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Let’s talk about accent

Alexander Baratta

Alexander Baratta illustration

Research by Dr Alexander Baratta shows that many teachers from northern England feel under pressure to soften the edges of their regional accents. Here, Dr Baratta argues that society’s problem with accents could have more to do with perception than pronunciation.

The way we talk can reveal a lot about us and our origins – in terms of region, class and ethnicity. The UK has a wide variety of accents but not all are created equal – with some accents deemed to be more socially acceptable than others.

Received Pronunciation (RP) was historically the standard British accent. And while it still exists, it is a class-based accent rather than a regional one. This is the accent deemed to be ‘posh’ British and is still regarded somewhat as the accent benchmark – in as much as other accents are compared with it.

Outside RP, all British accents are, by definition, regional. And yet there are different incarnations of each regional accent. The Mancunian accent, for example, comes in several varieties which could range from ‘broad’ to ‘posh’ with a more ‘general’ sounding accent in between. Most people generally have an intuitive notion of what constitutes these three varieties, though no one knows what this means at a purely phonological level – until now.

Based on my studies, it appears that broad accents – those which might be considered off limits for some professions – fall into one, or both, of two categories: ‘reductions’ and ‘linguistic giveaways’.

Reductions simply refer to losing a sound, or sounds, from a word, making it shorter – such as losing the ‘t’ in ‘water’ (eg ‘wa-er’). Reductions can contribute to accents being perceived as broad. This can lead to stereotyping of the speaker with assumptions being made as to their background, education level and social status.

Linguistic giveaways, meanwhile, are certain sounds which are immediately recognisable as deriving from a certain region. And if the region is stigmatised, then so is the accent and the speaker. In broad Liverpudlian for example, the ‘k’ sound can be pronounced like a strong ‘h’ – much like a Spanish ‘j’ – meaning that ‘back’ can sound more like ‘bahhh’.

The Sutton Trust has published research looking into the effects of accents deemed to be ‘working-class’ – ie, broad – in professions such as banking. It found that young people from less affluent homes are often locked out of these jobs because of their clothes, appearance – and accent.

The implications are that if two individuals – who are otherwise equally qualified – go for an interview, the one with the broad accent will be less likely to get the job.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to have a discussion about whether or not more socially acceptable versions of regional accents should become official standards in UK workplaces. This might seem far-fetched, but there is evidence that accents are being regarded as a legitimate means of judging candidates’ suitability for certain professions.

In modern-day Britain, we celebrate diversity and champion equality. This is reflected in the Equality Act – by which all manner of identities are legally protected. Despite this, class remains a divisive issue and accents are still discriminated against.

Ultimately, we all have an accent of some kind, so if a candidate is otherwise fully qualified for the job, then surely in this day and age an accent shouldn’t be seen as a (linguistic) liability.

Adapted from ‘Teachers with Northern accents are being told to ‘posh up’, here’s why’, published in The Conversation. Dr Baratta's research was recently referred to in the BBC's Future article 'What does your accent say about you?'.  

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