From Angela Rayner to Alex Scott; Jess Phillips to AJ Odudu – and even the home secretary, Priti Patel – female public figures with regional accents are subjected to regular criticism for their speaking voices.
Yesterday, Rayner faced the ire of the accent police, yet again. “I’ve been on the media this morning so my accent and grammar are being critiqued,” she tweeted. “I wasn’t Eton educated, but growing up in Stockport I was taught integrity, honesty and decency. Doesn’t matter how you say it. Boris Johnson is unfit to lead.”
It’s not the first time Rayner’s accent and grammar has been “critiqued” – and it’s unlikely to be the last.
I’ve had similar, albeit much lower profile experiences. I’m from Mexborough, Doncaster — and have the accent to match. My South Yorkshire vowels were the subject of listener complaints when I turned my hand to a few presenting stints on the radio.
I don’t know what the moaners were on about – my accent is bloody gorgeous, even if I do say so myself – but the abuse women with regional accents receive from the self-appointed accent and grammar police exposes poisonous attitudes to women, racial minorities and the working classes more broadly.
For all the smug comments about “speaking properly” and using “correct” English, the thinly-veiled contempt towards Rayner’s speech can’t hide the truth: accentism is a proxy for other, less socially acceptable forms of prejudice.
To those who say that derision of regional accents is about clarity rather than discrimination, I say that the concept of “correct speech” is a fig leaf for insidious ideas around who gets to speak and who gets to be heard – and, as we’ve seen, accentism is often the weapon of choice for those who wish to silence women with a public voice.
Of course, there are always those old chestnuts – “standard English” or “received pronunciation” (RP) – to contend with. Regional accent detractors might even suggest that RP is the gold standard against which all other forms of spoken English should be measured. Yet RP is no better and no more correct than any other type of speech. Standard English became known as “proper” or “correct” English because of political power dynamics; not because it’s somehow inherently or objectively “better” than any other form.
When school teachers and pupils are criticised for speaking in regional accents and dialect, it’s supposedly in the interests of what is “proper” and “correct”, but exactly who is being considered improper and incorrect?
“Regional accents”, often a euphemistic term for those accents perceived as “working-class” or “rough” and “common”, and non-standard English, tend to be spoken by those with the least social status.
This lack of status is not because of speech patterns but because of prejudice towards other aspects of identity: skin colour , nationality, wealth and gender, to name but a few. Speech is merely an indicator of cultural capital. The onus is on the regional accent speaker to “hide” their class status in order to assimilate and so become more acceptable to a culture that values the elite rich so much more than anyone else.
We’ve seen the repercussions for those who refuse to change or “neutralise” regional accents. Elite universities have been called out for pervasive issues of classism, including accent prejudice. And it doesn’t stop in education. Those with regional accents are less likely to be recruited to prestige employment sectors such as the media, academia, medicine and law.
As Rayner has discovered, grammar policing and accentism are connected. Like accent discrimination, grammar pedantry is a political act. It’s an attempt to regulate and control behaviour and, most troublingly, it’s heavily underscored by racism, classism and ableism – even if grammar pendants don’t realise it.
Grammar gatekeeping may seem fine to some, even necessary – and even pleasurable. However, regardless of any intention to educate or encourage appreciation of the finer points of the English language, the grammar hardliner approach is potentially quite sinister.
Social media users who’ve witnessed someone being derided for their use of possessive apostrophes know that grammar correction is often wielded as a means of socially acceptable public humiliation – it’s weaponised as a dismissive technique designed to shame and silence the writer/speaker.
We all know those types who post superior memes about the difference between “its” and “it’s” on Facebook, or claim they could never go out with anyone who doesn’t know the difference between “whose” and “who’s” – as if minor grammar errors are some measure of a person’s moral character, or a “tell” that a prospective romantic partner is intellectually and socially inferior.
Grammar pedantry hides behind a veil of being correct, objective and dispassionate but actually, it reflects the resources and preoccupations that privilege certain groups over others. Grammar pedantry helps those with power and privilege to keep it, not least by positioning themselves as superior to non-standard English users. Whether we want to own up to the reality of grammar pedantry or not, those with less social advantage are usually the target.
And working-class women often take the brunt of social prejudice, whether that’s through grotesque parodies in popular culture or through persistent criticism and mockery of speech patterns, habits and behaviours. In her now infamous comments at last year’s Labour conference, Rayner referred to Tory leadership as “scum” and was likened to Catherine Tate’s comedy character Lauren “Am I Bovvered?” Cooper, with accompanying pap shot of Rayner smoking a fag.
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So far, so “snigger into your artisan caffè macchiato” funny.
The comparison, however, exposes far more about widespread attitudes to working-class women than it says about scum-gate. What’s Rayner’s real crime for those who “critique” her accent and grammar? Her class presentation — and what’s considered ladylike.
Accents, dress, and habits (like smoking) and the social qualities attributed to them form the basis of many of our most common stereotypes. The backlash to Rayner highlights the disquieting bases on which working-class women are judged — it also shows that for all the hand-wringing about living in a world of wokery, when it comes to addressing social prejudices, we’re still all mouth.
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