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Dr Urszula Clark Headshot

You Are What you Speak

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George Bernard Shaw, once wrote that an English man (sic)woman only has to open their mouths for another English man/women to hate them. Until recently, this statement may have held true. The prejudices we all seem to hold towards people who speak with particular accents and dialects are deep rooted in the British psyche. Those speaking standard English with a Received Pronunciation accent are at the top of the pecking order; those speaking with a Northern or Southern accent in the middle, and those speaking with a Midlands accent, particularly a West Midlands one at the bottom. If recent research is to be believed, it is actually better to remain silent than to speak with a West Midlands accent, especially a Brummie one.

Attitudes towards variations of spoken English in the UK are stubborn things, rooted in prejudices that go way back to the seventeenth century, when a standard form of English was chosen and removed from regional origins.. Before then, no one cared a fig. Speaking 'posh'; that is, standard English, with a Received Pronunciation accent with no hint of regionality, has generally indicated membership of a financially comfortable, middle class who could afford to educate their children privately. (think Jilly Cooper, Joanna Trollope and Kilroy Silk versus John Prescott and Frank Skinner). By contrast, speaking with a regional accent more likely indicated a working class background and state education for children, with various stereotypical characteristics assigned to differing regions. So, a west country accent would be associated with being a country bumpkin and lack of intelligence; a cockney accent with slipperiness and deceit, a northern accent with being untrustworthy and a Birmingham or west midlands accent with stupidity.

Peer pressure has a lot to do with it. As kids, we generally pick up the accents of those who surround us, first at home and from within our immediate neighbourhood, then at school and increasingly, at university. Moving schools during primary or secondary years to a different part of the country can be a mortifying experience. Children will take any excuse to bully, so speaking differently is an easy target. Equally, moving from school to university where the majority of students have been privately educated, as has been the case certainly with Oxbridge, can be a salutary experience for those who had not. Julie Walters may say that speaking with a regional accent didn't affect her career as an actor, but she went to Drama School, not university, in the early 1970s when 'kitchen sink' drama was fashionable. However, had she gone to Oxbridge and wanted to become a TV broadcaster, then that would have been a different story. Many people in professional life who once spoke with regional accents, and maybe still do in familial settings, have found themselves altering their pronunciation to 'fit in' with their middle class peers: be it broadcasters, doctors or lawyers. In an era of equal opportunity in virtually all walks of life, discriminations based on how someone speaks has survived very well thank you.

However, something of a quiet revolution is taking place which is in danger of rendering that very British sport, of judging someone's intelligence and social background from the way they spoke, redundant. The institution that was once key in maintaining the homogeneity of spoken English, namely education has instead been instrumental in breaking it apart. Teaching variation in English paradoxically and inevitably, exposes the social class hierarchies upon which English as a standard language has been based. This then gives students the knowledge they need to make informed choices about how they speak. This includes choosing to opt out of, as well as into, social hierarchies based upon how one speaks. With an increasingly educated population, the old ties between accent and social class are fast coming loose. As generations of university students come into contact with their peers from across the country, being aware of difference in speech and deciding what to do with it becomes a matter of conscious choice. Regionality in speech may have been something to disguise in the so called classless society of the 1960s and 70s, but today's generation is less inclined to do so. Indeed, various other gatekeepers of purity in pronunciation are also opening their gates: The BBC, once a guardian of English pronunciation, has thrown off its role as a gatekeeper of pronunciation in attempts to seem less elitist. Even the younger generation of the Royal Family have been heard to occasionally glottal stop.

In the past, changing how one spoke was motivated as much by wishing to belong to the dominant peer group as anything else. But this could have been at the expense of denying one's true regional, and thereby working class, origins. Now, as generations of university graduates join the middle classes in greater numbers than ever before, how one speaks becomes much more a matter of deliberate choice, be it as defiance against the norm, or in recognition of ones' regional heritage. Who knows, we may fast be approaching an era where what is said is heard rather than how it is said.

Urszula is co-director of Aston's Research Centre for Interdisciplinary research in Language and Diversity (InterLAND), an initiative that brings together colleagues in applied linguistics, social sciences and business studies.