Protected status for accents? Let's just speak up confidently for Yorkshire and the North - Jayne Dowle

Apparently, people with strong northern English accents are viewed as “less intelligent” and “less educated” than their southern counterparts, according to a new academic study.

A team of researchers at Northumbria University says that “accentism” causes “profound” social, economic, and educational harm for those with “denigrated accents” in the UK. That’ll be me then.

I’ve still got my Yorkshire accent, even though for half of my adult life I lived ‘down South’. And why not? It’s perfectly possible to sound intelligent and to put forward a logical and persuasive argument even if you never sound the ‘r’ in bath – which doesn’t exist, by the way.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

This demands confidence, however. I hear of so many young people who feel that they must lose their Yorkshire accent entirely to fit in.

Typical urban housing in Leeds.Typical urban housing in Leeds.
Typical urban housing in Leeds.
Read More
West Yorkshire accent voted among the sexiest in the country - but it's not good...

I hope I wasn’t doing my students a disservice, because in the last decade it would seem that homogenous speech is becoming the norm; language evolves constantly, that’s what makes it so fascinating, but it’s sad when change happens for negative reasons.

This new project, Speaking of Prejudice, took place over four years and involved surveys of more than 300 people. The participants were played northern and southern speech samples and asked to say whether they thought that those with accents from the North sounded less intelligent, less ambitious and less educated. And guess what? They did. Dr Robert McKenzie, a social linguist who led the project, said “accentism” is “alive and well” in Britain, with most people often unaware of their “deeply embedded implicit biases”.

In fact, this “implicit bias” – when others are prejudiced without realising it – is becoming such a thing that the Social Mobility Commission has recommended legislation to make accents a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act 2010, alongside race, gender and other forms of discrimination already covered by the legislation. I know this is a big ask, but why? I’ve been a few things in my time, but I’ve never been a member of a protected species before.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

I’m not sure I’m happy about it. My Barnsley accent modulated slightly when I lived in Oxford and London, but only so people used to the precise intonations of RP (received pronunciation) could keep up. Always however, I’ve been conscious of the difference between accent and dialect. I wouldn’t confuse the poor dears by dropping in words like ‘reek’ for ‘smoke’ or even ‘bairn’ for ‘child’, because as a journalist and communicator, I know that ensuring the message is clear should always be the priority.

It would be interesting for researchers to pick up this distinction, too; from where I’m sitting in Barnsley, Yorkshire patois is certainly alive and kicking and in daily use. If anything, it’s more vibrant than ever, perhaps because ‘implicitly’ we recognise that it’s under threat. Indeed, there are lots of words I use at home which very few people I speak to professionally would even understand. I’ve often discussed this with my children – their late dad was proper RP, from Surrey – and we’ve agreed that we should regard ourselves as bi-lingual, as if we’re Welsh or Gaelic speakers.

Meanwhile, my husband and my dad use lots of dialect words, all the time, and even the uber-traditional ‘thee’ and ‘tha’ between themselves. In fact, my husband subconsciously uses ‘thee’ and ‘tha’ with anyone he feels comfortable with, which always makes me smile as people who’ve perhaps never met a Yorkshireman before cock their heads in bemusement. He usually throws in a ‘love’ or two for good measure, too, including with men.

Come on. I think we should actually relish the way we speak, whether we’re from Cleckheaton, Cumbria or Cornwall, and be proud, inclusive and tolerant of others. We should enjoy the richness of regional accents and use them, without being daft comedy Northerners, to help delineate who we are.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, more than a century ago, in the 1916 preface to Pygmalion, the play adapted into the 1964 musical film My Fair Lady.

How quaint that film looks and sounds now, but how sad that in our global digital age that prejudice has never been more prevalent; accents are becoming a sharper marker of distinction and division that ever before.

Let’s not succumb to ‘protected species’ status. Instead, we should do our best to challenge other people’s perceptions, by being proud of what we say and the way that we say it.