Donna Air and other real-life Eliza Doolittles risk losing more than their accent

You can take the girl out of Newcastle...Even in these enlightened, politically correct times, there are still pockets of prejudice when it comes to accents

Simon Kelner
Thursday 08 August 2013 13:32 BST

Poor Donna Air. The TV presenter (I know this is her job, because I've read it: I have obviously never seen her present anything on television) has been widely ridiculed for shedding her Geordie accent in favour of something resembling Received Pronunciation.

You can take the girl out of Newcastle, but heaven help her if she seeks to sound a little less like Jimmy Nail. She is currently stepping out with the Duchess of Cambridge's brother, and has felt that, in order to fit in with the posh set with whom she's now socialising, she needed to soften her regional accent. This is not a story of our times: there is a lineage stretching all the way back to Eliza Doolittle, which illustrates how, in this class-ridden country, the way we speak is indicative of breeding, style and even intelligence.

Only last month, the BBC business journalist Stephanie McGovern, who comes from Middlesbrough, said that her strong northern accent is the subject of disparaging comments from viewers. "Despite being a business journalist at the BBC for 10 years," she said, "I was viewed by some in the organisation as being too common for telly." She said that she received letters questioning whether she'd been to university, or suggesting she takes elocution lessons.

Even in these enlightened, politically correct times, there are still pockets of prejudice when it comes to accents. The rent-a-quote numpty Katie Hopkins, who was once on The Apprentice, was given plenty of airtime with her assertion that "if you have a northern accent, you sound more stupid". I have news for you, Ms Hopkins. You couldn't sound more dumb if you were from the Planet Dumb, watching Dumb and Dumber, while lifting a set of dumb bells. She went on to be more specific, singling out the Liverpool and Newcastle accents as particularly egregious examples of the country's dialectic diversity. "For some people regional accents are difficult to understand," she opined. "This is a London-centric country. The London accent is the best reflection of that."

A ludicrous observation, of course, but even so, you can understand why Ms Air got out her old DVD of My Fair Lady, and decided that "alreet, pet" might not be considered the most appropriate form of greeting with the Middletons. We are all adept at modifying our behaviour to suit our social environment - the late columnist Lynda Lee-Potter said that she lost her northern accent the moment she got off the train at Euston - but it strikes me as bizarre and depressing that we still feel it necessary to disguise our linguistic birthright.

As a northerner myself, I may be sensitive to the accusation that my accent says something about me. But there is another, more positive, way of looking at it. I have just spent a couple of days up north, in the course of which I had to see a car mechanic. He spoke with a broad Wakefield accent. Immediately, I felt I could trust him. He sounded warm, genuine, down-to-earth and honest. Those are the values I pick up when I hear a northern accent. So be careful, Donna, that you don't lose that in the battle to be accepted in what's considered polite society.

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