Mine started a long time ago. When I started at Oxford in the late 80s someone told me, ‘You can’t possibly be studying English at Oxford with an accent like that!’ This came hot on the heels of a teacher at a study week telling me ‘The northern accent is generally associated with being thick.’ I now teach on the outskirts of Birmingham and it’s lovely listening to some of my A level language students who are really proud of their accent despite the prejudice they encounter. Same kind of things I was getting back then.
I recently taught a class observed by half a dozen teacher trainees – a regular occurrence, as I’m one of the more qualified and experienced staff at my place of work. Afterwards I welcomed questions from the trainees, the first of which was “Where did you learn to speak English so well? You can hardly tell you’re not from here, well done.” I wish I could say it was the first time someone has congratulated me on not sounding like where I come from, as if it was my biggest life achievement. I’m Polish by birth but have been speaking English since preschool and living in the UK for over a decade. I’m so fed up with the “where are you from” questions that unless I risk being rude, I avoid giving a direct answer. I also tell my students their accent is their identity and they should be proud of it.
My friend, a year 1 teacher, got negative feedback after being observed teaching phonics. ‘Overriding her north London accent’ was recorded as her main moving on point.
Today I spoke to a GP who said that if they heard a Scottish accent from a new patient, they would know that this person had a problem with alcohol or drugs. They said this was not prejudice, but merely a reflection of the location where their practice is based, and the fact that in their experience, 100% of the Scottish people in this location have issues with alcoholism or other substance abuse.
They didn’t seem to follow my argument that even if they had encountered 100 people who were Scottish and had such issues, deciding in advance that the 101st person with a Scottish accent was also likely to have such issues was prejudice and akin to racial/ethnic profiling.
Academia is not the natural home of working-class Belfastians, and certainly not in England. I’m sure I lost out on lectureships because I refused to anglicize my voice. I’ve been sniggered at by students, told I’m Irish, asked when I moved to the UK from Ireland, had it assumed that I’m stupid because we’re treated by many GBers as if we’re worthless trash, treated with apprehension because the person only associated my accent with the rendered violence they saw on the news, had it assumed I’m a lush because they think I’m Irish and that the Irish are mad drunks, been asked which ‘side’ I’m on (i.e. Protestant or Catholic), and am never done having to repeat myself because Geordies can’t seem to understand me even though I enunciate clearly and speak slowly for them without them doing the same for me.
While working as a waitress in Spain I was once asked by a fellow Englishman if I had ferrets and lived on a farm because I was from the north.
Also while working at the same job another English customer told me ‘oh, you’re actually quite intelligent despite your stupid northern accent’.
While working as an English teacher in Spain, a student once asked me why I didn’t ‘autocorrect myself and at least try to speak in standard English’.
I have experienced prejudice in English, Welsh, Gaelic, Polish, French, Spanish, and Italian. The one experience I want to share, though, was not in response to a minority, regional, or foreign linguistic variety – plenty of those – but in response to my near-RP accent. I would say I have a Welsh accent, but it’s very “mild”, so it’s not always detectable to people who don’t have RP accents. On a number of occasions, I have had Anglophobic comments, but I was once screamed at by a girl in Glasgow whilst I was on the phone. “F*** off back to England!”, she screamed as I spoke to a close friend walking past Kelvinhall station on my mobile phone. It was very intimidating and upsetting. I feel that there is a lot of aggression towards the RP accent in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Perhaps not unsurprising considering the complex history on these islands – but not really fair on individuals.
When I moved to London, age 16, in the 70s, my Cardiff accent was constantly ridiculed to the point where I resolved to ‘clean up’ my speech. I no longer have my accent. Regret it massively.
I was presenting my research at a conference in Cambridge University a few years back. It was a great success and at the end of the questions section my supervisor – A British bully with major stammering issues- told me to ‘stop talking because my accent annoyed him’….
I grew up in the South East, in and around Royal Tunbridge Wells. I went to university up north and uni friends, housemates and course-mates (vast majority Northerners) would often remark on the way I pronounced things, particularly the classics like ‘grass’ and ‘bath’. One person would repeat the word/phrase in an over-done RP accent and the rest of the group (including me, most of the time) would get a bit of a giggle out of it. People would often assume I had loads of money and my family were landed gentry or Viscounts or something.
I went to the ‘second’ university in the town (an ex-polytechnic) and, interestingly, people I met who didn’t know that, would assume that I went to the ‘primary’ university in the town, renowned for being (better) and with higher entry requirements.
Definitely found myself inadvertently adopting a bit of a Northern twang by the time I got to third year!