The Cult of Stupid
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The Cult of Stupid

A Manner of Speaking

A couple of people I follow on twitter have been circulating a post from YouGov, which contains a survey about the relative attractiveness of accents. It turns out this poll was from November 2014, so it’s hardly hot current news, but so much about this really irks me.

Putting aside the subjectivity of such things, the map itself they show does actually make me twitch. But I‘m strange, because I love accents. All of them. I find them endlessly fascinating. The first thing to notice is that lots of the map is grey. Like almost the entirety of Scotland for starters. And Cornwall. And Lancashire. And anywhere north east of Cambridge. There are clearly no accents there, and no one has any opinion about them.

YouGov’s “accent” map

So let’s start with Received Pronunciation, because obviously almost the entire south east of England speaks that way, apparently. I’m very sure that anyone in Oxfordshire, Shropshire, or Essex would be very pleased to know that, never mind anyone on the south coast.

The blocks they put together are somewhat arbitrary anyway. The Yorkshire accent is certainly not homogeneous, and is noticeably different between North Yorkshire, Leeds, or Hull, for example. But that’s nothing compared to Ireland. The whole of Southern Ireland, like Wales, gets lumped into a single entity.

The Geordie Oasis also makes me chuckle, because quite naturally it’s the only distinctive accent between Richmond¹ and Glasgow. So does Cockney, mainly because of London not being so hugely linguistically diverse and multi-cultural, or anything.

And then there’s Scouse. Like its near-neighbour Manchester, Liverpool’s harder-edged, urban accent gets a bit of a kicking in this poll. But the extent of the area on the map might annoy people from nearby Warrington², for example.

Poor old Birmingham gets lumbered with the wooden spoon. Now, I actually rather like the Brummie accent if we’re being honest. But even then, I think they’re conflating Brum with the whole of the Black Country too, the land of the Yam Yams (and not reflecting it on their map). I love that accent too. The rest of the Midlands, like Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, doesn’t merit any attention at all.

I have very specific issues with the map too. My home town has a pretty distinctive accent, but it’s not marked; it’s not one of these twelve so-called “main” accents, so as far as this poll is concerned it doesn’t even exist, even though it’s supposedly located in one of these accent areas. Middlesbrough is in Yorkshire, being historically in the North Riding. The map here very clearly doesn’t include it in in that Yorkshire section. The accent is, however, different³. The Teesside accent stretches out a little, and includes places north of the Tees, like Stockton and Hartlepool, where it starts to bleed back into County Durham. It’s a strange bastardised mongrel of an accent because the town is comparatively new (less than 200 years old), and because it attracted many diverse incomers to the ironworks, docks, shipyards, and chemical plants. It sounds like a strange mix of Durham, Yorkshire, and Scouse. Indeed, it’s probably the only place outside of Liverpool where a local could sing this song, and not sound out of place.

So that idea of the “12 main accents” is at best flawed, and at worst it’s harmful. There’s also no consideration for example, of any difference between Dublin and the Irish West Coast to name but one , no mention of Edinburgh, or indeed any Scots outside of Glasgow at all. The “main” groups are pretty arbitrary on the whole and whole swathes of the country aren’t thought worthy of any attention, even though they are quite wonderfully diverse.

I think at root what irks me about this map isn’t all about the accent alone, it’s the fact that it’s shorthand for something else, something more pernicious. Notice where the least favoured accents are. They are generally urban, traditionally working-class, and mostly in the north, or at least outside The Beautiful South. There is very much a social and class distinction going on here. So while the map is (badly) marking out general areas, what is really being asked is what you think of individuals speaking with those identified accents, and that plays into a whole set of much wider regional prejudices. It plays into every stereotype, and tells us quite a lot about our current situation: if you speak with an acceptable accent, there are seemingly no limits to what you can say, and enough people will swallow. It’s a map of social prejudice.

The fact still remains that to prosper in Britain, the way you speak is a commonly used marker to distinguish you from others, and usually not in a good way. There is still very much a “right” and a “wrong” way to speak, hence that big red blob in the south, telling us that RP is attractive, and desirable⁴. To hold on to an accent, especially one seen as somehow inferior or undesirable by these measures, is still a barrier to what is quaintly still called “social mobility”. I think that’s wrong, and that’s the real reason why this map and this survey really irritates me.

¹ Yes, the one in Yorkshire.
² or any other local wools who might be reading 😉
³ In spite of what one girl on the first night I was at University thought, I most certainly was not, and will never be a Geordie.
⁴ This is even more amusing given that modern RP is very heavily a result of the Midlands

No, I distinctly said, “CULT”

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