Wednesday, March 3, 1999 Published at 18:30 GMT
Speaking out for regional accents
Eliza Doolittle found that accent and identity are intinsically linked
By BBC News Online's Liz Doig
The man in charge of pronunciation for the Oxford English Dictionary is a Brummie.
Gently-accented Professor Clive Upton, of Leeds University, says the Liverpool-born novelist's recent comments "fly in the face of common sense".
Not content with scooping the WHSmith literary award for her novel Master Georgie, the 64-year-old railed against regional accents as she picked up her £10,000 prize.
Her scornful voice is not a lonely one. Research has shown that while a person may look smart and presentable, and be qualified up to the eyeballs, speaking with a Birmingham or Liverpool accent will make them less acceptible to potential employers.
And woe betide Brummies protesting their innocence.
Psychologists in 1997 conducted tests which suggested inhabitants of the UK's second city were twice as likely to be perceived as guilty of crime - purely on the strength of their accent.
"Diversity in regional accents is like diversity in cuisine or clothing," says Michael Tooley, professor of applied English linguistics at Birmingham University.
Mr Upton agrees. "What we say is who we are. We are talking about our identities when we talk about our accents."
Accent, he says, is not only an indicator of regional provenance, but a communication tool in itself.
"We accommodate other people's accents as we talk, and that sends subtle social signals to the person we are talking to.
"The other thing is that it is a very 'Little Englander' thing to say. There are 60 million English speakers in this country - but there are 1.5 billion speakers of English worldwide."
Yet gut prejudice over regional accent prevails.
A few words about quick brown foxes, or putting one's foot in a butcher's bucket, still provide enough raw data to wedge any given speaker firmly into a stereotyped slot.
Marketing types love to cash in on prejudices against regional accents.
"Why is it that Coleman's can give a big fat pig a Birmingham accent?" asks Mr Upton.
Or that the light-fingered are inevitably portrayed as Liverpudlians?
Mr Tooley says some attitudes stem from history.
While the monied hob-nobbed around cosmopolitan London, the Black Country got grimy producing the country's wealth, and perhaps as a consequence, its citizens were regarded as dull.
Mr Upton is more direct: "It's because there are Beryl Bainbridges around perpetuating the idea that RP is a superior accent. RP is in fact very much an upstart accent."
But regional accents can do their speakers favours. Irish accents, for example, as well as softly-spoken Scottish accents, are perceived as reliable and dependable.
According to separate research in 1997, a Celtic burr is an absolute winner on the job-seeking front.
The danger, said Mr Upton, is that people might feel obliged to lose their accents rather than their prejudices.
The nature of language, and of accents, is for them to change, he said.
Senior Lecturer of Modern Languages at the University of Kent, Paul Coggle, described how Estuary English had now spread to most of South-East England.
"It is a normal thing for accents to do," he said. "You would really be wasting your time in any attempt to steer accents and make everyone speak the same way."
Some of the snobbery surrounding language use and accents has disappeared.
Mastering the clipped tones of upper middle class English was a crucial career move for ITN's Trevor McDonald.
But younger presenters including the BBC's Brummie Adrian Chiles and Welsh Huw Edwards have not had to go all Chumley -Warner to get ahead in the game. Edwards is soon to take over as the main presenter of BBC One's Six O'Clock News.
The OED is now expanding the range of pronunciation it encompasses as RP. A north-of-the-Watford-Gap bath is equally acceptable as a southern "barth".
"The answer is to kick against these people who think their own narrow little perceptions of how things should be are correct," says Mr Upton. "You should not pander to them."