By Rebecca Astill
Accents are an intrinsic part of our identities. They broadcast where we’re from, where our parents are from, where we grew up, and other influences on our upbringing. If the only base difference of accents is geographical location, why are some accents perceived as more attractive or professional than others? Why is it that young people disguise their accents in job interviews? Why is the ‘British accent’ internationally seen as attractive? Does the ‘British accent’ even exist?
I spoke to Cardiff University Linguistics Professor Michael Handford, who is a specialist in the relationship between language and context. Professor Handford explained some of the social and cultural reasons for certain accents being interpreted as more attractive or professional:
“Accents that are seen as higher prestige are usually those used by powerful groups in society, and there are historical reasons for this. The accents can both reflect or show that people are members of these groups, and also have a ‘gatekeeping’ role where it may be difficult to become part of such powerful groups if you don’t have such an accent.’
Through this explanation, Britain’s powerful history of an empire with colonies across the globe has meant that today, the ‘British accent’ is the accent that everyone wants. The supremacy has been interpreted as more attractive, accounting for the pedestal on which the ‘British accent’ sits in society.
However, there is a question of whether the ‘British accent’ really exists. Professor Handford argues that it doesn’t:
“I don’t think there is ‘the’ British accent, but there are many accents that would be seen as British.
“Linguistically speaking one isn’t better than another, but of course what is regarded as the ‘standard accent’ in the UK carries more prestige, and isn’t a regional accent in that people of certain socio-economic backgrounds may use it, regardless of where they are from.”
Professor Handford is referring to received pronunciation as the ‘standard accent’, which is also commonly called ‘BBC English’ or ‘the Queen’s English’ and describes a southern English accent which, until the Second World War, was required to be spoken by all broadcast journalists. Although it is more strongly associated with southern England, the accent identifies more of a ‘prestige’, educated social group, rather than a specific region.
This explains why young people have begun disguising their own regional accents in job interviews, in order to appear to fit into this social group. The Independent found that over half of young people admitted to wanting to hide their regional accent in a telephone job interview if possible, in order to make a better impression.
Regional accents have a deep history of origin, dating back to when groups of different language speakers would live together, in isolation from other groups who spoke other languages. As languages evolved and merged, the births of the regional dialects have remained tangible, even to this day, explaining why so many regional accents still exist.
On top of this, invasion and migration had a great influence. For example, the East Midlands were ruled by the Danes in the ninth century, while the West Midlands were ruled by the Saxons. The precursors of language established by these different settlings have led to a distinct difference in accents and dialects between the East and West Midlands today, despite the geographical proximity. For example, the stereotypical East Midland greeting ‘ey up’ is thought to derive from the Old Norse greeting ‘se upp’. Who would have thought that such a common greeting actually had such an interesting historical origin?
Similarly, the melodic Welsh accent is directly influenced by the Welsh language and grammar. The tendency for a Welsh accent’s pitch to go up and down while speaking contrasts the monotony of British received pronunciation. This melodic intonation comes from stressing double the syllables of English people. If you take the name Rebecca, an English person would pronounce ‘Rebecca’, only stressing the first ‘Re’, while a Welsh person would stress the ‘Re’ and the ‘ca’, hence creating a sing-song like accent.
At the end of the day, as humans we have opinions on everything, and this inevitably extends to which accents we like or don’t like. ‘Dialect levelling’ seems to be happening to an extent, with flat vowels such as ‘bath’ rather than ‘ba(r)th’ spreading down from the north. This is a result of increased mobility in society and more user-generated content from around the world online. However, accents remain and there is still an irrefutable difference between a Liverpudlian and a Kent accent.
People enjoy being part of a community and that is what accents provide. They offer individuality and identity in the wider world and a sense of belonging in their homes.