Friday, March 12, 2021

Responding to accent attitudes

This post follows on from this one where I set a Paper 2 Section B pair of questions based on the two texts here. My current Year 13 students did the Question 3 as a homework task and have given me permission to share extracts of their work, so thanks to them for writing such good answers and for agreeing to share their work. 





I’m not sharing their full answers as I think that’s a) a bit extra and b) slightly risky when there are centre-assessed tasks round the corner. So, I’ve selected what I thought were useful extracts to illustrate various aspects of the question. As ever, the comments I’m making are my own views and shouldn’t be taken as being official marking policy (whatever that is) or anything remotely ‘right’. I hope they’re helpful though and I’m happy to discuss them further via the EngLangBlog Twitter account.


Quick reminder:

Text A: Oh Come off it, France. Laughing at Accents is a National Sport - David Mills, The Sunday Times, November 2020

Text B: Life Has Been So Much Smoother Since I Adopted a Posh Accent - Susan Gray, Daily Telegraph, February 2020


We used the 2019 mark scheme for this as it was the closest to the task set, so you might find it helpful to refer to that.


Openings

Let’s think about what makes a good opening to an answer on these texts.

 

Remember that you’re dealing with two texts together, so it makes sense to compare and contrast the two texts throughout your response and you can start that in your opening paragraph. You could start with one of the following points (or some combination of them), for example:


  1. Both texts are about social attitudes to accents.
  2. Both texts draw on personal experiences and testimony to paint a broader picture of collective experience.
  3. Both texts are op-eds published in right-wing/right of centre British newspapers and advance arguments that linguists might consider prescriptive.
  4. Both take a recent news event to launch into a wider reflection on the role of accents in British society (Text A responds to calls for a new law in France & Text B picks up a call from a Yorkshire poet that Northern accents should be more widely represented in the media.).


It’s probably a good idea not to write too long an intro - and definitely avoid just being too generic and listing where they were published, broad comments about the supposed age and politics of the readership - but it’s also a good idea not to leap into too much close analysis of language right at the start. 


These examples below work quite well, to my mind, but in different ways.


Both text A and text B are opinion pieces on the importance of being able to code switch between regional accents and the possibilities it can open up for speakers. Whilst text A is a Sunday Times article and text B is a Telegraph article, they both use personal testimonies to portray reasons as to why their own original regional accents get put to the side from time to time to propel themselves forward.


  • Quite concise and to the point.
  • Makes connections between the texts in terms of style and content.
  • Could perhaps offer a more developed view of what arguments are being made.


Text A is a newspaper article from The Sunday Times, which is widely read by a lot of right leaning, middle-aged adults. The language is written with a conversational tone, in a relatively accessible register. The primary purpose of the article is to entertain the readers, but also inform them of the recent French legislation proposal, to illegalise Accent Discrimination in France. Text B is a newspaper article from The Telegraph, which is mostly read by a similar demographic to that of the Sunday Times- middle aged, conservative, and those who are middle class. The register of Text B is colloquial and similar in style to Text A, and there is an anecdotal nature with a few contextual references, specific to Britain. The primary purpose of text B is to entertain the reader and provide the audience with the author’s personal experiences, as an individual who has upwardly converged their language for the sake of their professional success.


  • Covers more ground: content, audiences, style/register, purposes.
  • Connects the two texts but at different parts in the paragraph.
  • Could be edited down a bit by combining reference to both texts from the start.
  • We probably don’t want to see lots of specific examples in an opening paragraph (they should come later) but is there a risk that the comments about register and style might sound too general?


What’s the best way to proceed after the intro section? There are different options here.

 

  • You could choose to focus on one text in more detail to begin with and then start linking it to the second text.
  • You could plan topic paragraphs where you discuss both texts together throughout.
  • You could concentrate on the ways accents are being represented in each text before moving on to consider author positioning and wider discourses.
  • You could start with the wider discourses and then zoom into the details of each text.


Somewhere along the line, you’ll need to do most of these things, but the order is up to you. Remember that for AO4, you’ll need to make language connections across both texts to hit level 3 and to make links to meanings and wider discourses to hit levels 4 and 5, so it does make sense to link the analysis of the two texts where you can.


Looking at how accents are represented in the texts


Here’s an example of where someone has focused on how Text A represents an accent. What would you credit here and why? What could you add to take this a little higher?


