Do you say bad like “barth”? Would you put a “plahster” on a cut? Does it matter if you don’t? Yes, unfortunately, say academics, who argue that accentism is alive and well in England by 2022.
A research team will open a shop next week in the British Academy headquarters overlooking the Mall in London, shedding light on a large-scale project exploring prejudice against Northern English accents and their speakers.
On many levels, the subject of how people speak is fun. But it’s also important, researchers say, because of its “profound” negative social, economic and educational implications for speakers with denigrated accents.
“This is the prejudice that dares to speak its name,” said Dr. Robert McKenzie, head of the Northumbria University project. “We shouldn’t be biased in terms of gender, we shouldn’t be biased in terms of sexual orientation.”
But denigrating accents is still allowed, he said. “You only have to watch an episode of The Simpsons to see how people from the southern United States are portrayed. It’s surprising that I think people still get away with it.”
For four years, McKenzie and his team have been studying how English people judge northern and southern English accents. They have examined the explicit and implicit – that is, unconscious – prejudices.
The conclusions are not good for people with a strong Northern accent. “People think that speakers in the North of England are less intelligent, less ambitious, less educated and so on just because of the way they speak,” says McKenzie.
“On the other hand, people in the south are thought to be more ambitious and intelligent.”
People in the north were also “stereotyped as friendly, outgoing and trustworthy salt-of-the-earth people”.
McKenzie’s research found large differences in the self-reported and implicit biases. “The negativity towards the Northern English speech or the Northern English speaker was much more extreme, much more intense when you look at the implicit level.
“That tells us that on a conscious level people are less biased than they once were, but on an implicit level we still have those biases.”
A century ago, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without another Englishman despising him.”
That may not be quite the case today, but the biases persisted, McKenzie said. “The North of England is less stigmatised, but the change is very, very slow.
“It’s easy to come across as a real po-face and tell people not to be prejudiced, but it’s important. We do see that children with stigmatized accents are less likely to achieve high grades in school. People are more likely to be found guilty in court. They are less likely to be offered a job after a job interview. They have less access to social housing.
“These things have real-world implications.”
Each year, the British Academy opens its doors to a summer showcase of the research work it has funded, billed as a “free festival of ideas for curious minds”.
It has been online for two years now. This year, McKenzie and his team will be one of 12 participating projects, inviting visitors to join the conversation about their own experience of accent bias or participate in interactive activities.
That includes listening to Northern and Southern English accents and also asking the awkward question of where the North of England, or the South of England, begins.
“That should be interesting,” McKenzie said. “Southern people tend to place the south just above London, while my Newcastle students place the south just below Middlesbrough.”
He hopes politicians will come along and support the project and campaign to make accents a protected feature under the Equality Act.
“Just as people shouldn’t be biased about gender or be prejudiced against fat or thin people, we should not be prejudiced against accents,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie pointed to Labor’s Jess Phillips as an example of a politician experiencing accentism.
Another less obvious political victim was Jacob Rees-Mogg. “Long ago he was in parliament in Fife, they were clearly testing him,” said McKenzie. He said he felt he suffered in the polls because of his accent, that people wouldn’t vote for him because they saw him as an outsider. So it works both ways.”
The British Academy’s summer show runs from 17 until June 18.