It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him – George Bernard Shaw 

Background to the problem: Accent, class and fitting in at university

Peter Brant, head of policy at the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, wrote an article in 2014 that appeared in the University of Manchester’s student newspaper, Mancunion. Brant argued that working-class British children, based on a fear of not fitting in, avoid applying to the more prestigious universities. Brant’s proposed solution is that in order to prepare for a future at university, working-class children need to act more middle-class, with examples including changes made to their cultural experiences, relationships, clothes and food. This might seem fair to some, patronizing to others, but arguably, Brant is suggesting a valid point: students need to feel that they belong. However, need this come at the cost of leaving one’s class identity at home?

The relationship between class and accent

Class is something that remains a rather abstract concept in terms of an inability to arrive at a unanimously-agreed upon definition, and yet it is something that appears to be intuitive at the same time. In Britain, where class awareness is still very much a part of society, people often form snap judgements of others based on the class bracket to which they are judged to belong. Thus, people have a class radar of sorts and it is a social reality that we will be judged, sometimes unfairly, simply based on factors that go far beyond our finances and instead, pertain to all manner of dispositions as part of our habitus, including hobbies, aspirations, even our choice of newspaper and, indeed, accent.

The working-classes desire to have their voices heard, as part of RECLAIM’S Educating All report, and this is a relevant starting point in the continued fight for equality. That is, when we consider class perceptions in modern-day Britain, they usually begin the moment we hear someone speak. Accent is but one of many factors in an individual’s habitus that both contributes to, and reveals, his/her class identity, both in terms of self-concept and crucially, how he/she is judged by others, in terms of identity ascription. Perhaps Brant does not suggest accent change alongside changes to other personal traits, as accent still remains an especially controversial topic. Indeed, a telling quotation is provided by Leach (1881:10-11): ‘while financial advantage may enable the purchase of superior clothes, the illusions of social standing (or superiority) thereby created may be rapidly dispelled once a person begins to speak’. More than 100 years later, can we honestly say that this is no longer the case?

Thus, accent acts as a linguistic proxy for larger social categories which it reflects, with class certainly one of them. Consider that the upper- (and middle-) classes in Britain still tend to speak Received Pronunciation (RP), which itself is a class-based accent, heard all the way from London to Yorkshire. How, then, do people perceive British accents deemed working-class? Usually, it works like this: a broad regional accent often acts as a symbol of working-class origins, which in turn leads to stereotyping based on the judgements often made of the working-classes, such as ‘uneducated’, ‘uncouth’, ‘ignorant’ and so on. If this seems simplistic, that is exactly the issue involved with stereotyping – it reduces a complex human being to a lowest common denominator.

All people have the right to an education, but this is more than just the right to attend university. It also includes the right to attend university without fear of prejudice, however subtle the prejudice of others might be. No amount of legislation can remove prejudice, but it can make it difficult to exhibit it toward people. Accent in Britain, as a symbol of class (here, the working-classes), is arguably the last taboo, and yet, considering the historical and ongoing class struggles, it needs to be addressed.

The work of RECLAIM reveals struggles regarding working-class students at university, which, though based on class, are nonetheless revealed, partly at least, through students’ voice. An individual from the local area in Manchester explained that people had difficulty understanding him at university; local-accented students might feel less confident when in contexts such as class debates and interviews; and one student’s brother told her that since attending university, her accent had changed.

Some might say that we all need to grow up and this is political correctness gone mad. So what if a student’s accent was a bit too ‘local’ for perhaps more Southern-accented students; many students feel uncomfortable with speaking in classrooms and indeed, never open their mouths – it may have nothing to do with accent anyway; and finally, what’s the big deal if a student’s accent has changed – who says this was not an otherwise ‘organic’ change, based on the influence of classmates’ accents and not, otherwise, based on linguistic self-hatred.

However, given that class identity is a starting point in Britain, and is certainly based in part on one’s accent, then we need to consider these examples from this perspective. Might it be that a local resident feels inferior to those who speak ‘posh’, but has nonetheless earned his/her right to study at university? This is based ultimately on a need to fit in, a need most of us have; however, does an accent have to hold us back, one that has been used for most of our lives prior to beginning university? Moreover, is accent change not sometimes a conscious choice, a deliberate strategy to fit in and avoid the negative perceptions, perceived though they may sometimes be, of others who speak less ‘local’ and/or more ‘posh’?

