I was the only student with a Birmingham accent when studying English at the University of Birmingham (yes, Birmingham) way back in the 90s and didn’t I know it! I ended up turning the tables, though, and wrote my dissertation, Masters and PhD on attitudes towards Birmingham English. The last chapter of my PhD thesis (Birmingham English: A Sociolinguistic Study) discusses the effects of language discrimination and argues that this form of prejudice is no less harmful than any other. At the time, Wales (2000) was about the only reference to ‘accentism’ that I could find, so it is heartening to see that the term is now in more widespread use but disheartening to see that so many young people are still suffering from it (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/24/its-had-a-lasting-impact-students-on-being-bullied-over-their-accents).
I still get the odd double take and supercilious comment even today when people hear me speak and see my title. Obviously, for some, Dr + Brummie still do not add up!
Wales, K. 2000. ‘North and South: A Linguistic Divide?’ in English Today 16(01): 4-15.
This was a long time ago, but I’m now realising the prejudice at the heart of my experience. From the outset, it’s worth saying, I am originally from Newcastle and at the time had a much stronger Geordie accent than I do now.
When I was training to become an English teacher in Cumbria, I was delivering a lesson on Thomas Hardy’s poetry to an A Level Literature class. I was being observed by my subject mentor. During the lesson I had read out one of Hardy’s poems from the set text. In the follow up discussion the teacher questioned my reading the poem and said with a polite (not polite) laugh, “Geordies don’t do poetry do they?” She had also written these words on my lesson observation form. To be clear, she was specifically referring to the sound of Hardy’s words coming out of my mouth rather than my analysis of the poem.
Only one year later, during my first Year 9 parents evening, two parents on separate occasions made similar jibes about the irony of “Geordies teaching English”. Perhaps this is why my accent is not as strong as it used to be, something my family enjoy pointing out whenever I go home.
My experience isn’t necessarily about my accent specifically, however it is about the way I speak.
I have a lisp and have done for my entire life as far as I’m aware. It’s not something I like about myself, but those I know and associate with never seem to have any trouble with it and have never mentioned it. However, there have been two incidents where it has, apparently, been a problem.
The first I want to talk about is one I didn’t know about until a few months ago when my mum was asked about my lisp. When I first started school, bearing in mind I was 4 years old, my mum was contacted regarding the possibility of speech therapy for me because, according to the person who contacted her, no-one could understand what I was saying. My mum was confused about this, and rightly so considering my best friend of two years at the time was Indian and struggled with English had no issues with the way I spoke, so she went to my class teacher. She was equally confused and told my mum that everything was fine with the way I spoke. I have no idea who it was that told my mum all that, but clearly they were only going on their own experience with me and hadn’t spoken to anyone else about it!
In comparison, this second story is incredibly mild. When I started secondary school, I was the only person from my primary school in that year group. I had an okay working relationship with the boys who sat around me in my science class and I was always happy to help either of them if they needed it. One lesson we were doing work about hypothetical samples of something from different regions. One of those regions was Cheshire, which one of the guys couldn’t work out. I tried to help him out, of course, but my lisp means that I pronounce ‘ch’ as an odd variation of ‘j’, so he had no idea what I was trying to say. I think I ended up confusing him even more by giving up and telling him it was “the name of the cat from Alice In Wonderland”! Luckily, the other guy realised how much trouble this was causing and told him. But I think that was the incident that made me realise how prominent my lisp was and ended with me being incredibly conscious of it even until this day.
I was born in Argentina then I moved to Spain and grew up there. As the Spanish language has different accents, “argentinian” or better said rioplatense variation, is one of the most joked about variations in the hispanic community because of its intonation, the sound of /s/ instead of the dental /z/ from peninsular Spain or the sound of /sh/ in some words such as yerba (“sherba”). When I read any sort of text at school teachers would correct my accent, my classmates would say that they could not understand me or they would try to make me speak to laugh.
Since then, I almost suppressed my accent because as a child, it was something I felt I had to do to fit in. And now, if I’m talking and suddenly a weird intonation comes out of my mouth I have the impression that I will be “the argentinian” in the place and not just myself. I also used to feel very ashamed if my mother talked to me with her accent in front of people so I would always have an angry face if she did so. I tried to fix my accent because sadly not everyone will talk to me the same way as they would if they knew I speak “argentinian”. My hope is that this concept changes one day :).
I was 9 in 1980 when I moved from Barcelona to Flix, a small village in Tarragona where a different variety of Catalan is spoken. In the beginning I was made to read out loud from the books in school because my accent was ‘better’ than theirs. It didn’t take me long to pick up the local accent and vocabulary.
A year later I moved back to Barcelona and started in a new school, where I was laughed at until I lost the non standard accent.
One of my lecturers (in TESOL!) asked me ‘why does your voice keep going up at the end like that? I can’t tell when you’re asking a question’ and then kind of smirked. This was in front of the whole class in the middle of a lecture. Super embarrassing and frustrating. English isn’t my first language and uptalk is something I’ve apparently adopted without realising.
My son’s American accent was relentlessly (and badly) mocked and imitated in his secondary schools here in London, and it made him absolutely miserable. This naturally made the other kids do it more. He has taken badly against the country as a whole as a result – a stereotyping overreaction in itself. Prejudice begets prejudice. He hates it here and can’t wait to be old enough to move away.
A few years ago a girl at my English department at a German university had her final oral exam to become a teacher. Unfortunately this girl spoke English with a very heavy Swabian (southern German) accent/dialect. The external examiner who was from northern Germany was close to failing her. To be honest her English was very difficult to understand. And only after the girl’s supervisor insisted that she’ll only teach English in southern German schools (because that’s how the teacher program used to work in Germany) was the external willing to let her pass with a 4 (the worst possible grade he could give her without failing her).
On a personal level, I’ve lived in the US and UK for about 10 years now but as a German I occasionally still get the v/w distinction wrong. Especially when I’m tired. Saying vikipedia instead of wikipedia always gets a few good laughs in the office.
I’m from Stoke on Trent. In one of my first seminars at university, I answered a question for the lecturer and a girl sat behind me said ‘that girl’s accent makes me feel sick’ (she didn’t even try to whisper). I’ve received a lot of prejudice at University mainly for my accent and dialect. Even certain lecturers have mocked the way I pronounce words, such as ‘book’ with a rather fronted GOOSE vowel, as opposed to the more standard STRUT/FOOT vowel for this word.
My best friend is from Menorca. Her native language is Catalan. We both went to uni in Barcelona. The Catalan variety of Menorca is quite different from Barcelona’s, which is considered “the standard”. She had to give a presentation for a pragmatics course. After she gave the presentation, one of the FOUNDERS of the linguistics department (first linguistics department in Spain) told her: “you probably did very good, but I didn’t understand much”. I (and the rest of the students) understood her perfectly fine.