If you are one of those people who likes to imitate someone’s regional accent, you need to stop. Last week, I was at a social event with one of the university’s societies. Another guest, who I happened to be speaking with, decided that he would entertain us with a commentary on one of his “friends” who has a “ridiculous North-East accent”. If that wasn’t enough, he then proceeded to give us a performance of that very accent. Unsurprisingly, it was a horrendous imitation. The lower vowel sounds and the short “a”s clanged against his cut-glass drawl, and the whole thing was a bit of a mess.
But it was yet another time, here at Oxford, when I have encountered someone with Received Pronunciation (RP, also known as the ‘Queen’s English’) taking it upon themselves to imitate or comment on a regional accent. Whether it was in Freshers’ Week, or at different events over these last few terms of my first year, different reactions to my regional accent have inevitably arisen. If you have ever had someone give you an impression of your own accent, you will know that it is a tedious experience. The fascination with a regional accent, usually from someone who has been educated privately, is a remarkable thing to experience sixteen years into the twenty-first century. Yet it represents a more systemic problem found at Oxbridge and a lot of other high-achieving universities. The mockery of regional accents is seen as a bit of humour, an icebreaker, a light topic of conversation. To a lot of RP-speaking, private-school students, it has never been anything else.
Well, let me tell you that it is something else. Regionalism is a socio-economic phenomenon, namely when certain characteristics, often linguistic and cultural, are attached to a specific geographical area. In the UK, it can refer to dialects and accents that differ from the “standard” form, RP. This can be seen in the low-sounding vowels of the Yorkshire accent or the slang that features in typical Geordie dialect. Glass rhymes with gas, not farce. What this means is that the RP accent is not regional in any meaningful descriptive sense. Yes, it can be traced to the South, and more specifically to the Home Counties; but it has been portrayed historically as the English accent – the proper form of the language. That portrayal is completely outdated and ignorant. There is no “standard” English accent. Instead, there are those from Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Lincoln, Somerset, Cornwall, alongside many other places. So, why does there remain an expectation that some accents are “odd”, a novelty even, whilst some represent “how it is supposed to be”?
The answer to this question can be found in the arena of elitism and classism. For instance, it is an economic fact that there is substantial pay inequality between the North and areas like the South East. The Mirror reported that the median salary in the North East was around £24,000 in 2013, whilst it was significantly above the national average in the South East and London, peaking at £35,000. Obviously, this highlights a considerable monetary difference: areas typically associated with RP appear much wealthier than those assigned the “regional accent” tag. Traditionally, those with the money have had the power, and those classes have instilled the fallacy that RP is somehow the superior form.
RP is also attached to the “Old Boys’ Network” and the private-school bubble that has plagued Oxbridge for so long. Thinking of it as the “proper way to speak” is, in itself, a form of elitism. It perpetuates the class structures that we should be eradicating. More than that, it showcases breath-taking immaturity. When a child encounters something unusual to them or “strange”, their first reaction is often to mock that thing. A 20-year-old whose family has paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for their education (and now attends one of the highest-ranking universities in the world) should not behave like a child. The only response is a simple one: grow up.
“It works the other way round, too!” you might say. It doesn’t. The connotations attached to RP include privilege, wealth, correctness and intellect. On the down side, you have the labels of being “posh” or “stuck-up”. Suffice to say, it could be a lot worse. Your accent could be linked to poverty, a lack of education and unintelligence. It could stop people thinking of you in an intellectual or professional way. Or it could have had a negative impact on an interview process for schooling or for a job, all because you pronounce “class” with a short “a”. Somehow, the connotations of regional accents being “sincere” and “friendly” do not seem to offer much solace. Mocking an RP accent does not have the same detrimental impact as doing your best impression of someone from Yorkshire. The latter is just insulting.
The point is, mimicking and degrading someone’s regional accent is equivalent to deriding a person for their minority skin colour or their gender identity. Here in Oxford, it is very easy to ignore that fact, simply because people with regional accents are in the minority. A huge portion of Oxford is, unfortunately, still dominated by Southern (mostly London-centric), private-school students. Plus, a lot of people with regional accents, especially as a fresher, don’t want to shut down mockery in fear of losing friends or coming off as uptight and unable to “take a joke”. But that mockery does need to be shut down. So, when Freshers’ Week comes around again later this year, don’t comment on a regional accent if you hear one – I can guarantee that you’re the one who will sound stupid.