When working at a university, I taught a student from Germany with excellent English. She told me: “I always thought my English was good – until I stepped off the plane in Birmingham. I was in shock! I couldn’t understand much at all!” She was listening to English, but it became unrecognisable because of variations of pronunciation – the regional accent.
The problem was that she had never been exposed to regional accents. The kind of English used in teaching across the world is based on the idea of ‘correct’ English; this is a high status accent, such as the Queen’s English, received pronunciation (RP), BBC English and Standard British Southern English (SBSE). These accents are usually associated with the (often white) middle and upper classes – quite different from the ‘Brummie’ accent encountered by my student.
Is there such a thing as a correct version of English?
Language is continually changing, and it’s very hard to pin down. It’s impossible to say what correct spoken English is. Those who despair that our language is becoming devalued by new words, slang, sloppy grammar and ‘horrible’ accents have forgotten that language evolves. That’s why we don’t speak like Chaucer (Middle English), or Shakespeare (Early Modern English). Those who relish correcting misplaced apostrophes are fighting an ineffective battle against natural evolution.
Each one of us also changes our language depending on the situation and who we‘re speaking to. This is called ‘style shifting’ or ‘code switching’. You may modify your regional accent in a job interview, for example, but not at the pub with your friends.
Do you speak the Queen’s English?
Actually, no-one speaks the Queen’s English – except for a very small minority of just 3%. The rest of us speak a huge variety of regional accents. It is reported that “The UK has some of the highest levels of accent diversity in the English-speaking world”. This diversity may exist because these islands have been invaded many times: the local language (Brythonic Celtic) was displaced by the Romans, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, the Vikings, and the French.
In the North West, the Scandinavian influence was strong, with evidence remaining in place names and local dialects. Accents vary from Scouse to Mancunian to Cumbrian, and there is further variation within all north western areas. Many of us may be familiar with the accent of Cheshire in Hollyoaks. In the Greater Manchester region alone, eight accents are recorded. In Bolton and parts of Lancashire, ‘alright’ is ‘alreet’, and ‘bottle’ is ‘bockle’ – for an example, think Peter Kay. A short distance away, in Liverpool, Scouse is very different. It has a unique feature in English, a sound that only exists in Scots ‘loch’. ‘Back’ is ‘bach’, and crime is ‘chrime’.
How do you react to regional accents?
It’s often the case that accents provoke emotional reactions: the Liverpool accent might be described as rough and threatening and the Cumbrian accent might be considered warm and calming.
Our emotional perceptions of accent may lead to stereotyping; all Liverpudlians are aggressive, and all Cumbrians are cuddly. It’s more of a knee-jerk reaction than a considered one, but it can develop into prejudice. Northumbria University reports that “People form judgements about others from the way they speak, yet listeners are often unaware of their deeply embedded ‘implicit’ biases”.
Can your accent affect your life?
“I want to be a lady in a flower shop instead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road. But they won’t take me unless I can talk more genteel”, Elisa Doolittle complains in Shaw’s Pygmalion, written in 1912. We may think that today our accent no longer keeps us from the jobs we’d like.
‘Accentism’ refers to discrimination based on the way we speak. While racism, sexism, ageism and so on are protected characteristics in law, accentism is not. Speakers with regional accents can, even today, experience bullying and discrimination when interviewing for jobs, and general ridicule, in spite of the fact that the BBC now features many regional accents from newsreaders to actors.
The Accentism Project has collected stories from people experiencing accentism. Even those speaking a ‘standard’ version of English can be ridiculed for being posh: “I know lots of people… might think this is ridiculous, but I was badly bullied at school for sounding ‘posh’.”
A student studying law shared their experience with accentism: “My tutor told the group that if we wanted to be successful in law we must learn to speak with a ‘Westminster accent.’”
Stereotyping emerges often, in social situations too:
“What’s it like living in Liverpool then? I can’t even imagine being in a council house, it must be disgusting?”
“When I joined a rugby club the lads thought I was a plumber/tradesman/policeman (due to my accent) only to reveal to their surprise that I am a Uni professor.”
In the workplace, accentism is “alive and well”. A lawyer said, “I hate to admit it… I will assume that someone with a posh accent is better educated, more intelligent and reliable than someone with a less smart accent. I should emphasise that I don’t think it’s right to do this, it’s just one of a series of snap judgements I make about people I meet”.
What’s the word you use for gym shoes?
Plimsolls, pumps, dabs, trainers – one survey maps this out. Many of us may find it easy to understand most regional accents of the UK, but we may fail when words pop up that we haven’t heard before. A spoken dialect will have an accent, but also variations of vocabulary and grammar.
Scots, a challenge for anyone south of the border, is now recognised as a language in its own right. It is English, but as you can see, not as we know it further south. How did you manage the first time you saw Trainspotting?
In the North West, words for common everyday things vary from region to region. Across the country, a bread roll is a barm cake, bap, roll, cob, batch, bun, muffin and tea cake. A survey finds that barm cake is restricted to the North West, tea cake is found in East Lancashire. (Burnley and Blackburn), batch can be heard in Liverpool, and muffin in East Manchester (Oldham and Rochdale).
Merseyside is alone in liking a lolly ice on a summer’s day. And what about the meals you have in the day? Supper, dinner, tea, lunch? In the North West tea is the evening meal – very confusing for foreign visitors.
Does it really matter how you speak?
An accent and/or a dialect is cultural identity, and speakers are rightly proud of it. It’s a portrait of ‘home’, and reflects our linguistic heritage. And if everyone spoke the same way, life would be very boring. I used to tell my students that aspiring to RP or SBSE pronunciation isn’t always a desirable goal. Keeping an accent is part of their culture. Not all of them agreed with me!