Analysis Top

Accent privilege in the UK – it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

Trafalgar Square, London. (Anjola Fashawe/YJI)

I can remember from a young age, the way I spoke, the way everyone spoke, was surveilled. Some accents were associated with being lazy, lecherous, and loud, while others oozed power and privilege.

In the UK, an accent is more than an indication of where you are from – it is a code waiting to be unravelled that reveals that all-important aspect of British society – your class.

For those who have not grown up in Britain, it can be hard to understand just how ingrained notions of class are, while those of us who did might struggle to imagine an alternative.

Class identity is so integral to British society that it can sometimes be stronger than national identity.

Class is demonstrated through your clothes, your hobbies, what food you eat, the politics you support, what sports you watch, your favorite TV show, even your name. But what is surely the fastest give away of all is your voice.

Class and accent are so intertwined that they act as a shorthand for each other. A stranger can decode your entire background in a few words, and class identity is shown through accent.

With so many unquestioned stereotypes around class in the UK, snobbery and discrimination can start to feel so natural that it is unsurprising when a door is inevitably slammed in your face – or, for the lucky few, gracefully opened – simply because of what your accent signals.

Listen to YJI’s Holly Hostettler-Davies demonstrate the sound of Bridgend, South Wales

‘Barth’ or bath?

“People might think it has disappeared,” said Seth Thuraisingham, a university student in Bristol, a city known for a high proportion of upper middle-class students, “but [class] is still very much deep in the system, still exists, still is really prevalent, now-a-days it is class in terms of opportunities.”

Thuraisingham continued.

“If you are upper class, you are generally more well-spoken,” Thuraisingham said, “In terms of first impressions, how you conduct yourselves, it is typically more respectable if you are well spoken, and you sound posher.”

The words “well-spoken” and “respectable” rang in my ears. I had heard it so many times before, and it always leaves a pit in my stomach.

Listen to YJI’s Cassie Lloyd-Perrin demonstrate the sound of London
Listen to YJI’s Robert Guthrie demonstrate the sound of London
Listen to YJI’s Aimee Shah demonstrate the sound of London
Listen to YJI’s Anjola Fashawe demonstrate the sound of Northwest London

The idea that the speech patterns of those already born into the most privilege in society is the correct way of speaking demonstrates how accents validate this class structure.

Thuraisingham affirmed what countless studies show: accents impact our perceptions of each other. Yet when asked about how others might see him based on his accent, he was less than keen to contemplate.

It is inherently uncomfortable to imagine that something so natural as how we speak could come with any form of discrimination or unearned privilege; that your voice could effectively bar you from being seen as “respectable.”

Accents not only signal class membership, but also character traits that are seen as inherent to members of different classes.

Listen to YJI’s Roxy Lees, demonstrate the sound of Ipswich, England
Listen to YJI’s Ayesha Khan demonstrate the sound of Birmingham, England
Listen to YJI’s Gemma Christie demonstrate the sound of Chester, Cheshire, England

It might cost you a job

As reported by The Guardian in 2016, trainee teachers with strong regional accents were told to modify their way of speaking in favor of an accent that suggested a higher-class status, with one teacher being told it was important for them to be seen as good role models to their students.

In the job market, many studies, including one by Howard Giles and Pamela Wilson at the University of Bristol, found that applicants with “standard,” or non-regional accents were continuously judged as more qualified for higher status jobs than their regionally accented counterparts. Conversely, applicants for lower status jobs were judged to be more suitable if they had regional “non-standard” accents

Although discriminating based on disability or race is illegal in the UK, an accent is not a protected status.  While tangential identities that intersect with accents – like race or national identity – are protected, the UK has yet to go the extra mile that France has by explicitly banning accent-based discrimination.

Listen to YJI’s Beth Criado-Band demonstrate the sound of Edinburgh, Scotland

Awareness might be enough

Accent Bias Britain, a research group in collaboration with the University of York and Queen Mary University of London, are investigating the issue of accent bias in hiring.

Their research has already demonstrated that simply raising awareness about the issue can be enough to mostly limit the impact of this bias in hiring.

The UK has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to pre-held beliefs in relation to class and accents.

It is not only the scale of this discrimination that is concerning, but the fact that it feels so natural and is unquestioned by so many Brits. While your use of a vowel won’t change who you are, it can certainly change where you can go.

Amy Goodman is a Senior Reporter with Youth Journalism International from Denmark and the UK. She wrote this article.

Anjola Fashawe is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International from London. She made the photograph at the top.

Leave a Comment