Sounding Different

You only get one chance to make a first impression. So why is it that no matter how truthful the spoken words are, we sometimes fake the way we speak?

In 2004 the BBC commissioned a poll of 5000 people regarding their accents. While most were proud of their accents, more than half of the respondents admitted that there were times that they wished they had a different accent: “More than 4 in 5 admit to changing their accent on occasions, particularly when meeting people for the first time or when talking to more senior work colleagues.”

First Impressions Last

Whenever we meet someone we make assessments and judgements about that person. And however cursory, we tend to hang on to these appraisals for some time. Visible factors such as dress, posture and cleaniness give us clues about the person’s background, demeanour and attitude. Spoken language provides another mine of information. Putting it all together, we judge a person to be friendly or unfriendly, aggressive or docile, and even their level of education.

But what is an accent and where does it come from?

A Different Class

We pick up accents first from those who teach us to speak. Going back through the mists of time, before distance communication was as easy as it is today, local variations in language became local variations in the pronunciation of the same words, or rather, local speech patterns became imprinted onto a more unified language. In some cases, even relatively short distances producing accent variations belie the historical language variations.

10 miles from Manchester, England, lies Bolton. Yet this relatively short distance provides a noticeable change in accent. 30 miles west of Manchester lies Liverpool, with perhaps an even more noticeable change in accent.

In the case of Liverpool, the accent is a hybrid of the local accent from times past, superimposed with the accent of Irish immigrants who came to work in the docks in the 18th and 19th centuries. The implications of this accent therefore carry an undercurrent of… well let’s not beat about the bush: the class of a dock-worker. And although we no longer associate Liverpudlians (or ‘Scousers’) as dock-workers, stereotypes have a long life. In fact, that aforementioned BBC poll found that the Liverpool accent was not only deemed unpleasant to listen to, it was also found to be lacking social status.

A Quirk of History

In 865 the Danes invaded England and built their capital at York (their name was ‘Jorvik’). They divided the surrounding country into thirds (a ‘thrithing’ [þriðjungr] in their language; modern-day ‘ridings’) and each was administered separately.

This administrative decision, which lasted until 1974, is now audible in the difference between west, north and east Yorkshire dialects.

As an effect of the industrial revolution, West Yorkshire became more industrialised (being closer to the larger ports in the north-west of England) whereas the north and east kept their farming traditions.

This consequence of industrialisation now alters the opinions in which west, north and east Yorkshire folk regard each other.

These examples are collectively known as Linguistic Discrimination, and is the reason why some people feel that they have to adopt a more affected accent.

So the next time you meet someone and subconsciously form an opinion, try to keep in mind that this is based on the migrations of people in the preceding centuries.

And rather than forming a conclusion, instead marvel at the way that these historical events influence the way we sound – and, yes, judge each other – to the present day.

Bild: Sean Williams auf Voice on Record

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