It took me until I went to university to realise that I had an accent at all. Similarly to how you don’t think that your own home has a distinctive smell until you’ve been away for a while, I just thought I was accentless. In my head I sounded… normal.
My mum’s family is from Barnsley and my dad’s from Lincoln, so my accent is actually a delightful mashup of South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire yellowbelly, with a bit of Manchester thrown in from the years I spent living there. I’m proud of my accent now. But I wasn’t always, and it’s sad that so many people from the North and Midlands feel like their regional accents will hold them back.
New research on “accent bias” released today found that young people from the North of England and the Midlands are much more likely to worry that their accents will count against them in higher education or employment than their counterparts from the South. Twenty-five per cent of adults surveyed said their accents had been made fun of or criticised at work, while 47 per cent of university students and 46 per cent of adults said their accents had been singled out or mocked in social situations.
Far too many young people are essentially the targets of bullying and discrimination because they don’t speak like Southerners – which is not just accent bias; it’s regional bias. The South of England isn’t the centre of the universe.
Going down South for my undergraduate degree was a bit of a culture shock, to say the least. Why did everyone speak like a BBC News presenter? Why were they adding extra “ahhhh”s to words that definitely didn’t need them? “Grass”, “bath” and “laugh” are a few examples.
Having my accent or the Yorkshire phrases I use mimicked at uni became part of a wider atmosphere of classism, where my wealthy peers from London – who had attended expensive private schools – dominated.
I remember being asked which school I’d gone to during fresher’s week and being utterly baffled. Why would anyone from outside Lincoln want to know? Why would you assume you might have heard of it? I didn’t realise there was a whole network of famous posh “independent” schools that people would actually recognise the names of – other than, say, Eton or... Hogwarts. I was a bit too busy trying not to get my head kicked in at my own school to be brushing up on the merits of Winchester College and Bedales.
When I ventured down to London aged 22 to do a week’s work experience at a national newspaper, I had the office in hysterics – unintentionally – because I pronounced Southwark exactly as it’s spelled. How was I to know it wasn’t phonetic? I’d never heard anyone say it before. Should I have switched to received pronunciation?
Mocking a regional accent is an easy way to make someone feel small and unwelcome. And there unpleasant assumptions that are made about those with Northern and Midlands accents – if you don’t talk like you’re on Radio 4, you’re stupid or “common” or poor. You’re not part of the club. You’re not going to fit in. And, like law, politics, the diplomatic service and even creative industries like film, TV and music, journalism can often feel like a private members’ club.
There’s a negative feedback loop that gets created here. Feeling too different – or like you will be ostracised or made fun of – means extra anxiety in milestone situations like job interviews. It’s another hurdle; another barrier in a world where there are already too many for people outside the London-based Oxbridge elite mould. In the worst-case scenarios, it stops people who are different from even trying.
MPs like Angela Rayner and Jess Phillips shouldn’t be shamed for speaking with regional accents or fall victim to “accent policing”. Young people shouldn’t have to worry that how they speak will be used against them and cost them jobs, connections and opportunities.
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Speaking like a Southerner doesn’t mean you’re better (or cleverer or more refined or have nicer manners) than anyone else. Having a regional accent doesn’t meant you’re not “talking properly”. And I’m sorry, but “bath” doesn’t need an “r” in it – never has done, never will do.
The bias towards Southern accents is strange because London is a true metropolis, bursting with vibrant diversity, and you can hear languages from all over the world being spoken. So why are regional accents still considered fair game for – let’s be honest – highly classist mockery and shaming?
Looking around my workplace now, Southern accents definitely dominate, but I’m not going to let that make me feel like I should change how I speak.
My accent celebrates my family and where I’ve come from. It doesn’t mean I’m less intelligent than anyone who’s been brought up putting those extra “r”s all over the place, or I won’t know which fork to use at a fancy dinner (I actually don’t, but that’s beside the point). Wouldn’t it be boring if we all sounded the same?