Imagine you’re reading a book by a British author. How do you hear their voice in your head as you move through the paragraphs on the page? What’s clearly enunciated? What isn’t? Now, imagine you’re reading a text by a Southern American author. Or a writer from New York City. What’s different this time?
Realize it or not, we often make judgments about people based on their accents. This is true whether they’re characters in a book or people we encounter in our everyday lives. In this article, we unpack how accents have developed certain meanings, and what impact this has on the world we live in today.
The Queen’s English: A Royal Standard
American media often depicts England as an overdramatization, or stereotype, of its London capital. Think of any movie with a cut scene and B-roll footage introducing London as the setting. It usually contains pieces of iconic imagery like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye and red double-decker buses. But this stereotyping doesn’t stop with imagery. It extends to language, too.
The British accent most often featured in media is “Received Pronunciation” (RP) or “The Queen’s English.” This cut glass accent implicitly suggests that the posher a person’s voice, the higher their IQ. The intriguing thing is that only around 3% of the British population actually speaks RP and yet it prevails as the world’s idea of the British accent. Why? Well, for many years, the BBC would only allow RP accents to appear on its airwaves. The accent became synonymous with the nation, connoting RP as trusted, authoritative and sincere. Anything else became considered “less than.”
Sidelining Regional Accents
As with any country, the truth is that the UK has a multitude of different accents and dialects. For instance, my mother was raised in Huddersfield, a large mill town roughly 4 hours north of London. Her Yorkshire accent still emerges when she’s on the phone with her British family. She says the Yorkshire accent is often stereotyped as working class, outdoorsy and even “small town” compared to metropolitan cities like London and Manchester.
Likewise, my cousins (who were born in Essex, England) have what’s called Estuary English. This is often considered more contemporary — a blend of RP and the working-class Cockney accent. But it still faces an “accent bias” like the one my mother described. Babbel has covered a variety of British English accents in this article, as well as in the video below.
Across The Pond
Accent bias is not just a British phenomenon. As Europeans migrated to North America throughout the 17th and 19th centuries, the British accent followed their colonization. One feature that stuck is what linguists call “rhoticity,” or the pronunciation of R in words like “card” and “water.” While (most) modern British English speakers now drop their Rs, mid-1600s Brits largely pronounced theirs, and this feature stuck around in most American accents.
However, just like in the UK, today’s American accents vary by class and geographic location. A northeastern accent — varying from Boston to New York City — is different from a west coast Californian accent. This in turn differs from a Midwestern accent. And just as Britain has RP, the United States has a General American accent. This is typically found in more metropolitan cities, like New York City. Conversely, the Southern accent is sometimes wrongfully stereotyped as inadequate, “redneck,” or “hillbilly,” simply for its drawl and because it features less annunciation than its “standard” counterpart.
The Dark Side Of Accent Bias
Unfortunately for those with perceived “working class” or “lower class” accents, navigating spaces upheld by the constructs of professionalism can pose challenges. This is because these spaces are heavily defined by white supremacy and classism.
There are, however, changes happening in the social perception of accents. In a Quartz survey presenting five different British accents, younger people did not judge people any differently by their accent. However, by contrast, those surveyed who were over the age of 40 (and therefore more likely to be in charge of hiring) held bias towards speakers of the two working-class London accents. They judged them to be less competent and less hirable. This was true even when all of the candidates gave the exact same responses.
It takes us less than 30 seconds to linguistically profile a speaker. It follows then, that we make quick decisions on their ethnic origin, socio-economic class and background. Still, the intricacies of language-learning, accent and class (while with much history) remains a gentle and sacred practice of self. The British Council suggests to teachers (but it’s equally applicable to learners) not to judge themselves by their accent, nor to judge fellow teachers or language learners by theirs. Most importantly though, we should recognize reference models such as RP or General American for what they are: useful examples for teaching and learning recognizable pronunciation, but nothing more.