The extended noun phrase of ‘the high, constrained whining of the Brummie’ is foregrounded to show the writer's clear distaste for the accent. The premodifying adjectives ‘high’ and ‘constrained’ are used to present the accent as feminine and wrong - attributes particularly not desired by most men who are encouraged by society to fulfill their gender role. Mills describes their speech as ‘whining’ in order to show that his opinion matches that of the stereotype - which enables him to distance the Wolverhampton accent from it.



Good things to credit:



Things to develop:




This next example focuses more on how accents and dialects, more broadly, are represented in one of the texts.


In text B, the writer states that: “Tying people to their dialect of origin is not a social mobility springboard but a trap.” The pre modified noun phrase ‘social mobility springboard’ is interesting here as the implication is that using standard English will facilitate social mobility, and potentially be a door opener to opportunities in the field of work. The use of the concrete noun ‘trap’ carries connotations of imprisonment and perhaps even deception.


Have a quick look back at the mark scheme (levels 3 and above) and see what you might credit in just this short extract. While AO4 is normally about connections between texts, it can also be about connections between one text and the wider discourses around the issue, so you might find some AO4 to credit here as well. I’ve completed this one for you.


AO1 to credit: 

pre modified noun phrase 

concrete noun

connotations

AO3 to credit:

Engages with what the noun phrase represents and means (its connotations and implications)

AO4 to credit: 

Discourse of opportunity - but room to further explain this and go into more depth.

Discourse of entrapment suggested - scope to develop this too.



Here’s a different take on that same part of the text.


Finally, her most compelling statement is: “Staying loyal to your regional dialect is not a social mobility springboard, it’s a trap.” The phrasal verb ‘staying loyal’, presents the idea that maintaining your regional dialect as an ongoing battle. By using the gerund of the dynamic verb ‘to stay’, it makes it appear that loyalty is a continuous action and therefore more of a commitment. Furthermore, the second independent clause ‘it’s a trap’, again makes reference to the idea of entrapment and how using specific dialects will restrict you. The concrete noun ‘trap’, implies that there is a sense of deception for people who use certain dialects, and perhaps ‘trap’ acts as a form of metonym which represents the entire hierarchy of class.


Again, have a look at the mark scheme and see what you might credit here,


AO1 to credit:


AO3 to credit:


AO4 to credit:




Here’s another example where someone has written about how an accent is represented. I’ve highlighted in red what I think are some of the strengths of this extract and in blue what I think could be developed or queried. 


Although Text B has a negative view of regional accents, her opinion is not as direct. Instead Susan Gray presents RP as superior: ‘Life is unquestionably smoother if you are well spoken.’ The noun phrase and collocation ‘well spoken’ implies that speakers of RP are on a linguistic pedestal compared to those with regional accents. This is a common belief in the UK, with projects against instances of ‘accentism’ whereby people are faced with hardship in the workplace due to accent prejudice. The sentence is a declarative, which therefore presents her opinion and personal experience as a fact. The conditional clause ‘if you are well spoken’ implies that the only way to make your life easier is if you speak in this way, which encourages you to take the same changes that she has. Additionally the adverb ‘unquestionably’ acts as an intensifier (in the same way as Text A) to exemplify her point and persuade the reader to follow her view.


  • What would you say about each highlighted bit here?


Looking at how the writers position themselves in the texts

This is quite a neat example of looking at how an accent is represented in the text and how the writer is using that to address and position the reader. 


In text B the writer states that having a regional accent, “doesn’t mean you have to be lumbered with the accompanying dialect for the rest of your life.” The verb “lumbered” deliberately uses an informal register to enable the writer to align himself with his readers and create a relationship to then offer advice. However, this may not be an effective choice of lexis as the connotations of “lumbered” insinuates that many are hindered and burdened with an accent. Hence, this may have the effect of readers feeling disadvantaged due to them not having a ‘posher’ accent. 


Another example where positioning is looked at effectively:


Text A differs from Text B in this way as the writer consciously makes an effort to distance himself from his background and others with an accent. However, the texts are similar in that this is an effective line of argument because it conveys the idea that we all have the knowledge and skill to code-switch and consequently all opinions could be treated equally as importantly as those with ‘posh’ accents. This is especially clever as many of the readers of the Telegraph may have experienced accent discrimination and this offers advice on how to deal with it. The writer says “I haven’t once regretted ditching my London Irish accent...”. The use of the contraction “haven’t” as well as the material verb “ditching” creates an informal tone which therefore uses synthetic personalisation.


