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The LEGACY Issue: Q&A Rob Drummond: The relationship between accents and identity

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Featured image: Ade Hunter

Rob Drummond, Professor of sociolinguistics at Manchester Met, is fascinated by the way people talk. He has led a range of accent-based projects in the community, ranging from Manchester Voices exploring the accents and dialects of people in Greater Manchester to the Accentism Project examining stories of accent or language-based prejudice or discrimination. His new book You’re All Talk: Why We Are What We Speak investigates the relationship between spoken language and identity.

How did you first become interested in accents?

It was when I was an English language teacher in Turkey, then in Manchester. I had always been interested in pronunciation, and I noticed that some of my students were picking up a Manchester accent whilst others weren’t. That became my PhD project; investigating why some Polish people living in Manchester acquired a Manchester accent and some of them didn’t. The most interesting outcome was to do with identity, and feelings of connection to the community.

The Accentism Project shares stories about language-based discrimination. Can you explain what ‘linguistic discrimination’ is?

Linguistic discrimination is any time people face prejudice, discrimination or negative stereotyping due to the way they speak. Language prejudice is always about more than language; it’s covering up something else. The way we speak is linked to our social class, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, so when people get criticised due to the way they speak, it’s often really disguising those issues. Class is present; generally speaking, working class environments tend to be where more noticeable, distinct, regional accents are. When people have really strong preferences against certain accents, it begs the question: “Is it really about the accent?”

What role does the media play in perpetuating accent stereotypes?

The motivation for using a particular accent should always be considered. In a film or TV drama, for example, using an accent because a character is from that particular region is perfectly fine. However, choosing an accent simply because it feeds into certain stereotypes should be at least questioned — those reflections should take place.

What do you think about the negative associations of Northern accents in the media and society

The North/South issue is a result of the capital being in the South of England, so that variety of English holds the prestige. It’s not because there is anything better about Southern or Standard English. The North of England is further away from the capital and historically has been economically poorer, receiving less investment. If the capital of England had happened to be in York, everything would be the opposite. That would be an interesting subversion, wouldn’t it?

Do you consider it important for people to keep the accent they’re born with? If so, why?

What’s important is that people should be free. It’s a problem when people feel obliged to change their accent. Likewise, if people want to change the way they speak, they should be free to. We should challenge those areas of society which put that pressure on people. Don’t challenge the individuals, challenge the society that makes people feel that their speech is inadequate.

Do you consider your accent to be part of your personal legacy?

Yes, I’m quite happy with my accent. I don’t think it’s the most exciting accent, but it is part of me and I wouldn’t change it. That said, there are certain accents that have some additional personality and status, for example, a Manchester accent. No-one’s ever going to get excited about a Hertfordshire accent. There’s a lovely little story — I was giving a talk at a school near Newcastle, and I asked: ‘How would you describe my accent?’ Then this kid just put his hand up and said: ‘Vanilla’.

Tell us about your book, You’re All Talk.

It’s about why we speak in so many different ways, why there are so many accents in the UK, the history of this, accent prejudice, how the way we speak is linked to who we are, why people adjust the way they speak depending on the situation, why we have preferences for certain accents and why some accents are perceived in more positive ways than other accents. It’s written for a non-specialist audience, so the research is there but it’s presented in an accessible way. It’s aimed at people who are interested in accents and language but have no background in it.

About the author / 

Tara Morony

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