion means this bias becomes overlooked and allowed, yet one quick google search of accent bias shows a number of campaigns with statistics largely about grades and employability, but they even range as extreme as finding that people are more likely to be found guilty in court. Being at university throws light on this topic as it’s the first time for many people hearing different accents and a chance to pick up different words and inflections of speech- a natural part of growing up. Research seems to reflect this sense of acceptance amongst young people, showing they seem to have the most pride in their accents. With equality laws and wider representation, the pressure for some people to sound a certain way could rapidly become a thing of the past.