An accent of prejudice?

07-Dec-2012

British regional accents are a wonderful talking point. The fact that such a huge range of accents can exist in such a comparatively small geographical space has long been a source of interest – and sometimes confusion – both for the British themselves and for learners of English visiting Britain or encountering regional British accents from visitors or via the media.

A recent UK news story provides a fascinating insight into British people’s attitudes to regional accents, and specifically to the Birmingham accent. Birmingham, located in the Midlands region (separating the north and south of England), was traditionally known as England’s ‘second city’, although its status has recently been challenged by Manchester.  Birmingham people, known colloquially as ‘Brummies’, have a very distinctive accent. If you want to get an idea of what it sounds like, listen to celebrities such as the rock musician Ozzy Osbourne and the comedian Jasper Carrott on the internet.

The news story involved a new computerized automated telephone answering system recently installed at Birmingham City Council. Unfortunately, the system was unable to cope with the local accent and failed to recognise and respond correctly to what people were saying, so causing them to waste huge amounts of time in trying to get through before they eventually gave up in disgust. To add insult to injury, the system also addressed the people of Birmingham in a strong Geordie accent, which comes from a completely different region of England.

What is especially interesting is not just the way in which the story was reported in newspapers, but also the subsequent comments about it on online discussion boards. Broadly speaking, people’s reactions to the story seem to fall into two broad categories:  celebration and condemnation of the Birmingham accent.

The positive comments, apart from simply praising the accent, often attempt to capture it in written form. For example, see if you can work out the meaning of the following expressions, each adapted from discussion board contributions (answers are below):

1) bay sick cloy

2) Yeow lovin it ent yeow?

3) Do you wanna kipper tie?

4) I’m tempted to ring them [Birmingham Council] up to complain about the whale in me garden. The boy sickle whale.

(These, of course, reflect people’s impressions of the accent and so are not necessarily completely accurate.)

 

On the other hand, the negative comments are somewhat surprising for their sheer viciousness.

‘It’s not an attractive accent though, it makes you sound really thick.’

‘I understand that there’s no such thing as a Brummie accent, it’s actually a throat disease.’

‘How over 1 million people can have the same speech impediment is beyond me!’

Occasionally the condemnatory tone is softened by a well meant – if a touch patronizing – attempt to distinguish between the accent and the people:

I have sympathy with the automated answering service … I find it difficult to understand the Brummie accent, it is rather ghastly … HOWEVER … the people are not, they are charming, warm and very welcoming to their lovely city which I visit often on business.

Comments such as these reveal the extent to which the Birmingham accent is sometimes perceived negatively by other English people. There has been some research by sociolinguists about this. For example, in a survey carried out in 2008 people were asked to grade a person’s intelligence based solely on hearing their accent; the results showed that the Brummie accent was ranked as the ‘least intelligent’ accent, scoring even lower than ‘remaining silent’! However, although lots of theories have been put forward, none of this research has come up with a conclusive explanation of why this stereotype has developed.

This gives rise to a number of interesting questions. Are there accents associated with particular stereotypes in your country or other places you are familiar with? What do you think has created the stereotypes in the first place? Do we judge people too readily by how they speak? To what extent is it possible to ‘learn’ to understand regional accents, given that native speakers appear to have so much difficulty with them?

So, lot of things to discuss – in your own accent, of course.

David

 

 

 

ANSWER KEY

1) ‘basically’

2) ‘You’re loving it, aren’t you?’

3) ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’

4) ‘the bicycle wheel’

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