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21 January 2015

Why speaking proper still counts as having an accent

BBC English is still so dominant that it can be easy to forget it's a dialect. But calling its speakers "accentless" only heightens its power.

By Stephanie Boland

“Accent”, the journalist AA Gill writes in The Angry Island: Hunting the English, “is the last redoubt of prejudice”. Depending on where you hail from, it’s a statement that will have varying degrees of truth. I know Londoners of a certain background who are unconvinced by the idea that how you sound can be a barrier to success. But I also know many people – myself included – who have two different accents: the one we grew up with and the one we use for “official business”. Like the gamekeeper Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we find ourselves explaining the split to bemused friends after overheard phone calls home or a misplaced word (“tea” rather than “dinner” is my main culprit).

If you can use the same voice at work as you do with your parents without risking embarrassment in either situation, you enjoy a privilege many of us don’t share. You also probably spend less time thinking about your voice; indeed, you may think you don’t have an accent at all. In an otherwise excellent piece on James Blunt in the Independent, Sarah Perry notes her relative privilege by calling herself “largely accentless”. The line is undoubtedly well-meaning, but it is also a reminder that English culture still has a dominant accent – one so widespread it is often just thought of as “normal”.

Likely, it’s the voice you hear in your head when you read this. Some linguists still refer to it as Received Pronunciation (RP), although it’s not as clear-cut as it once was: the distinguished vowels and careful modulation cling on, but it’s no longer the drone of the old Shipping Forecast. Others call it “BBC English” or even “Standard Southern British”, although the Handbook of the International Phonic Association cautions that “‘Standard’ should not be taken as implying a value judgement of ‘correctness’”. 

This seems optimistic. As Gill writes on RP:

It’s an accent that’s widely thought not to be an accent at all, but the default note of spoken English, a correct pronunciation – as if all the other ways of speaking were more or less incorrect. RP doesn’t come from any region or job and it doesn’t have a history, although it’s more associated with the south than the north. It is the voice of authority. The sound of the professions.

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This Citymetric graphic illustrating the growing north/south divide is a reminder of just how closely RP maps on to prosperity, with a strong correlation between the places this “standard” accent is spoken and regional growth. It’s easy to tell the difference between Mancunian and Scouse – not to mention Geordie – but most people today would be hard-pressed to distinguish the native tones of Reading, Oxford and London.

The general geography of RP also allows it to dominate the southern-weighted media. The written word defaults to BBC English unless specified otherwise, with other accents often awkwardly denoted (consider, for instance, the way a Guardian interview will include the verbal tics of a regional voice which would likely be cut from RP). 

In turn, the choice to overtly represent an accent is inevitably meant to connote certain characteristics, which point out the otherness of a speaker’s background even if intended to flatter. Sometimes the traits winked at are local – dour Scots; up-for-it Essex – but more frequently a phonetically-spelled accent signals a general lack of sophistication, marking the subject as outside the media classes. If a person is successful, drawing attention to their voice encourages us to read them as a chippy, against-the-odds success story. 

To learn RP is to shed these associations with place and class and allow yourself to be read as the default. There are obvious reasons for doing this, but the pass from culturally “different” to “normal” is a loaded one. The Oxford Guide to World English comments:

Many people in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland associate it with snobbery and unearned privilege (while at the same time they may be, or certainly may in past decades have been, rather in awe of it).

Doubtless RP doesn’t hold the same power it did fifty years ago, and the media continues to diversify. But further progress demands we see the dialect for what is is and acknowledge its cache. To think of its speakers as “accentless” is to disguise the fact many of those in the public eye sound the same because they share a background. Much as calling a novelist a “woman writer” re-enforces the dominance of male wordsmiths, sorting English voices into regular ones and “accents” normalises the power of the received voice. Besides, it’s thoroughly delusional: they imitate you up north, too.