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Photography Roxy Lee

What’s in an accent? How class hierarchy enacts its power through voice

With deep-rooted class prejudices still in the national consciousness, people are feeling the pressure to change their accents in the workplace

In our new Class Ceiling series, we unpack how class actually affects young people today – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general experience of the world.

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” – George Bernard Shaw

It takes just 30 milliseconds of speech – the time needed to say ‘hello’ – for us to identify someone’s background as being the same or different from our own. Whether we are speaking our native language or a foreign one, we all have an accent and it ties us to our identity – a sonic record that holds (and announces to all listeners) our history, traces our geography and, in the UK, places us firmly within a social class.

More so than even race, accents have been found to be the strongest indicator we have when determining whether someone belongs to our “group”. In a 2009 study, Professor Kinzler observed that five-year-old children would choose same-race children as friends when those children were silent, but chose other-race children with a similar accent when presented with the option.  

“Voice is such a powerful signal of so many different things because it includes all this information that we don’t necessarily read off people’s faces,” says Erez Levon, professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Bern and the principle investigator for the Accent Bias in Britain project. As well as information about where you are from, Dr Levon says we pick up on personality traits associated with different accents: for example, Northerns are often thought of as friendly. “Accent becomes a very convenient, quick signal for lots of social information.” 

Since the mid-18th century when the discipline of elocution took hold, we have used accents as signifiers for positive and negative characteristics, from competence to sneakiness. These assumptions are deeply ingrained in the British psyche: for many years, the BBC only allowed received pronunciation (RP) – aka the Queen’s English – on its airwaves. While those days are behind us now, the influence lives on: despite less than three per cent of the population speaking with an RP accent, a 2013 poll found that people believe RP and Devon accents to be the most trustworthy and intelligent. Liverpudlian and Cockney ranked the least.

These prejudices have real-life implications. In a criminal justice context, accents influence everything from eyewitness statements to sentencing – speakers with a regional Birmingham accent were much more likely to be perceived as sounding guilty than those with a more ‘neutral’ accent. Meanwhile, in the workplace, 80 per cent of employers admit to making discriminating decisions based on regional accents.

“There is a strong hierarchy of accent preferences,” says Dr Levon. The first study done by the Accent Bias in Britain project focused on hiring in the legal sector and found that speakers of certain accents were seen by both recruiters and the general public as less likely to be successful and less qualified even if they had the same qualifications as those deemed more successful. Southeastern working-class accents – both estuary English and multicultural London English – were judged as the least qualified to be solicitors. And while the pattern was strongest among older white middle-class listeners, even those who themselves had working-class backgrounds reported similar results. “It’s such a strong stereotype, such a strong norm in Britain that it causes everyone to report that kind of feeling,” says Dr Levon.

It’s unsurprising, then, that almost half of the British public are conscious of how their accents make them appear at work and over a quarter (28 per cent) of people change their accent in the workplace to seem more professional. A high profile example of this is former prime minister Margaret Thatcher who, alongside deepening the pitch of her voice, swapped her Lincolnshire accent for something more posh. 

Ten years later, privileged public schoolboy Tony Blair went the opposite way, slipping into a “mockney” estuary accent in an effort to seem more relatable and approachable to Labour voters. “In a country obsessed with accent, Blair’s obvious shift downward was a sign of the times,” wrote the New York Times who also quoted lecturer in linguistics Paul Kerswill as saying of Blair, “I think he wants to be cool.” This sentiment will ring true to anyone who has spent even a brief amount of time with private school boys who, as a general rule, love to adopt roadman accents to gain street cred and social clout – think Daniel Kaluuya’s Posh Kenneth in Skins swapping his plummy accent for Patois slang.

“It became glaringly obvious that if I wanted to succeed, I’d really have to tone [my accent] down,” – Amber*

Sarah*, who is in her 20s and works in PR, found herself adopting a posh Chelsea accent when she got her first job as a PR assistant on the King’s Road. Feeling like she was “bottom of the pile” and “petrified” that she would be discriminated against because of her background, she dropped her “builder dad’s working-class way of speaking” for something she deemed more stereotypically posh that would help her fit in. “Think Made in Chelsea,” she says. “Long drawn out vowel sounds and enunciating each and every ‘T’. I even started to say things like ‘darling’.” 

Amber* first became aware of her accent when she went to university in another Scottish city. “I’d get references all the time to how I spoke, things like ‘oh Dundee, you must be rough’ or ‘god, I wouldn’t step foot there.’” But it was when she moved to London after graduation to pursue a career in fashion, that she realised she would have to change her accent. “It became glaringly obvious that if I wanted to succeed, I’d really have to tone it down,” she says. “It was the looks, the screwed up faces and asking me to repeat myself numerous times.”

Amber says she has seen first-hand from her experiences in fashion and wellness how accents like hers are perceived, particularly in fashion where many of her bosses were white middle or upper-class men. “People hear a strong, working-class Scottish accent and make an assumption around education, skill and ability,” she says.

Voice coach Sylvie Lui often comes up against these kinds of assumptions in her job. As a Canadian, Lui says she was surprised by how “very, very aware” of class people in the UK are and has had clients who have been sent to her by their employers to change their accent. “The people who get sent to me usually have a very big loss of confidence because they have been told the way they are speaking is not enough,” she says.

In her work, Lui tries to help her clients communicate more effectively without changing their natural sound. “When we change our sound, we change our identity,” she says. “You can’t just change your accent and not feel like you're somebody else.”

This was the experience A.M.*, who grew up in West London, found after her ‘posh’ accent started being mocked when she started secondary school. “It made me insecure as a young Black girl in a predominantly Muslim, ethnic-minority school to sounds like what the other girls were referring to as a ‘white-girl’ voice,” she says. Tired of being called ‘coconut’ and ‘oreo’, she “roughed” her accent up and started using slang. Never feeling comfortable in the change, however, A.M. returned to her natural accent towards the end of school. 

Sarah, too, has returned to her more natural voice and now feels that, looking back, adopting the Chelsea accent was unnecessary in her situation. She does still believe, however, that RP is generally more trusted in the workplace and working-class accents aren’t taken as seriously. 

Looking at the statistics and research from projects like Accent Bias in Britain it’s clear there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to exorcising the biases in this country’s psyche. So deeply embedded in our culture are these accent prejudices that people have come to internalise prejudice against their own accents. “I’m a little ashamed to admit,” Amber says, “if a yoga teacher comes in speaking in a really strong accent or using certain slang words I feel myself judging them for being ‘unprofessional’. I know it’s based on my experiences from moving to London and confirming to a certain voice.”

Dr Levon’s work in the law firms, he says, however, has shown that recruiters can set accent bias aside and overcome prejudice when sufficiently motivated to do so, and Sarah remains optimistic. “Now, having more experience under my belt and feeling more confident in myself and my abilities, I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter how I speak,” she says. “It’s about what I say.”