Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Popular discourses around accents

Everyone has got an opinion about accents and that’s OK, but when those opinions and personal preferences start to influence how people are treated and made to feel, that becomes more of a problem. Part of the problem is that the language most people use to describe accents is often rather general and non-specialist, and tied to personal judgements about people’s characters. So, for example, even when we think we’re being nice by saying that one area’s accent is ‘warm’ or ‘friendly’ or that someone else’s accent is ‘charming’ and ‘educated’, it uses language that has a flipside. For each of these adjectives there’s a set of opposing qualities, which we’re implying might be used for other accents: cold, aloof, unfriendly, hostile, charmless, uneducated… stupid. 

You might shrug your shoulders and think ‘So what?’ and that’s probably a fairly common response, but when you’re studying English Language at A level, I’d argue that it matters. It matters, partly because we’re studying language and we need to do better than just use casual descriptions that might cause offence or hurt, but it also matters because we want you to be able to analyse discussions about language with a critical eye on Paper 2 and these terms are one of the ways in to doing that, so it pays to be alert to them.

Articles about accents have appeared quite frequently in actual exam papers for Paper 2 and in textbooks and teacher resources for the paper, because accents are always under discussion. Whether it’s attitudes to regional accents, discussions about social class and accent, people dropping their accents or being made to feel ashamed about them, or even accent prejudice being made illegal, there’s plenty of material out there that would make good Paper 2 Section B texts.

But generally speaking, they aren’t written by linguists, so many of them recycle rather dubious attitudes that some people don’t have accents, that some accents are intrinsically better than others, that we should encourage people to drop their home accents, or that we should discourage young people from using regional varieties in school. In other cases, they might be written by experts in one field – voice coaching, say – but not by experts in language study itself and those pose their own difficulties, because they can often appear pretty knowledgeable but still peddle some unhelpful and linguistically unsound concepts. They can also – like the article I linked to earlier today – get their geography a bit shonky…

And then we have discussions about accent on social media, where opinions about a person’s character, personality and political persuasion may well seep into comments about their accent or language style, comments that in any other case would probably be seen as disparaging and unfair. This has certainly been the case in recent comments about the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose accent includes a feature sometimes called -g dropping, but which is probably more accurately described as using the alveolar /n/ rather than the velar nasal /ŋ/ so words like singing, talking and moving are pronounced as singin, talkin and movin. Whatever your views on her politics (and mine are…umm… *quite* negative) it’s not really fair to attack her accent, because attacking that is likely to make others with that accent feel that their speech is being singled out. And they've done nothing wrong.

So, where does this lead for Paper 2 Language Discourses work? One thing you can do is to extract some key quotations from a few of the articles I’ve linked to in this blog, or some of the social media posts about accent features, and have a think about how accents are being represented through language. You might ask yourself a few of the following questions:

· Which adjectives are being used to describe different accents or ways of speaking?
· What connotations are attached to those descriptions?
· Are sounds being described in a figurative way (ie using metaphor or simile)?
· What wider discourses are being constructed or reproduced by these descriptions? Are we, for example, seeing a discourse of disability or obstruction associated with certain accents? A discourse of success attached to others? Accents being presented as ‘opening doors’ or ‘paving the way to success’?
· Are the speakers of these accents grouped together in any way that might be problematic? Could these representations be challenged from a linguistic standpoint?

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