Negative feelings about accents can undermine Britons' sense of identity, research suggests
People were proud of their regional identity but were stressed by the way others reacted to it
One in three Britons suffers negative feelings towards themselves including a sense of betrayal and the belief they are “selling out” when they consciously tone down or “posh up” their regional accent for a job interview, to talk to their boss or simply when speaking on the telephone.
New research from the University of Manchester has suggested that the effects of “accentism” could be far more widespread and harmful than previously suspected despite the claim that Britain is becoming a more egalitarian society.
In the first study of its kind, children and adults were asked whether they changed their accents in important situations and how it made them feel.
A third said they were “angry”, “annoyed” or even “disgusted” with themselves for altering their natural way of speaking. Only a small minority said they enjoyed the experience with the remainder regarding it as simply necessarily to achieve their goal.
Linguist Dr Alex Baratta said others reported feeling “fake”, “phony”, “whipped” and of “betraying grandparents” whilst undermining their sense of identity.
“It was clear from the results that the whole choice to modify accents is based on perceived prejudice from other people,” he said.
The results were based on the responses of 98 students and staff in the North West of England. Dr Baratta is now planning to carry out a nationwide study analysing the impact of accentism.
The Institute of Education academic said that research showed that people were proud of their regional identity but were stressed by the way others reacted to it.
Television presenter Steph McGovern received criticism because of her Middlesbrough accent
And whilst employers are required to monitor ethic, religious and the gender to ensure equal representation among staff the same safeguards are not in place for regional accents.
Dr Baratta said: “As part of my ongoing research, many participants see accent modification as synonymous with selling out and a clear threat to their sense of self. This is why ‘accentism’ should be taken seriously as a problem which affects many of us.
“Clearly, most people modify their accent not because they lack pride in it, quite the opposite in fact. It’s actually because they fear the negative perceptions others might have of them if they don’t, especially in work-related contexts.”
Studies have shown that one in five people have changed their accent in order to create a better impression with the phenomenon most common among people from London and the West Midlands.
Last year BBC presenter and business journalist Steph McGovern, from Middlesbrough, said she had experienced criticism from viewers and prejudice in the corporation because of her accent.
Meanwhile, unions claimed that a teacher from Cumbria who works at a school in West Berkshire was told to “sound more southern” by Ofsted inspectors although the watchdog denied the claim.
Dr Baratta said: “We should acknowledge that any form of workplace discrimination, to include accentism, should not be tolerated in a society which seeks to be more inclusive.
“This is especially true in education, where teachers in particular may feel pressure to modify their regional accent in order to be perceived in a more positive light by students and fellow staff alike.”
It is estimated that less than two per cent of the UK population uses Received Pronunciation (RP) – the region-less accent which once characterised BBC broadcasts.
Research has even suggested that the Queen has changed her accent too, slowly drifting away from the heighted RP of the upper crust in the 1950s towards a more standard version English spoken by politicians such as David Cameron and Tony Blair.
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