Stories

Michael

I was attracted to your project by the description in today’s Research Professional. I have been affiliated to [university in Scotland] for some 55 years, with gaps, as undergraduate, postgraduate, academic and emeritus staff. I have also worked in England and abroad. I am a lowland Scot and would consider myself as bilingual in Scots and English. People who spoke Scots, when I was a child, had difficulty in distinguishing between English and educated Scots accents: both were regarded as ‘posh’.

Scottish Universities, and [my university] in particular, have a somewhat different history from English Universities with respect to the influence of accent. When I was a student in the 1960s more than 80% of the student population was Scottish, and a high proportion, like myself, lived with their parents and remained embedded in their local communities. This percentage is still substantial, but is no longer a majority. The same was and is true of the technical, administrative and janitorial staff. In contrast, less than 20% the academic staff were and are from Scotland. In the 1960s most of the remainder were English, with similar backgrounds to the academic staff of non-Oxbridge English Universities. Today the non-Scottish academic staff are cosmopolitan.

I have never been conscious of overt discrimination against students on grounds of accent, although covert discrimination is hard to rule out entirely. However as an undergraduate in a large and faceless Chemistry department, I was very conscious that barriers – lack of personal warmth –  between staff and students interfered with the learning process, that these barriers were erected more by the students than by the staff, and that they were distinctly reinforced by the pervasive Scots/English divide in speech.

Later, lecturing in Agricultural Chemistry and then in Environmental Chemistry, these barriers tended to disappear in small-group teaching, and language became a less divisive issue even for my English colleagues. However I did meet one other difficulty. The language in which landscapes and their science is described in the literature is quite formalised, and the formalisation has roots in Oxbridge, or sometimes North American, English. Using that vocabulary created barriers for students who had known their own landscapes from childhood, especially if they came from farming families. When you have always known a peatland as a burn, there is an immediate disconnect when your teacher calls it a stream. I had to work hard with my students to connect what they were taught with what they had always known. My English colleagues could not see that problem. My two sons studied in different colleges of [university in Scotland], and it appears that similar but deeper disconnects arise between scientific English and Gaelic.

Stop assuming I am Polish/ East European

I am from Southern Europe and have lived in the UK for over 20 years. I have a clear accent, but when I lived in Hampshire, many locals would frequently say “Sorry?” because they couldn’t understand me – or didn’t make any effort to. I actually speak better English than the average native speaker, because I have studied for many years and it is grammatically correct. I am surprised educated and senior people in the public sector don’t know how to use the apostrophe, for example. To me, it is something I mastered when I was 8 years old!

After I moved to London, it was kind of liberating, because London being cosmopolitan, people are a lot more exposed to foreign accents. However, the native British still find my accent fascinating for some reason and constantly ask me where I am from, which can be tiring. You don’t want your accent to define you or to be the first thing people notice about you or the main thing they remember about you.

My accent nowadays must be a mixture of RP, Yorkshire, American (from TV) and Greek, which I appreciate is quite unique and different, but it is quite annoying when people cannot place me anywhere and then guess and go for the easy option to assume I am Eastern European. Nothing wrong with Eastern Europeans per se – it is just that these accents tend to be quite different to mine and I don’t like it when people are given generalised labels.

I’ve heard all sorts of nonsense that is actually racist, like whether I drink Vodka in the morning (apparently a comment assuming I am Polish/Russian? How ignorant and insulting, in any case).

If you don’t know where an accent is from just admit it. Don’t try to label people and make assumptions when you don’t have a clue. Ask politely, but don’t make it the first thing you ask about someone.

Even better, focus on the individual, their knowledge and personality, and not their accent. It just goes to show, white people can face racism too based on their accents in Britain.

Also, remember: if someone has a non-standard Anglophone accent, this means they speak at least one more language very fluently. Do you?

Molly A.

As a child, I lived in Scotland for quite some time before moving to the US at age 7 or 8. When I started school there, I was often ashamed to speak because my Scottish accent garnered so much attention. I don’t remember if any staff had a reaction, but my classmates were equal parts fascinated and repulsed by my accent: they’d scrunch up their faces because I was apparently impossible to understand, or ask me to say particular words or phrases on cue. Of course, they were only children and really didn’t know any better, but it just highlights the importance of exposing people, from a young age, to other ways of being. Disappointingly, I ended up making a conscious effort to change my accent to an ‘American’ one, in order to fit in.

