STYLE

Do Accents Still Matter?

30/01/2012 17:22 | Updated 22 May 2015

Do you remember when it became fashionable to have a regional accent?

A few years ago you every up-and-coming TV presenter had a Scottish, Irish or Geordie accent, and the days when you had to tune into Emmerdale, EastEnders or Coronation Street to hear people 'talking funny' were long gone.

Yes, those were the days when even posh public school kids felt that they had to cultivate a suitably interesting accent if they wanted to get ahead because received pronunciation was starting to seem a bit old-fashioned and out of touch.

Now we have Ant and Dec, Lorraine Kelly, Alex Jones, Cat Deeley and Christine Bleakley flying the flags on prime time TV for the North East, Scotland, Wales, the Midlands and Northern Ireland respectively.

Photo: Getty

So you'd have thought that these days no one would bat an eyelid when they happen to get caught up in conversation with someone who speaks differently to them, right?

Wrong - just look at poor old Cheryl Cole's fate.

I don't think I have a particularly strong accent. I grew up in Shropshire and my family is from North Wales, so I probably did sound a bit different to most of the the other students at my south coast university, but not enough to really stand out.

By then I'd already resisted several attempts to 'correct' my flat vowels. At the age of 15 a well-meaning teacher told me that I'd jeopardise my chances of getting into a good university if I didn't change the way that I say 'bath', 'grass', 'last', 'ask' and 'dance'.

I was adamant that I was happy with my voice just the way it was, but a schoolfriend insisted that my teacher had a point and offered to help me practise. I declined.

As it turned out, my accent didn't seem to hinder my progress in high education. And after two decades living in London and the South East, I undoubtedly sound more southern than I used to, but my flat vowels are still intact.

In fact, I hadn't given much thought to the way I speak until last year when my daughter started school.

A few months ago she started to notice that I speak differently to her teachers. This was soon followed by attempts to put me straight: "No mummy, you don't say it like that. It's 'barth' not 'bath'. Just like Baa Baa Black Sheep."

So we had a little chat about regional accents and I explained that people from different parts of the country often have distinct speaking voices. She seemed happy with that.

Then, a few weeks later, during a play date I asked my daughter to pass her friend a toy giraffe.

The child's mother laughed, immediately corrected my pronunciation and explained to her daughter, "She means 'giraaaaaaffe' darling."

My eyebrows shot up to my hairline, but I said nothing.

The child's mother was southern, middle class and expensively educated - and I was astonished that she felt that it was appropriate, or even relevant, to comment on, let alone correct, another person's speech.

Those days, I'd assumed, were long gone.

Later, I mentioned the incident to some (northern) friends - and all of them related similar experiences.

According to a report in the Evening Standard, demand for professional elocution lessons is rising, as people believe that a strong accent puts them at a disadvantage in today's competitive job market.

The Tutor Pages, an online directory of private tutors, saw an increase of 119% for elocution enquiries last year, with elocution teachers receiving more enquiries than any other subject.

Mark Singleton, of speech specialists Speak Easily, told the newspaper: "Classes which work in accent reduction are becoming more popular with bankers, senior executives and barristers, where people feel their voice has to 'fit'. Some people want to reduce their accent to communicate with more clarity - for others it's about social status."

In my experience, most people who speak with a regional accent, particularly if they've moved away from their hometown, are proud of it.

But while the words that come out of your mouth are a pretty clear indication of your intelligence, attitudes and beliefs, the way you say them reveals little more than where you grew up.

Which is why it really gets me when people imply that a regional accent is somehow wrong or inferior - when it's just different.

While these assumptions don't count for much in everyday conversation, they could make a difference if the person who questions your accent is interviewing you for a job or occupies some other position of authority.

So yes, I think accents do still matter.

They obviously matter to those of us who speak with them because we haven't made an effort to change them.

And they must still matter to the people who don't. Otherwise our flat vowels wouldn't be worthy of comment, would they?

By Ceri Roberts

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