Looking at wider discourses

This is an area that I think could have been developed for everyone (a little bit, at least). Specifically mentioning the word ‘discourses’ can help, I think. And having some named discourses to refer to can also be useful. The linguist Jane Sunderland says that there isn’t really a ‘dictionary of discourses’ and she’s right, but if you can name and describe the discourses you see, you can construct your own dictionary of them. 


For example, accentism often taps into discourses of restriction/freedom, burden/benefit, advancement/hindrance, good/bad language (morality?), local/(in)ternational, etc.


Where do we see the discourses appearing in the texts?

 

Nice example here


Gray also feeds into this discourse, slightly more subtly, in her extended metaphor where she compares adopting a new accent to owning a ‘really good fake painting’. On the surface this seems like a good comparison, however more pragmatically, when one thinks about the world of art and paintings, it is often an industry associated with the upper class. Owning expensive paintings is a symbol of wealth. Therefore she presents the idea that RP is the ‘real’ painting, people who mimic RP are a good ‘fake painting’ which means that non-RP speakers must be a bad ‘fake painting’. In the world of art, a real painting is more valuable and treasured than a fake painting, therefore you could argue that she presents the idea that RP is the ideal and most valuable variant of English.


Bits that not everyone looked at

There were one or two answers where someone looked at aspects of the texts that others didn’t talk about. 


He creates a sense of nationalism within this article through the use of his references to France and the negative connotations he attaches to Parisians. The simple modal sentence “Parisians could soon be sneering a lot less.” By using the post-modifying comparative adjective ‘less’, is humorous because it implies that Parisians will always be sneering, but reducing accent discrimination will reduce this. This is an effective choice because the writer is aware of the target audience and what misconceptions they may have, one being that all French people look down on those around them. However, on a deeper level it also feeds into the ongoing competition between the French and British people, and the hostility they have had with one another for centuries. By referencing the French in the first and last paragraph of this article, not only is structurally cyclical - which is a stylistic feature, but also is a method of encouraging the reader to agree with the points the writer is making because if they are in agreement with his perception of French people, than they may hold perceptions of other societal issues. Therefore it is an effective way of presenting his argument because before mentioning his main points within the article, he has already generated reader support.



What I liked here:

Bits to check/develop:

  • The focus on the references to the French and how these are used to align to the readers’ supposed values
  • The linking of discourses of nationalism to prescriptive attitudes towards language
  • The focus on the references to the French news story as part of a cyclical structure to the text
  • Not sure I’d use the term ‘modal sentence’
  • ‘A lot less’ is working as an adverb here (postmodifying the verb ‘sneering’)


This second example picked some good things to look at but could have been developed a bit more.


Mills states that the Wolverhampton accent ‘leaves the seat up, doesn’t wash its hands and calls a spade a shovel’. By personifying the accent via the third person pronoun ‘it’, Mills is implying that the way of speaking is directly associated with the stereotypes of people from that region. The triplet structure enables Mills to paint a picture and create a stereotypical image in the reader’s minds.

Within the clause, the phrasal verbs used describe failing to do the basic actions of going to the toilet, washing your hands and labelling objects. This implies that the typical Wolverhampton citizen is unhygienic and lacking in intelligence. Therefore Mills is stating that using a Wolverhampton accent portrays you as being a certain type of person.



What I liked here:

Bits to check/develop:

  • The focus on personification as a technique to represent the accent
  • Linking this to stereotypes about the users of an accent
  • The description of phrasal verbs
  • Why does he create this image of fellow Wolverhampton speakers? What does he hope to achieve by representing them in this way?
  • Are any wider discourses about accentism signalled here?
  • What about this ‘calling spade a shovel’ expression?!



"Call a spade a spade" or "call a spade a shovel" are both forms of the figurative expression which state that the speaker should call, or has called, a noun by its most suitable name without any reservation to the strained formalities that may result. The implication is telling the truth regarding the nature of the thing in question, speaking frankly and directly about it,even if it is considered coarse, impolite, or unpleasant. (Wikipedia)


So, what's he saying here? Is he trying to represent the speakers of the Wolverhampton accent as simple, straightforward and perhaps rather unsophisticated people? It appears so. Perhaps there's an element of admiration in there too for their authenticity, but it all sounds a bit unhygienic, especially during these hand-sanitised times. 


Anyway, I hope that provides some ideas for how you might approach texts like these. I’ve not covered everything and I think there’s more that could be said about the wider discourses, the links to other news stories about accents and perhaps more about the genres and expectations of op-eds like this but that leaves you with some things to think about. 


Thanks again to the students who have shared their work here.

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