T

I am so pleased to come across this website after many years of lonely world of suffering prejudice from language/accent & racism. I am not a monolingual but experienced the whole load of such prejudice. I began observing & experiencing such prejudice the moment I arrived in the UK more than twenty years ago. Purely because of this prejudice, I went to University and studied Linguistics, full time, and completed BA (Hons). From that study alone, I gained knowledge about what is called English (as well as of course the science of Linguistics) and have more knowledge about English than many native English speakers/monolingual. Twenty plus years on, with a degree in Linguistics, I continue to experience prejudice. The hard part is the absence and /or of interested and intelligent group/persons to discuss such problems and psycho-social behaviours.

Grace

I grow up in Southampton. Not the nice side mind you. The lower class part where people try to act all tough. My accent, which I picked up from god knows where, has made me who I am. I am made fun of for sounding extremely posh as I have a passion for grammar and accent. I would be ridiculed and told that I am a stereotypical British person and it makes it hard to feel like an individual. They shove me in a category and leave me there to waste away.

Sunflower

I’ve had people sort of judge how I pronounce or say certain words because I’m from a foreign country and the English we use is a little different to British English. Although I wouldn’t call it discrimination, I do feel very uncomfortable whenever someone asks where I’m from because they don’t recognize my accent.

Billie

Growing up, moving back and forth between Thanet and Norfolk was difficult while learning to talk because I would pick up different fractions of each accent. It became difficult at school because other children would pick on me for ‘sounding funny’ and teachers would tell me to talk ‘properly’. When asked to label my accent I would find it difficult because it was a mix of both. Still now, even though they are playing with me, my friends like to make fun of my accent as I elongate my vowels more than they do, and the ‘ing’ ending words would sound more like ‘in’ words. But I learn to live with it and laugh along.

Jess

The most common thing I receive is when I feel I’m not welcomed in the community because of my accent. I’ve moved around a lot in England, therefore have collected various ways of speaking and different parts of accents and combined it into one. The most common things said to me are phrases like “you’re not from round here are you?” and the one I find most annoying purely because I’ve been asked so many times and it gets exhausting is “where are you from?” I understand people are most likely curious but its usually the first thing people ask me when they hear me speak. I experienced this the most when I lived in Nottinghamshire, I was often laughed at for my pronunciation of words or because I didn’t use the words they did for bread roll or ears, and made fun of. My first day at primary school in Nottinghamshire my PE lesson consisted of the teacher asking where I was from, where I was born, why I moved there and it was the most memorable thing for me because I felt like i was different and not welcome there. Another common thing I have received was when I went to America and was asked to repeat certain words because it sounded “stupid” or “weird” and “funny”.

Freya

I come from the beautiful countryside of Herefordshire in the West Midlands. It’s the county of Hereford bulls, cider, Tyrell’s, Ellie Goulding and apparently an un-placeable accent. One feature of the accent I noticed rhoticity with some Herefordians – typically the ones living in the very rural areas and coming from the farming generation.

I never felt like I had the ‘Herefordshire accent’ until I moved to university in Birmingham, where my flat mates (from both the north and the south) were unable to place my accent. To some, they found my accent to be ‘posh’ but to others they commented that I sounded like a ‘farmer’. This continued as I moved into teaching after my undergraduate, and children in schools that are in Herefordshire towns also were bemused by my Hereford accent, with comments that it was ‘posh’ or that they believed I was from ‘Cardiff’.

Whilst I’ve never felt anyone was rude towards me because of my accent (although there is much stigma around being a ‘farmer’ or having a ‘farmer accent’ in my area of Hereford) I’ve always found it bemusing that it seems to be an unknown place with an unknown accent, despite it having its own qualities.

Phil

During my schooldays I was brought up by parents that spoke ‘properly’ in Standard English which meant my received pronunciation was considered a bit posh at school which when linked to my good academic ability until aged 13 and my shyness caused me social issues with my peers. Although I wasn’t bullied much I wasn’t accepted either. At age 13 I got caught up on not understanding a couple of issues in Chemistry and Physics. Too proud to ask I rejected education and rebelled. My sense of humour came through as well. Suddenly I was more acceptable.

Leaving school I went into a BT apprenticeship where others were about the same level as me and I felt comfortable (plus the lecturer explained the issues I had got stuck with in school that had stuck with me all that time). I exaggerated my voice and behaviour to be working class.

Some time later I had grown up and wanted to pursue a career in management. I was immediately disadvantaged by the accent and casual behaviour I had acquired. I had to work twice as hard.

After a short while I went into sales and found that my accent and lack of eloquence held me back from forming senior relationships within both BT and the Customers to whom I was assigned. I didn’t get very far.

On early retirement I took up writing and found that, although my writing was imaginative and good, my accent for reading held me back from being taken seriously.