More than a decade ago, I moved down from Liverpool to London to study and work, like many thousands of other young people before and after me. Countless times during this period people have said to me, “You’ve not lost your accent.”
It’s always struck me as an odd phrase, as if the pronunciation of words is something external, at risk of being accidentally dropped down the back of a sofa. Can you really lose an accent, and more importantly, why would you want to?
Well, there may be good reason. New research by the Sutton Trust reveals that accent discrimination has a significant impact on people’s experience in education and the workplace, and therefore on overall social mobility. Lower levels of negative bias were attributed to accents closely related to received pronunciation (RP), compared with accents from northern cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, as well as ethnic minority accents.
According to linguists, we learn most of our vowel and consonant sounds as children, and the ability to learn new sounds tapers off around puberty. As adults, we can add sounds to our speech library, but we can’t remove them.
Most people will have a spectrum of sounds that they’ll move along on any given day as they “code switch” between different social settings. On the phone to my mum, my “g”s will go missing, and my “t”s will sound more like “r”s (think of Cilla Black’s catchphrase “lorra lorra laughs”) and I will sound more “scouse”, but in a meeting with my boss, the missing vowels and consonants will make an appearance, and my speech will resemble a general northern English accent. Even within one sentence, a speaker with a Yorkshire accent may say the world “the” and then reduce it to an almost inaudible “t”.
To make things more complicated, English accents are constantly shifting and becoming more or less distinctive. According to Jonnie Robinson, the lead curator of spoken English at the British Library, in the last 70 years there has been greater geographic and social mobility, meaning that people have come into contact with a wider variety of speakers. In some metropolitan areas such as Tyneside, where there is a well-established regional economy, accents are spreading out from large cities into surrounding areas.
Conversely, in rural areas or cities with strong local communities, broad accents are thriving. The scouse accent is actually getting stronger – just compare the Beatles to the actor Stephen Graham. Within cities, they can change as the result of migration patterns, as in London with the longer vowel sounds and harder “t”s of multicultural London English.
Accents also shift over time across the whole of the nation. In the 19th century, linguists noted that the “h” sound began to disappear. Right now, younger speakers are more likely to pronounce the “th” in words such as “thanks” so it resembles an “f” sound. In British English, compared with American English, “garage” has changed from having a long “a” at the end – to rhyme with camouflage – to having a shorter one to rhyme with marriage.
What remains steadfast is the north-south divide in England marked by the “trap-bath split”. It’s the difference between pronouncing grass with a short vowel, as in cat, or with a long vowel, like the sound you make when a doctor examines your throat. This division cannot be separated from the fact that the country’s political and economic power lies in the south, concentrated in a handful of institutions.
The “neutral” British accent is derived from RP, a speech pattern that originated from the public schools and universities of 19th-century Britain. The accent – roughly based on the southern accents of London, Oxford and Cambridge – became associated with the “establishment”, and gained status, eventually being adopted by the BBC as its broadcasting standard.
Even the name is a giveaway, in order to be “received”, as in accepted, into polite society you had to speak in a certain manner. To this day, it is the accent on which phonemic transcriptions in dictionaries are based, and it is widely used for teaching English as a foreign language.
RP has changed over time, but it is still used as a benchmark in classrooms up and down the country, and a speaker’s proximity to the accent triggers assumptions about their social and educational background. Another study led by Robert McKenzie at Northumbria University has shown that in England, there is an implicit bias against northern accents.
The study used methods borrowed from psychology to test for unconscious biases and measured reaction times for providing positive traits to speakers on either side of the trap-bath split. Overall, the speaker with the general northern English accent rated high for attributes such as friendliness and trustworthiness compared with the southern standard British English speaker, but they ranked lower for markers such as wealth, intelligence and ambition.
In the face of such prejudice, there are some who actively seek to soften their accent in order to be taken seriously in the workplace – but changing an accent can come with a price. Before taking on a client who wants to change their accent, voice coach Ashley Howard will talk to them about the social implications of this, as family and friends may feel threatened by such a noticeable change and ask challenging questions. What was wrong with their accent, and do they think less of the communities they grew up in? He encourages people to ask themselves this question: do they want to eradicate their accent, or to communicate more clearly? One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.
I considered actively softening my accent, but came to the conclusion that to do so would be to lose a little bit of myself. In England, regional accents can be mapped directly on to the old boundaries that separated the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. My own accent is the result of more recent history, when my Irish and Welsh great-grandparents chatted with their neighbours who would have spoken with a Lancashire lilt.
Accents shift and change, and the only thing we should lose is the hierarchy in which we place them. They weave a tapestry across the country that tells a story of who has come and gone before us, and we’re all the richer for it.