BBC Breakfast’s business presenter Stephanie McGovern has said she has come across prejudice in her career due to her strong Teesside accent. She claims some viewers can’t accept that she’s bright and once a manager even told her ‘I didn’t realise people like you were clever’. McGovern has raised an interesting point. Are accents important and are we judged by the way we speak?
The moment we open our mouths we reveal something about our identity and for Stephanie McGovern this hasn’t always been a positive experience.
Rather than paying attention to what the BBC business expert is saying, some viewers and colleagues have been making judgements about her capabilities based on her strong Middlesbrough accent.
Surely her Teesside tones should just tell us that she’s lived in the North - but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In Britain, accent is tied up with all sorts of other positive and negative connotations.
Much research has been conducted in this area and the results of one of the latest studies showed that a Birmingham accent achieved a low rating with regard to perceptions of intelligence, while the Yorkshire accent was perceived to sound smart.
Studies such as this indicate that stereotyping when it comes to accents, is very much alive and former reality TV star and social commentator Katie Hopkins demonstrates this.
Hopkins who claims she says what ‘we all think, but others are afraid to say’, said: “There are certain accents that make people sound stupid. If you have a northern accent you sound more stupid. For me it’s the Liverpool and Newcastle accent. Personally I can’t stand a Brummie accent."
Whether you agree or disagree with Hopkins, language experts confirm that her judgemental behaviour isn’t atypical.
Dr Philip Shaw, a lecturer at Leicester University, said: “Yes we are judged by our accents to some degree and research backs this up. People running call centres pay some attention to what they find. People make judgements about who to trust and who not to trust or how friendly people are.”
Curator of sociolinguistics at the British Library, Jonnie Robinson, agrees: “Of course there are still prejudices but linguistically there is no one accent better at communicating than another. There are sterotypical images we associate with certain voices, many of which are completely untrue. "
Robinson reveals that soft Scottish, Irish and Welsh accents are popular at the moment. He said: “They appeal to all sorts of stereotypes. Celtic heritage, the notion of isolation and history are all bound up with those things which are not captured in a London voice or a Liverpool voice. Geordie is also popular and positive media figures could have contributed to that. Scouse, London and Birmingham accents are regarded as less desirable voices. They may be associated with social issues, industrial decline, urban issues, overcrowding and unemployment.”
Language experts say attitudes to accents change over time and popular culture and social changes can influence this. Personal experiences also play a part.
The Scouse accent actually used to be popular in the 1960s among the young, due to the popularity of The Beatles and because people associated it with a buzzing, cultural Liverpool.
Robinson said: “Most people respond to accents as they remind us of home, university, where we used to work. They have positive and negative connotations bound up with social and cultural identity – which isn’t connected to pronunciation.”
So like it or not, accents can hugely influence people’s perceptions and first impressions, but can they limit our life choices?
Shaw said: “I suppose theoretically yes they can hold us back. They can affect opportunities which come our way. It isn’t the be all and end all as people with a wide range of accents do get to do all sorts of things. It could have an impact but it isn’t your destiny.”
Robinson, however, thinks that attitudes are changing.
He said: “In professions there’s been a gradual opening up to people of different social groups due to access to education. You would not have heard Stephanie McGovern’s voice 40 to 50 years ago in mainstream broadcast. News readers would have had to have a received pronunciation voice. What some people will call BBC English – a middle class neutral voice. In the last 40 years there’s been a greater presence of non-received pronunciation voices in the media.”
Attitudes may have also changed as a counter reaction to globalisation and standardisation, according to Robinson. He said: “People are turning to local culture more. One way of expressing local culture is through accents. There are a number of local dialect societies in the UK which are thriving.”
He said in schools children are also being encouraged to embrace variety, rather than being persuaded to drop their accents.
Accents are a matter of choice, agrees Dr Catherine Brown, a senior lecturer in English at London’s New College of Humanities.
She said: “People can cling to regional accents for reasons of class or regional loyalty, consciously or not. Some choose to keep it, others try to lose it.”
The correlation between class and accent is a British phenomenon, says Brown.
“For instance in Germany there is no correlation between class and accent. You can have whatever regional accent you like. In Russia, the variations are small. What matters is that you speak Russian in a way which is grammatically correct.”
So why is this the case?
Shaw explains that in the middle ages and early modern period there wasn’t a sense that social class was related to speech.
“If you were from Yorkshire in the middle ages you spoke with a Yorkshire accent, whether you were a peasant or a nobleman,” he said.
“Later if you look at Dickens novels, he put in portrayals of local accents and dialects. It reflects at that stage there was a strong notion of a standard spoken form of English which was used by people who aspired to a higher social status. Those of a lower social status used local dialect.”
Brown explains that a southern English accent developed as a standard English accent in the 19th century due to the fact the monarchy and aristocracy spoke in this way. The way of speaking was partly influenced by Prince Albert’s German accent. She said: “The aristocracy were trying to sound like the monarchy and for the rising middle classes one way of pushing themselves up, was to speak like the class above.”
Robinson believes we should be proud of our accents and be true to our heritage.
He said: “All of us adapt to situations. Maybe we speak differently in a job interview to when we’re with our mates at the pub. We all have a range of modes of speaking but our accents are something we absolutely should be proud of. We all reflect in our voices who we are.”
And Stephanie McGovern is an example to us all.
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