Are You an Accent Snob?

After failing miserably at the Language Trainers Accent Games, in which you guess people’s accents from around the world, my thoughts turned to that emotive subject – accents, and how we perceive them.

In the UK, accents have long held social and cultural associations well beyond the phonetics of the language. A British ‘cut-glass’ accent (also known as ‘BBC English’) is traditionally associated with people of a higher socio-economic status. Meanwhile accents that are more regional-sounding tended to indicate a lower social status.

How a person uttered the simple word ‘bath’ for example was thought to tell you a lot about them – in the South with a long ‘a’ (as in ‘baaaath’) and in the North with a short ‘a’. English literature is peppered with exposes of the British accent divide – in DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover we have the terribly English accent of the aristocrat versus the ‘crude’ local dialect of the Nottinghamshire mining class.


Lady Chatterley’s Lover dramatised English accents and class


But accent hierarchy is dead, right? Along with grouse shooting, Eton mess and the British Empire. Well maybe not. For every high-profile accent discrimination story – like Cheryl Cole being axed from the US version of X Factor in 2011 because of fears that Americans wouldn’t understand her Geordie accent – there is a smaller story or legal discrimination case bubbling away in a corner of the UK.

Claims by immigrants of race discrimination at work based on their foreign accent is said to be rising. While there is no specific legislation for accent discrimation, an employee can make a claim on the grounds of race discrimination. A case is more likely to succeed if the claimant can prove that clear communication is an ‘occupational requirement’ of their job.

The controversial subject of immigrants and language still manages to fascinate – UK TV audiences last week were titillated by stories of immigrants who couldn’t speak English, in the provocatively-titled Channel 4 series “Why Don’t You Speak English?”   


Geordie accents like Cheryl Cole’s can baffle foreigners and English people alike


In our reality TV age, we don’t have a problem with laughing at those we see on our screens – indeed, we are often manipulated to do so by careful producing and editing. But is it casual racism to laugh at a Polish woman who has lived in London for two years but speaks barely a word of English? Or a Chinese mother who is living with a couple from the North who resort to increasingly desperate (and ridiculous) mime to understand each other?

Yet beyond the comic surface, the makers of “Why Don’t You Speak English?” had, I believe, an important point to make about foreigners learning English. All four of the immigrants it followed, and the families they were hosted by, gained immensely from the experience. Indeed some of the hosts displayed extraordinary degrees of sympathy for the plight of some of the worse-off immigrants, whom they had known for very little time.

Connections were forged above and beyond the purpose of the series, which was to teach elementary English. So what can we learn from this? Perhaps the problem of accents in the UK is once again one of social cohesion, but this time between nationalities.

Class-based snobbery may have eased in the UK – the Royal Family, especially its younger members, are no longer so far removed from the general public’s way of talking. And foreign accent snobbery – the unfortunate experience of some in our increasingly multicultural cities and towns – could be less the result of snobbery and more the result of increasing social divide, and the misunderstanding this fosters. Housing every immigrant with a host family for their first few weeks in the UK could be a partial solution to an age-old problem.

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