Fitting in at university includes abiding by the rules of the school and on a more personal level, it involves finding one’s niche and crowd. It should not mean having to feel out of place just because of our class background, and resulting accent. Herein lies a dilemma, however: do we modify who we are to avoid the negative perceptions of others, and risk selling out, or, do we keep it real, celebrating who we are and risk feeling out of place (I concede of course that for some students, the decision to modify their accent to somehow ‘play down’ their class background can be an overall neutral decision)? From the perspective of accent modification, there is the deeper issue of identity modification. This can lead to cleft habitus, where individuals feel as if they do not comfortably fit in either world – leaving behind their roots and yet, not having fully arrived at university. From a linguistic point of view, I refer to this as linguistic homelessness.

Attending university is a life-changing experience and it is good if we sometimes take ourselves out of our comfort zone and experience new things with our fellow students. This may indeed necessitate change of some kind: a change of clothes to ‘look the part’ at a formal dinner and occasionally taking part in activities that may otherwise be considered outside of one’s class level (e.g. joining a cricket club versus a football club). However, a change of accent, however subtle it may be and especially if a deliberate strategy to avoid feeling like an outsider, should not be required.

My own research

Since 2014, I have conducted four studies focused on the relationship between one’s accent and identity, involving the responses of 133 British and Irish individuals, notably teachers, but also including the views of 55 British students from the primary and secondary level. Not all referenced class, but many did reveal how accent modification made them feel: ‘A bit fake’ (Mancunian); ‘it is a bit of a denial of self’ (Stockport); ‘I felt disgusted in myself’ (Rossendale); ‘to alter your accent makes you feel like you are not being true to yourself or your heritage’ (Mancunian); ‘I feel fake angry and upset…I feel like I’m betraying myself – my identity and who I really am’ (Mancunian). In terms of the rationale for accent modification, it was based on a collective desire to avoid negative perceptions and to be perceived more favourably, in contexts ranging from the workplace to simply conversing with one’s lecturers.

It could be argued that we all modify our language use on a regular basis, part of adapting to the context of communication. Clearly, if being interviewed for a teaching position, no one would use taboo language (or dress in jeans, for that matter). What is so wrong about adapting to the environment, to include linguistic adaptation? How can this be tied to issues of prejudice? The simple answer is that linguistic prejudice, leading to prejudiced notions of the speaker, is still a reality in Britain. This is notably captured in one of the few studies that focuses specifically on  accent, identity and prejudice at university in Britain (Addison and Mountford, 2015).

Moreover, the Sutton Trust references the brown shoes effect, which indeed points to disadvantages that the working-classes experience in employment, with accent deemed to be highly relevant for certain professions, such as banking. That is, broad regional accents, symbolic of working-class origins, may not find favour, despite individuals being otherwise qualified. In this case, such individuals may be perceived as not being linguistically qualified.

We might also consider instances in which individuals are given no choice but to modify their accent. One of the teachers from my study, who hails from Rossendale (in Lancashire), had this to report, both in terms of his self-perception as a working-class individual and the perception of a job interviewer:

‘At university I think my accent marks me out as working-class. In my mind, I hope it signals that I’m straightforward, that I’m a hard- worker.’ However, at an interview for a PGCE, the implications for his accent were very different from the interviewer’s point of view:

‘A couple of minutes into the interview, the man interviewing me said he was stopping the interview. He told me that I was applying for a job teaching English but I wasn’t speaking it properly myself!’

Moreover, a Midlands teacher who is teaching in the South was told by her mentor that it was ‘best to go back to where (she) came from’ if she could not modify her accent to sound more Southern, in words, for example, such as bath and bus.

Now, consider negative comments made about people’s race or ethnicity, for example, in the workplace – would this be acceptable?

Finally, of the 55 British students who took part in my research, only one suggested that there should be a standard accent, though didn’t specify what this variety should be. Otherwise, the remaining students clearly felt that in today’s Britain, within a spirit of respect for diversity and tolerance, no one should feel pressured, let alone be told, to change their accent: ‘Everyone has a different accent. No teachers need a “standard accent’; ‘I think you should talk the way you want to’; ‘Everybody should be different’. ‘People shouldn't change their accent just to please others’; ‘I don't think people should change themselves’; ‘people…will have to fake who they are and will feel like a phony’; ‘you don’t try to be something else’; ‘it makes you feel fake’.

