It first dawned on me that my Midlands accent was particularly prominent when I was in my first year of university. It was approaching dinner (lunch) time, and I said: “Christ, I could eat a scabby ‘oss”. Suddenly, the conversation went dead. My Northern friends genuinely responded like I’d just started speaking in parseltongue. As the years progressed, my pronunciations became a source of entertainment for the people on my undergraduate course. Words such as ‘five’, ‘move’, ‘pikelet’ and ‘mom’ received a lot of complaints especially, with one student telling me to ‘learn the Queen’s English’. My accent also led people to question whether I was intelligent, or whether I was paying somebody to write my essays for me. If I’d received £1 every time somebody said to me “Om from Burrrrmingham”, I imagine I might be very rich by now. Of course, I’m not actually from Birmingham, I live 20 miles away – but nobody ever seemed to want to know that.
I’ve lived in three countries: the Czech Republic, the UK, and Denmark. I’m a native speaker of Czech and a non-native speaker of some of the languages relevant for the UK and the Danish contexts. I have experienced more negative comments on my attempts to speak Danish than I have on my attempts to speak English or Welsh, irrespective of how far I’ve been on my trajectory to acquire a higher proficiency in the language in question. The Welsh context has been the most tolerant: most Welsh speakers I’ve encountered have been incredibly supportive of me using Welsh, no matter how many mistakes I produced.
In England, it happened to me once that a non-native speaker of English started correcting my pronunciation in a way I didn’t find appropriate. It was a student attending my class on general phonetics & phonology. “How can I know what dialect I speak?” – “Well, there are various ways to find out. You might start with the literature,” — here I got interrupted. “What?” “You can consult the literature, see what features are typical of the speech of the area where you grew up.” – “What should I consult?” – “The literature.” – “Say it again?” – “The literature?” – “You mean LI-TRI-ture!” Yes, he was focusing on the fact that I pronounced the word “literature” as “lit” – “ra” – “ture” rather than “li” – “tri” – “ture”, which affected how I pronounced the “r”.
I’ve experienced similar reactions more frequently in Denmark when speaking Danish, but on a more extreme level. On three occasions I can remember, Danes refused to continue communicating with me once they realised I’m not a native speaker of Danish. How did this happen? I simply asked them, in Danish: “Could you say that again?” or “Could you say that again a bit more slowly?” Reactions? Head shaking. No words in any language ensued. On one occasion, the speaker didn’t say anything at all, turned away from me and walked away. In another of the three cases, I decided to push the Danish speaker a little bit (everything I said was in Danish): “You can’t say it again?” More vigorous head shaking. “So you can’t say what you’ve just said again, a little bit more slowly?” More head shaking. “Well, have a good Christmas.” He didn’t reply. And I wish I could say I didn’t really care.
I’v also experienced one case of a Danish student correcting my pronunciation of his name, repeatedly for two years (so far). I consulted Danish phoneticians, one of whom had the same name as the student in question. It is indeed the case that I don’t pronounce the name as native speakers would, but it seems that my mispronunciation is not as distant from the native pronunciation as the student has been insisting it is – at least based on the opinions of a couple of native Danish speakers who also happen to be phoneticians focusing on Danish pronunciation in their research. I can understand that one wants one’s name being pronounced correctly, but it’s only happened to me with native Danish speakers that they would make a repeated point about my mispronunciation of a genuine attempt to pronounce their name correctly. I haven’t experienced this with native speakers of Chinese, Dutch, English, Farsi, French, German, Japanese, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Welsh, and possible others.
In Wales, I was once trying to have a friendly conversation with someone on the train. “So what did you think of X?” (We attended the same event, X, the week before we bumped into each other on the train.) The Welsh speaker started correcting my Welsh grammar. I rephrased what I’d just asked with the construction he insisted I should use. After I produced another sentence, he started commenting on my lexicon. This kept on repeating itself, until I gave up trying to have any conversation with him. After the incident, I asked a couple of native speakers of Welsh if the constructions I had originally used were incorrect and why (I had seen them in textbooks.). It turned out that they didn’t find them incorrect. In fact, they found some of the corrections rather bizarre. I couldn’t help wondering if that Welsh speaker would have corrected these constructions if he heard them from native speakers of Welsh.
And as we can see, all the cases I’ve described above have happened with men. I myself am not a man.
I feel awful when talking to people at times. I am Scottish and love being so. But being from a town very close to the border between Scotland and England, I find my accent is dependent on my situation.
I grew up in a very small town in Scotland close to the border to England. I feel, because of the proximity, my hometown accent is VERY pronounced to make sure people are aware we are Scottish. When I moved to go to University and came back to visit my parents, my dad told me ‘for God’s sake Louise, speak Scottish’ where I thought I was. But I wasn’t speaking in my natural dialect. This is when I realised I adapt my accent to where I am, very easily and unintentionally.
Then I began thinking about when I meet Irish people. I live in the west of Scotland and there are a lot of people in Stranraer, also in the west of Scotland that have almost ‘Belfastian?’ And I take on an Irish accent when speaking to people from Ireland. I’m not being, or trying to be offensive it just changes.
