Definition and Examples of Accent Prejudice or Accentism

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Accent prejudice is the perception that certain accents are inferior to others. Also called accentism.

In the book "Language and Region" (2006), Joan Beal notes that there are "quite a few linguists who favour legislation along the lines of banning discrimination against what they call accentism. However, it is not something that employers appear to take seriously."

Examples and Observations

"What causes a particular way of speaking to be perceived as superior is the fact that it is used by the powerful."
(Suzanne Romaine, Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 2nd ed.

Oxford University Press, 2000)

"Just as errors, both of grammar and of word choice, are condemned as simply wrong by those who wish to uphold standards, so some accents of English (e.g. Birmingham, Broad Australian) are stigmatised as ugly and uneducated. There are, of course, no intrinsic grounds for such stigmatising, any more than there are for racial prejudice. Those who see accent prejudice as solely a language problem are inclined to wax indignant, to maintain that all accents are equal (forgetting perhaps the continuation of the Animal Farm motto: but some are more equal than others). For them, therefore, there is no problem: society has the duty to behave differently and overcome its prejudices. The applied linguist, however, is likely to recognise that it is indeed a problem and that it extends beyond language, reflecting social and political (and possibly ethnic) values."
(Alan Davies, An Introduction to Applied Linguistics: From Practice to Theory, 2nd ed.

Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

"Only very rarely are foreigners or first-generation immigrants allowed to be nice people in American films. Those with an accent are bad guys."
(Max von Sydow)

Accentism in the American South

"I used to say that whenever people heard my Southern accent, they always wanted to deduct 100 IQ points."
(Jeff Foxworthy)

"The federal Department of Energy has dropped plans to give employees at a Tennessee laboratory 'Southern Accent Reduction' lessons after complaints that the class was offensive.

The lessons would have taught workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory how to 'speak with a more neutral American accent' so they could be remembered for what you say and not how you say it.'"
(The Week, August 8, 2014)

Accentism in Contemporary Britain

"Do accents still matter? Last week Dr Alexander Baratta from the University of Manchester spoke of 'accentism,' where people are discriminated against because of how they speak, and likened it to racism. In a study, he asked people why they changed their accents and how it made them feel. A third of those questioned said they were 'ashamed' about flattening out their accents. But what was the alternative? We all want to get ahead; for the most part, the best way to do that is to 'fit in.' Still, there is a price, the professor says. Facing the world with a voice that is not your own can 'undermine your sense of being.'"
(Hugh Muir, "Do Accents Matter in Modern Britain?" The Guardian, July 14, 2014)

"Received Pronunciation' (RP: traditionally the highest-status variety in England) is sometimes stigmatized. Its speakers may be perceived as 'posh' or 'snobbish' . . . and their accents as reflective of an 'elitist discoursal stance.' Young people in particular, it is suggested, are now likely to repudiate 'attitudes that sustained accent prejudice.'"
(John Edwards, Language Diversity in the Classroom.

Multilingual Matters, 2010)

"The English are the most famously accent-conscious. Do what you will--go to three different posh schools, have a duchess for a mother, get yourself educated at Cambridge, move to London--an expert will still be able to place you within a five-mile radius ('the northern side of Cricklade, I'd say') after a couple of sentences. Southerners still think Mancunians sound aggressive, Scotsmen disapproving, Liverpudlians thick, and the Welsh, Welsh.

"But it is changing. Just as languages are dying away at one a fortnight, so accents are smoothing, eliding, moving slowly towards the norm."
(Michael Bywater, Lost Worlds. Granta Books, 2004)

BBC Radio Presenter Wilfred Pickles in Praise of Accent Diversity (1949)

"While I have the greatest respect for the many achievements of the B.B.C., I believe they are guilty of trying to teach Great Britain to talk standard English.

How terrible it is to think that we may some day lose that lovely soft Devonshire accent or the bluff and very wonderful Scots brogue or the amusing flatness and forthrightness of the North-countryman's speech, or the music of the Welsh voice. May it be forbidden that we should ever speak like B.B.C. announcers, for our rich contrast of voices is a vocal tapestry of great beauty and incalculable value. Our dialects are reminders of the permanence of things in these islands of ours, where folks talk differently in places only five miles apart, a phenomenon that has its roots in the times when it took many days to ride from London to York by stage coach."
(Wilfred Pickles in Between You And Me. The Autobiography Of Wilfred Pickles, quoted by David Crystal in You Say Potato: A Book About Accents. Macmillan, 2014)