What It Really Means When We Judge Someone Based on Their Accent

Maisie Allen is a 2nd year Liberal Arts student majoring in English literature from South Wales. She likes socialism, the welsh rugby team, and gin.

[Featured Image: Six animated people each with speech bubbles floating over their heads, having conversations in pairs.]

As a society, especially in the UK, we are obsessed with accents. Countless surveys are published each year determining which accent, UK or abroad, sounds the sexiest/smartest/worst and every time a debate rages in the comments section. In the UK, we’ve even created memes out of the Birmingham accent as well as the regional divides between North and South England alongside the respective accents. Whilst this might all seem light-hearted on the surface, there is a darker side to these comparisons and corresponding mockery especially when it comes to discussing their impact on an individual’s social mobility. 

A joint study between the Universities of Manchester and Bath found that typically broad (strong) regional accents can be a barrier to social mobility as they are thought of as less favourable. The study focused on accents which had strong working class links, such as South London and Manchester, which in itself is telling of how we still struggle with the class divide in the UK. One teacher commented that her mentor tried ‘everything they could to change my [South London] accent’ as it sounded ‘unprofessional’. 

The notion that strong regional accents sound unprofessional and the belief that they should be moderated in order to succeed in your career and ‘be taken seriously’ proves that we still have a very pervasive and strong unconscious class bias, particularly when it comes to individuals in public facing roles. Strong regional accents which can act as a class indicator are stigmatised; facing unfair judgements regarding intelligence and competence in a way that accents which subscribe to the so-called ‘received pronunciation’ do not. 

I myself have been guilty of adapting my accent in various situations so as to ‘fit in’, something which was noticed when I returned home to my small Welsh town after my first year at King’s and my friends remarked that I ‘didn’t sound Welsh at all’. This, coupled with the fact that a few days prior, a date had remarked that I sounded quite ‘upper class’ (although what does ‘upper class’ sound like?), almost mirroring an accent that was reflective of his own privileged upbringing and background, left me mortified. I began wondering if those from my community would think I had tried to move above my station and that somehow I’d forgotten my background; it had almost become a source of shame especially in a place where our accent is so closely tied with our Celtic identity. 

Whilst my accent had never been strong in the stereotypical portrayal of the South Wales accent (it always seemed a source of disappointment to people I met at university when I opened my mouth and didn’t sound like Nessa from Gavin and Stacey) I felt ashamed that I’d willingly, albeit subconsciously, participated in a system that seemingly prioritised how you said something, rather than what you said. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that studies have shown that individuals who speak without a notable accent are more likely to be accepted as housing tenants than those who speak with a strong accent, especially if that accent is perceived to be ‘non-native’; accents are as heavily racialised as much as names are. 

Nevertheless I am not the only one who has sought to alter their voice, as highlighted by the sharp uptake in people seeking elocution lessons so as to ‘soften’ their accents, with searches for these classes rising by 25% in the three months after the EU Referendum in 2016 compared to the same time the year prior. This is also useful in providing food for thought where accents that lie outside the UK border also face a great deal of stigma for how they talk, especially if English is not a native language. Whilst these classes advertise their intention as not to ‘change’ your accent, the idea that somehow there is a singular way to speak ‘clearly’ (read: without indication of class) that also seeks to reduce a part of your identity that many people hold closely and cling onto for familiarity, is beyond me. 

The implication that the perfect accent should not maintain strong regional tones and should be neutralised is deeply entrenched within British culture (although dialect and accent bias is prevalent in numerous other countries, such as the United States), all you have to do is look back through the diluted history that are fed to us by schools; focusing on narratives of the rich and powerful with lower classes nothing but a footnote. It is no wonder that we believe we have to act a certain way or speak in a certain voice to appear successful and accomplished when those with notable accents from often marginalised working class communities are rarely seen in the public sphere, unless they are used in a caricature-like portrayal (see my earlier point about Nessa from Gavin and Stacey). When there is seemingly so little to aspire to, it is no wonder that those with stigmatised accents internalise these prejudices, even if it is a subconscious knee-jerk reaction to moving to a different city (as was the case with mine). 

Whilst we seemingly appear more open to different voices taking centre stage, our assumptions still linger in the wings; pervading through our class system and into our everyday social assumptions. Accents are endlessly fascinating; an amalgamation of family surroundings, geographic location, as well as socioeconomic status and even to an extent media consumption, and it would be a terrible disservice to try and neutralise an often fondly held indicator of identity. 

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