My partner’s grandmother is from Barbados and I have taken in saying ‘it’s a-boat time’ instead of ‘about’ and it’s not out of taking the piss but because I love the pronunciation.
I love doing accents and can do them very well, but also can speak German fluently.
My partner has lived in Lancaster, Scotland and London however and I cannot imitate his accent at all! But when he is speaking very northern ‘lancastarian’ I find myself copying him haha!
Just wanted to hear other people’s stories of accents changing 😊
I grew up in social housing in Yorkshire. I loved learning and I also loved watching The Bill – a series set in a police station focused on solving crime. Going to university to study law therefore seemed like an obvious choice and I was excited to start my course at a Russell Group University.
I turned up fresh faced and enthusiastic – looking forward to my future. I was also feeling nervous and unsure whether University was a place for people like me, especially listening to my peers. It was the first time I really realised that I spoke differently – and that differently was seen by people as a bad thing.
In my first week, I met my tutor in a small group of 6-8 people. My tutor was employed by the University to support us through the course. We all introduced ourselves. My tutor told the group that if we wanted to be successful in law we must learn to speak with a “Westminster accent”. My heart sunk and I could feel my cheeks burning as I realised this must be directed at me and my regional accent… My first week and I had already been told I would not succeed.
This confirmed my suspicion University wasn’t for me and for the first term I had to resist the urge to drop out of the course. It also really affected my confidence in my studies and socialising with my peers. I then went through a period where I consciously tried to talk “posher”.
One day, something snapped and I asked myself why I was trying so hard to be accepted by people who didn’t respect me. I stopped trying to change who I am and embraced my Yorkshire heritage – it is a huge part of my identity.
The accentism hasn’t stopped and I have so many examples, particularly as I moved to London for work after university, but I now understand there is nothing wrong with me and how I speak. It is society who has a problem and it is something which we need to raise awareness of. The UK’s diversity of regional accents is something to be proud of and celebrate!
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.
I moved to a a Scottish university in the early nineties. I’m from Lancashire. My course was a mix of students but with a large contingent of Southern English, middle class folk. On the first day of seminar – my first utterance was greeted with a smirk and ‘that’s champion!’ by a fellow student from the South. It was clear that there was a need to patronise the simple northerner. My intellect was suspect- easily dismissed.
More recently I live in London. My accent has migrated. I still confuse the baristas in coffee shops who can’t understand my order or my name unless I put on my best RP. I tried to help my daughter with her phonics homework but it struck me that some sounds were tricky as my suggestions were greeted with a snort of derision. She argued that ‘what might be right in Lancashire isn’t right here’. She is correct. I’m a phonics failure. My accent fails to hide my roots. The phonics in the National curriculum taught assumes standard English – RP. This seems hugely discriminatory for regional dialects/ accents.
I am a Welsh MSc student studying at a Welsh uni. One time in class a fellow student announced to the whole class that I sounded ‘really really Welshy’ and that she ‘had a dream where I was standing at the front of the class giving a lecture sounding really Welshy’.
The student seemed very amused when telling the class this. I felt uncomfortable at what she said. I could not imagine announcing to a whole class of students, for example, how really really African one of the students sounded! Especially if I was in Africa!
This later led to me (along with other factors not related to uni life) writing a withdrawal letter.
I went to Newcastle university studying biology. Ironically, even though it is one of the most northern cities in England, the majority of people who attend the university come from down south, in the typical well off areas like Surrey for example. So they speak very ‘posh’. I myself am from Bolton, think a Peter Kay type accent.
One day we were in labs doing a practical. I actually ended up graduating from that degree the top of my class, so I knew what I was doing that day. I saw a group of students clearly struggling, so I went over and offered my help. I said something along the lines of ‘hey guys, do you want me to show you how to do this bit? It’s pretty easy once you get the knack of it!’… their response was ‘well, you’re not going to know how to do it are you?’ I was quite taken aback, and wondered why they thought that. I’d never spoken to them before but seen them around in class. I asked why not, and one replied ‘just listen to you!’ And the others laughed. Again, quite shocked, I asked why. They replied ‘do they even have labs where you come from?’, insinuating from my accent that I clearly wasn’t from a posh town like them and my area isn’t well off etc. Well, I just let them get on with it, doing it wrong. I’m sure I heard they ended up failing that class..
I have noticed in the last 20 years (I am nearly 53) regional accents become a lot more acceptable. I got ridiculed for my (not that strong but distinctive) Scottish accent in London in the eighties and also at uni in Edinburgh. I hadn’t met the very rich before that and it was a shock. I was into drama but after feeling isolated among the RP speakers I didn’t return to a group and stopped acting altogether. They seemed to think that anyone with any kind of regional accent was extremely poor and lower working class. There was a clear class divide at the university.
As a student at school I was mocked by the more strong accented kids (in Fife) and told I had been sent to elocution lessons by my mum which was incorrect. There seemed to be a thing about talking as broad as possible to avoid being called a snob (inverted snobbery). I have been told several times I sound like Kirsty Wark and am happy with this. I now live in West Yorkshire and have adopted some of that dialect but never lost my Scottish accent.
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!