What’s in an accent? It certainly is a point of discussion. However much we pride ourselves in championing diversity there’s prejudices that have been centuries in the making.
I believe, we all want to see inclusive and welcoming environment in every profession and occupation. I’m opposed to all forms of unfair discrimination especially those of class-based prejudices. In this country, a persons accent can so easily be associated with a region or city. Then all the baggage of history associated with that place can form snap judgements about that person.
It was a while ago but a case in point sticks in my mind. A space project that didn’t go as planned resulted in a probe crash landing on planet Mars. The Beagle 2 project was ambitious however ill fated. The bubbling enthusiasm of the project leader Professor Colin Pillinger from the Open University was infectious. At the same time, it was impossible to miss his West Country accent. It didn’t impede his inspirational promotion of space exploration, but I do remember remarks made about his accent. They were not always complementary.
Now, you might say that was more than a decade ago. We’ve moved on. I don’t think so. The glorious West Country accent, and I include the city of Bristol in that mix, is still associated with a rural Arcadian dream of country life. This much cherished mythology continues to be promoted in English lifestyle magazines and every part of the broadcast media.
It’s a fantasy where educated, philanthropic and sophisticated citizens move from London to enlighten impoverished country folk. Their hope being to soak in the innocence of country ways but, at the same time, offer erudite advice to the backward locals.
If I have an accent it has all but gone. That said, it does broaden when I return to the West Country. There’s a whole series of words which don’t seen quite right said anywhere but in the rolling hills of Somerset and Dorset. Ways of saying things that I grew up with that are meaningless out of context.
Although the association of a rural accent often goes with an unfair characterisation that someone is not too bright, on the plus side it’s linked with friendliness, kindness and warmth. That sounds a bit like a description of a Hobbit. There’s an accidental proof that these prejudices are deeply ingrained in English literature.
I remember early in my career that too much retained from childhood was a barrier to getting a message cross. Slowly but effectively my accent became generic. There’s no doubt this had an upside when it came to technical presentations in front of a mixed audience. Even more important in front of an international audience. It shouldn’t matter but it does.
In a conversation about helicopter safety, a French colleague once lent over to say to me that he knew our Texan partner was speaking English, but he had no idea what he was saying. Is that a case for a standardisation of English – maybe?