Friday, May 15, 2009

Attitudes to accents

Now the AS students have done their exams, we'll concentrate on the A2 units and here's a piece from The Guardian on Wednesday which looks at people's attitudes to regional accents. It's no great surprise that we all have different preferences and dislikes when it comes to accents, but what might be surprising is how little some people like their own accent.

Basing their research on government-funded radio and TV advertising, the Central Office of Information has found that respondents in some regions dislike the sound of their own regional accent when used as a voice-over, preferring other regional accents or even Received Pronunciation. In other areas, there's more warmth towards the local variety.

Tynesiders appear to be proud of their accents, according to the findings, but Brummies responded negatively to hearing their vowels on TV and radio, partly because they recognise they are ridiculed for them by some of their compatriots.

"The research clearly shows that the accent used in radio and TV advertising can have an impact on how the ad is received," said Brian Jenkins, the head of radio at the COI. "Regional accents can make a difference but not necessarily a positive one. There was quite a negative reaction from people in Birmingham and Bristol to their own accents," he said.

Jenkins added respondents in both cities were "very proud" of the way they spoke, but seem to have been affected by "other people's perceptions of their accent".

And it's this last point that's quite interesting as an explanation: that people perhaps internalise others' ridicule of their accent and feel less secure about their own voices as a result.

An article in The Guardian some 10 years ago (which I stumbled across while clearing out English Language coursework from 1999 in my classroom) sheds some light on historical attitudes to regional accents. In one part of the article, the link is made between region and social class:

Academic studies confirm that, socio-linguistically, Cockney has shared the bottom rung with Scouse, Glaswegian, West Midlands and Belfast. Almost certainly this is because, historically, they have all been essentially working-class accents - unlike Yorkshire, say, which might be middle class. This is one reason why Scots voices, and to a lesser extent Irish and Welsh ones, are different. A middle-class Scottish accent can signify a good education (lawyers, doctors).

So, how does this help with A2 English Language? Language variation is part of ENA5 and could also be a topic for ENA6 (Language Debates), so it's worth having a think about why certain accents give rise to certain attitudes, but it's also important to think about how regional varieties are changing and attitudes towards previously prestige forms (such as RP) are altering. In the COI survey above, it was noted that older respondents, and those who weren't "positively engaged with authority" (i.e. a hardened criminal or a junior gangbanger from some dodgy endz) had very different attitudes to RP:

Older people tend to be more accepting of ad campaigns featuring received pronunciation, perhaps because they grew up listening to the "cut-glass" English accents that featured on public information films of the past.

Younger people were more engaged by local accents, it found, but sometimes a more authoritative voice is more appropriate, according to the research.

Advertisements which encourage the public to comply with deadlines, including filling in tax returns, "need to impart trust and authority" the COI said, and are more effective when a Home Counties accent is used.

Local accents proved more persuasive in campaigns which include "credible real-life experiences" to try to change people's behaviour, perhaps to prevent drink driving or encourage homeowners to fix faulty smoke alarms.

The study also found that people who were already "positively engaged with authority" were more likely to absorb the message of campaigns using RP, while those who are not prefer to hear local accents.


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