As part of a Tonight programme investigating whether social stigma and snobbery still exist towards regional accents, an exclusive poll reveals that more than a quarter of Britons feel they have been discriminated against because of the way they speak.
Watch the programme on ITV this evening at 7.30pm.
The most upsetting moment for me making this film was when some Middlesbrough children confessed to me that they were ashamed of their accents.
Shockingly, they told me they believed their accents would affect their life chances – for the worse.
“We sound right scruffy like,” said young one boy in his football kit. “Not like you: posh. We won’t be able to get proper jobs,” he told me.
Unfortunately - as our Tonight programme shows – he may be right.
For even in modern Britain, where equality is the new God, prejudice about accents is alive and well. And we often found it thriving most - along the north-south, “us and them” fault-lines of old.
Our research not only shows that more than a quarter of Britons (28%) feel they have been discriminated against because of their regional accent but also, according to another batch of research by the law firm Peninsular, that 80% of employers admit to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents.
There is currently no legislation to protect someone from accent discrimination. It is discrimination which experts told me has nothing to do with the way people sound and everything to do with prejudice about the area they come from.
For example, our research shows that the Liverpool accent comes off very badly, as does Cockney and Brummie. “Received Pronunciation” or the “Queen’s English”, on the other hand, reigns supreme.
The Middlesbrough boys said they thought RP sounded “very intelligent” and our research once again suggests that is a widely held view.
Our TV screens are full of RP speakers: in the media, politics and the establishment which reinforce the sense that it is still the “proper way to speak”.
We discovered elocution lessons are on the rise, with many seeking lessons doing so to “soften their regional twang” which they hoped would increase their job prospects
I had thought that with the rise of globalisation and mass media, regional accents would be diminishing. But I was cheered to find this is not the case. Individuality shows no decline.
I was also intrigued to find that our accents are constantly changing – and always have. Our Middlesbrough boys didn’t recognise the accent of their home town from 50 years ago when we played recordings of it to them.
You can listen to voices from your area recorded in the 1950s and 60s via the British Library’s Survey of English Dialects to see how accents have changed even in the last half century.
From Angles and Saxons, Romans and Normans, through the many waves of immigration our islands has seen over the centuries, newcomers to Britain have always brought their own distinct language with them, and as new words and expressions have merged with existing languages so new accents are born.
Today Multicultural London English, or MLE, is becoming the dominant accent in the South East, with sounds and words taken from the Caribbean and African languages.
In a multicultural East End market we found MLE and every other accent celebrated. Every accent in Britain carries stories of its speaker.
Every accent should be celebrated like that, but tragically they aren’t.
We have some of the poorest social mobility in Europe, but even I was shocked to discover that even the way we speak can make children feel like losers – before they really begin life’s journey.
Here are the results of the COMRES survey on regional accents:
- How friendly or unfriendly do you find the following accents to be?
- How intelligent or unintelligent do you find the following accents to be?
- How trustworthy or untrustworthy do you find the following accents to be?
- Do you feel that you have ever been discriminated against in each of the following situations because of your regional accent, or not?
- Have you ever personally discriminated against someone because they had a particular regional accent in any of the following situations?
ComRes interviewed online 2,006 GB adults between 2nd and 4th August, 2,014 GB adults between 9th and 11th August, and 2,025 GB adults between 6th and 8th September 2013.
Data were weighted to be representative of all GB adults aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full results tables can be found at www.comres.co.uk