From the studies, the resulting issues and points are now summarised:

  • While many accept accent modification without issue, many do not, equating it to linguistic selling out based on creating an identity perceived as fraudulent.
  • Students of both primary and secondary level do not agree with the notion of a standard accent, equating it to enforcing someone else’s ‘standard’ onto society.
  • In the context of trainee teachers, the majority for whom linguistic guidance was provided, they were mainly from the North and Midlands.
  • The few who did reference class do not regard their accent negatively; indeed, everyone took pride in their accent and regarded it as exhibiting its own linguistic capital, a symbol of class and regional origins which they are equally proud of.
  • While being understood is vital for a teacher, notably at the level of phonics teaching, does an unfamiliar accent really impact on learning, or does it merely reflect the linguistic reality beyond the school walls (for which children are being prepared)?

Proposed solution

Class is not protected under the Equality Act 2010, but it is time that it was and the starting point is to protect British accents. Given that foreign accents are already protected, then in a spirit of true equality for all, it is time British accents were made a protected category. Before we can even consider the workplace and the implications for accent within, we need to consider university, where the workforce of tomorrow is first being trained and shaped.

However, there are changes that can be made at a more immediate level consisting of the university context. I agree with RECLAIM in that we need more representation from staff with local accents, such as a working-class diversity officer, and teaching staff with broad accents, especially being involved with giving talks to students in the local community. This can help to make a connection with such students who share the accent, a case of recognizing a university lecturer who sounds like them.

Finally, I argue that it would be of use to instruct university students and staff alike on what the phonological implications are for accents deemed ‘broad’ ‘general’ and ‘posh’, for example (I concede that these are loaded terms, but I can think of none better). Arguably, the British public have intuitive notions of such, but what does it mean phonologically-speaking? My most recent research argues that RP, still regarded by many as the default standard, is the starting point against which other accents are judged. By definition, outside of RP, all British accents are regional of course and if we take the Mancunian accent, there are different implications for Mancunians from higher class levels (though not necessarily all RP speakers) and those from working-class backgrounds. First, I argue that it is reductions in one’s speech that can contribute to accents, and people, being perceived as working-class (to include accent labels such as ‘local’/‘broad’).

For example, if we take the word Saturday, we can see this realised on three phonological levels regarding the Mancunian accent:

Posh: /satədeɪ/

General: /satədɪ/

Broad: /saʔdɪ/

The posh variety pronounces all the letters in full, whereas the general variety exchanges a diphthong [eɪ] for a monophthong [ɪ], thus a reduction by one phoneme. The broad accent, however, loses a further sound, by replacing the ‘t’ with a glottal stop [ʔ].

The purpose of such training sessions is to strip accents bare and expose them for what they really are: neither ‘sexy’ nor ‘thick’, but merely a collection of sounds in specific contexts. Such an approach can help individuals to look at accents from the same objective and otherwise impersonal manner that linguists do (or should do!). This, in turn, might help to consider accents from a fresh perspective. This doesn’t mean the association between an accent and class is going to go away, but a bit of linguistic awareness can help to reveal that reductions are perhaps at the heart of broad accents (and reductions, by the way, are not ‘deficient’).

Likewise, we might also consider what I call phonological giveways – that is, specific sounds in specific contexts which identify an accent immediately in terms of its region of origin. If the region is stigmatised, then so is the accent; thus, so is the speaker. An example might be a broad Liverpudlian accent as heard in the word duck: /dʊx/. In posh Scouse, however, the same word would be realised thus: /dʊk/. The point here is that the sound [x], essentially a strongly aspirated ‘h’ sound (think of the Spanish j) is tied to Liverpool, certainly more broad varieties of the accent. In turn, negative associations with this accent are placed onto the speaker. I am reminded of Julie Walters’ character in the film Educating Rita (1983), whose very broad Scouse tones were not diluted for her attendance at university. She changed her writing style, but not her speech; clearly, her manner of pronouncing her vowels and consonants did not dictate her intelligence level (but unfortunately, this is often the perception).

Having considered this impromptu linguistics lesson, it is hoped that there might be a bit more understanding, if not respect, afforded to accent varieties which often don’t get any. In turn, respect for the speaker, whose place in university has been earned, is the next step.


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