THERE’S a new “ism” to add to the ever-lengthening list of prejudices that swirl around everyday life.
It’s “accentism”, which is being defined as discrimination against somebody on the grounds that they have a regional accent, which would seem to put it at the quirkier end of the spectrum of prejudice, far removed from such serious matters as racism or sexism.
Accentism appears to belong to that swelling group of supposed problems and unfairnesses upon which disappointment at not landing a particular job can be blamed, along with “isms” about being short, bald or fat.
The fact that somebody usually doesn’t land a job they went for because they’re not up to it, or made a hash of the interview, can be conveniently ignored when there’s an “ism” handy onto which blame can be deflected.
It’s possible to make up your own “isms”, according to personal prejudices against certain categories of people. Mine would include “ill-manneredism”. “needs-a-washism”, “turn-the-car-stereo-downism” and “stop-shouting-into-that-mobile-phoneism”.
But accentism wouldn’t be on the list, not least because I’m hardly likely, as the possessor of a Yorkshire accent, to take against anybody who has the lilt of their home county or city in their voice.
Still, quirky though it may be, it’s difficult to dismiss accentism as nonsense, because it’s been around us for a long time and even pops up in public life.
It has been named by a university academic who interviewed people claiming that they have felt the need to “posh up” the way they talk because they fear being discriminated against at work because of their accents.
Apparently, they hate having to do it because it makes them feel like fakes, but worry less about that than being stereotyped because of the way they speak.
This isn’t a new prejudice. It’s nearly 100 years since George Bernard Shaw wrote: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
I can remember from childhood adults who consciously sought to disguise their accents and attempted to put on a “posh” voice to answer the telephone or speak to people in authority in order to appear – at least in their own minds – to belong to a higher social class.
It often went too far, and tipped over into parody, with people pronouncing “quite nice” as “quaite naice”, an affectation so common and recognisable that the late Thora Hird built an entire comic persona around it. It’s certainly possible that if accentism is worrying people going for jobs, “quaite naice” still surfaces at the occasional interview.
And it’s well within living memory that the only voices heard on the BBC spoke in clipped, precise and accentless English, because the sound of the regions was frowned on, so maybe there’s something hard-wired into the psyche of many people that accents stereotype them.
Accentism isn’t just the concern of somebody worried that the way they speak will deny them an ordinary office job. It’s at the back of the minds of those who seek to persuade the public that they do not exist in an impossibly rarified world out-of-touch with everyday life.
So politicians with the sort of immaculate diction that would have won them a BBC announcing job in another era flirt with the ugly glottal stops of “Estuary English” in the vain pursuit of street cred.
Then there is the abomination that is “Mockney”, the fake London accent adopted in the futile hope of persuading an audience that its speaker is at heart a boy from a terraced street, partial to a plate of jellied eels, with a pearly king somewhere in the family, as opposed to a multi-millionaire with a second home on the shores of Lake Geneva.
We should embrace and celebrate genuine regional accents and soothe people’s fears that they can hold anybody back. There are more than enough role models to demonstrate that they are no bar to getting on.
Such notable possessors of a Yorkshire accent as Alan Bennett, Michael Parkinson, Geoffrey Boycott and Alan Titchmarsh don’t appear to have found it any obstacle to highly successful careers.
Regional accents are a precious part of the tapestry of our country, and they are already under assault from the never-ending onward march of American culture in films, television and music that is changing the way so many people express themselves.
Watering them down further because of accentism and people’s perfectly understandable desire to land a decent job would be a real loss, especially here in Yorkshire where we are blessed not with a single accent, but many.
The people of Halifax speak very differently to those in Hull, and those of Rotherham don’t express themselves like they do in Richmond. Each town and city has its own sounds and patterns, while remaining recognisably Yorkshire. That’s one of the joys of our accents, and however we pronounce accentism, we should give it the boot.