Mention ‘accentism’ and some people will inevitably roll their eyes, saying ‘not another –ism! It’s political correctness gone mad!’ However, are we honestly going to say that in Britain today accent-based prejudice does not exist? All too often, someone who doesn’t like our accent makes a negative comment about it – this in turn equates to a negative comment about the speaker too, as our accent is indeed a part of who we are. Or perhaps people have made jokes about your accent, declaring that ‘it’s just a bit of fun, so what’s the harm?’ Or do you have the ‘wrong’ accent for the job? The list is endless.

I have just completed a study on the subject, which involved 104 British
individuals who were all asked the following questions:

What role does accent play in contributing to your personal identity?
How is accent modified by you and what are the reasons for this modification?
How does accent modification subsequently impact on your personal identity?

The responses to the questions clearly show that for everyone, their accent is an integral part of their identity, an identity, and accent, in which they take pride. However, people often feel the need to modify their accent to avoid any negative perceptions that others might have of them based purely on how they pronounce their words. Modification appears to be common in work-related contexts, at job interviews and even on the phone. While most simply ‘get on with it’ and otherwise feel neutral about modification, just over a third of my participants explained that accent modification equates with selling out.

Responses include the following:

I felt disgusted in myself; a bit of a denial of self; I feel fake, angry, upset and really annoyed at myself…betraying myself – my identity and who I really am; I cannot be “me” if I want to earn an income or fit in; not being true to yourself; betraying my Nan; whipped; worn down; confused dialect identity; annoyed; I feel angry; uncomfortable; I feel like a phony; lose connection with your identity; I am not sure why my mentor in my previous placement was on such a crusade to change me.

Tell these people that a discussion of accentism is Politically Correct nonsense!

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Moreover, consider that a Liverpudlian Law student was told by a bus driver and a beggar after moving to Manchester that she should change her accent; a Northerner who now lives in the South reiterated the negativity of stereotypes regarding Northern accents, specifying ‘stupidity’ and ‘inferiority’; a teacher from Rossendale was told at a job interview that the interview was going to be stopped based on his regional accent, with the head teacher explaining that the parents would ask 'why did you hire this man to teach our children'?; a doctor from Wigan feels the need to sound less regional in order to feel 'more worthy'; an EFL teacher was told at a job interview that her accent was 'too Northern' and would create the 'wrong impression'; a Midlands teacher was told by her southern mentor that it was 'best to go back to where she came from' if she retained her native pronunciation in words such as 'bath' and 'bus'; a Liverpudlian has been on the receiving end of countless 'jokes' about thievery; a Cockney teacher was told by her mentor that her accent did not fit the criteria; and finally, consider that an RP-speaking teacher in the north, who has been told not to modify her accent, wishes to nonetheless do so, as she feels that being perceived as 'posh' by her students is creating a gap that she does not wish. Many others recounted tales of being ridiculed because of their accents and had patronising comments made about this linguistic aspect of their identity.

So, whether you speak Scouse, Geordie, Mancunian, RP, Estuary English or anything else, I would love to hear from you. Feel free to discuss the questions posed, your own personal experiences, or if indeed you think this is all a load of nonsense, I’d love to hear from you too. In the end, I am proposing that British accents should be made a protected category (foreign accents already are, by the way)…..what do you think?

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“No job or employee will receive less favourable treatment, either directly
or indirectly, on grounds of accent, race, ethnicity, disability, gender,
marital status, sexuality, age, religion or belief”