In the UK, an individual’s accent has historically been interpreted as a marker of – and proxy for – social class, with received pronunciation” (“BBC English”) in particular assuming a dominant position across a variety of professional occupations (media, politics, the civil service…) through it’s association with the higher social classes. Regional accents, on the other hand, have conventionally been associated with lower social class and those who speak them have experienced discrimination in the school, workplace and society.
In recent years this form of cultural discrimination has, it’s been argued, declined in significance with either a gradual flattening of population accents so that most are now indistinguishable and interchangeable or of little importance in day-to-day social interactions.
A new study by Levon, Sharma and Ilbury (Speaking Up, 2022) has, however, challenged these assumptions and argues that “accent bias” throughout the life course remains a significant source of socio-economic class discrimination.
If you want to read the full report it’s available for download from the Sutton Trust, but if you’d prefer the edited highlights, they are as follows:
1. “Public attitudes to different accents have remained largely unchanged over time“: there is a broad accent hierarchy in the UK:
- Highly ranked accents: Received Pronunciation, French-accented English, National standard varieties (Scottish, American, Southern Irish).
- Lower ranked accents: “Working class accents” associated with industrial cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
- Lowest ranked accents: those associated with ethnic minorities, such as Afro-Caribbean or Asian.
2. Individual self-consciousness and anxiety over accent bias is highest at University (35% reported self-consciousness about their accent) and amongst workplace professionals (23%).
3. Both groups reported being “mocked, criticised or singled out” because of their accents (30% of university students, 25% of professionals).
4. In social settings these levels increased to 46% for workplace professionals and 47% for University students.
5. Accent discrimination plays-out in different ways at different stages of the life-course:
- Early life stage: regional discrimination (particularly Northern and Midlands accents) plays the most signficant part in accent anxiety.
- Mid-life stage: in professional employment social class accent associations become more prominent.
- “At all life stages, respondents from lower social grades report significantly more mocking or singling out of accent in workplace and social settings“.
6. “For those in senior managerial roles from lower socio-economic backgrounds“:
- 21% were worried their accent could affect their ability to succeed in the future.
- 29% of senior managers from working class families said they had been mocked in the workplace for their accent.