In my earliest years, my great-grandmother used to sit with me in her bungalow, a low-roofed gloomy building with carpets like moss, to tell me I was the ‘best boy in the wewd’. I believed her, of course – she made fantastic cheese on toast and gave me ice pops (‘lolly ices’ to her) out of love. She was family. I took her words as law; I would recite everything I heard her say back to my mother when I was dropped off at our flat. But, rather than approval, I was met with correction – not of the message, but the delivery.
‘The best boy in the world,’ she would say, emphasising the curled, drawn-out vowel sound, and getting me to repeat it. At the time, I could not understand why the two of them would vocalise their affection for me in different ways, or why they would denounce the other’s pronunciation. I did not see one as right and one as wrong, but as preferences. For a long time, I favoured ‘wewd’. It was more entertaining to say and had a bounce to it.
Of course, my mother – the daughter of a school canteen worker from the slums of Glasgow and a west London plumber descended from a line of barrow boys – could predict more about my future than I could. I was at a key developmental stage, and she knew that if I grew up speaking like my great-grandmother it would close doors for me, rendering some routes including upward social mobility near impossible. Eventually, I succumbed to her way of pronouncing the few words I had copied from my great-grandmother, and it is likely part of why I ended up at university. But, in doing this, I have experienced a disconnect from the history of my family and my class. I know that my background is a world away from that of my peers, but my non-stereotypical accent feels like a sour act of treachery to my working-class roots.
The long-standing bias against working-class and multicultural vernacular is ever-present, especially in academic and professional circles. British received pronunciation is perceived as the most respectable way to communicate, and those outside of this are taught to see it as an aspiration, all while being scorned and declared undeserving of social mobility. In the workplace, employers may reject applications of those with accents and dialects considered ‘unprofessional’, and in the classroom, the same ways of speaking are associated with low academic ability, kickstarting self-fulfilling prophecies through bias-inflected treatment.
The worrying demand for elocution lessons charts the continued commodification of dialect. This practice demonstrates how some accents and dialects are valued above others, causing people to seek to change their own ways of speaking to boost employability, and by extension their place in the world. However, the culling of ‘unemployable’ or ‘uneducable’ accents is an unnecessary step in extending a society which already condemns disadvantaged cultures of social class and ethnicity, risking erasing entire forms of communication and severing the links people have to their family history. With many regional accents gradually homogenising, it appears younger generations of working-class people will struggle to connect or empathise with their family histories, finding vernacular to be no longer a point of similarity but of alienation. For many working-class young people aspiring to university, the pursuit of academia already separates them from family members who may rather encourage them towards manual trades instead. Speaking different dialects to improve their prospects can only exacerbate this, forcing some to choose between their own professional livelihood and their bonds with their family and past.
Discrimination by accent comes as another social barrier to the racism, classism and financial hardship already faced by those who may experience it. For those who exceed expectations in spite of these factors, the war on dialect continues. Regardless of where and how people learn their manner of speaking, their vocabulary or even their sentence structure, there are still associations made between class, race and speech, with many middle-class-accented black people being referred to as ‘sounding white’, a dangerous conflation placing value on not just an accent itself, but the aspects of identity stereotyped alongside it.
It is imperative to make space for various dialects and accents in educational and professional settings
The conflict between an individual’s aspirations and their background may result in them manipulating their dialect and accent to help them go further. Unfortunately, doing this poses a risk of losing a connection to their personal and familial history, which is irreplaceable. In youth, it is easy to be blinded by ambition, or even motivated purely by fear of falling behind, so the damage can be done even before the opportunity to reflect arises.
As I get older, I look increasingly to my past, hoping to learn more about the working-class history of my family rather than disregarding it as I did before in pursuit of educational success. My own accent, which is somewhere towards the RP end of estuary, is no longer malleable, and I will always benefit from it while feeling a curious sense of guilt for its inconsistency with my sense of self. It is imperative to make space for various dialects and accents in educational and professional settings which normally exclude them, but this will not be attained without a serious societal examination of how we assign value to those who deviate from a hegemonic standard.
Featured image via Pikrepo
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