Image description: A child screams into a microphone
Killing Eve star Jodie Comer is well known for her extensive catalogue of accents. Part of the eerie charm of her character, Russian sociopath Villanelle, is how effortlessly she slips into a Scottish, German, or French dialect. This mastery of accents may have won Comer an Emmy, but it was her own accent that has nearly held her back from the beginning of her career.
Talking candidly to Glamor Unfiltered this week, Comer revealed the prejudice she had faced in her early career on account of her Scouse accent. “At so many meetings they would ask me to change my accent” she divulged, admitting that it became “ingrained” in her to adopt a more standard Received Pronunciation around new people.
Fans of Comer expressed their shock at this statement in the comments section, but as a Liverpudlian, I was unsurprised. I have always known that my accent carried negative connotations and have come to believe that to be taken seriously, I would have to ‘tone it down’. The next suggested video, endearingly titled ‘Jamie Carragher [Liverpool-born ex-footballer] Butchers the English Language’ just confirmed my sentiment. Britain’s strange obsession with the one, narrow, way of speaking English is damaging and closed-minded.
Lucky as I was to receive a practice interview before my Oxford application, the first thing I asked my teacher was “should I get rid of my accent?” I had grown up believing that no one, not least an institution as exclusive as Oxford, would see through my voice. The scouse accent is dirty; grating on the ears, denoting a lack of class, a lack of intelligence.
Britain’s strange obsession with the one, narrow, way of speaking English is damaging and closed-minded.
I’d been trained for this moment since birth. My mum could do nothing about me adopting the accent which my entire family spoke with, but she made sure to correct my dropped ‘g’s and hard ‘e’s, urging me to “speak nicely, speak properly.” I was Liverpool’s Eliza Doolittle, the rest of the world my Henry Higgins: teaching me the hard truth that people will not listen to what I say unless I say it in the correct way.
Think what you want about my accent. Jodie, Jamie, and I have fought our way up with our Scouse-ness intact. However, I urge the people of Britain (or, perhaps, England) to think on about just why they find certain accents so comedic, so unprofessional. This is by no means a problem exclusive to Liverpudlians. The Scouse accent might be particularly coarse, but any accent beyond the standard RP of the South East is subject to some level of prejudice. Why, for example, is it so unusual for a proud Mancunian, with an accent to match, to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party? Surely the supposed party of the North is rife with the regional dialects of Angela Rayner and co.?
The ‘Fiery Scot’, the ‘stupid Brummie’ and, of course, the ‘thieving Scouser’ are all well-known stock characters of British folklore and by themselves are perhaps not a problem. However, the British obsession with the ‘Queen’s English’ is entrenched in our society. In Britain, Received Pronunciation is synonymous with eloquence, with gravitas, with intelligence. It is the language of Parliament, of the BBC, of British institutions at the heart of our nation. Implicitly, it is the ‘true’ version of English. Any other accent or dialect is therefore corrupt, bastardised and wrong.
‘My mum made sure to correct my dropped ‘g’s and hard ‘e’s, urging me to “speak nicely, speak properly.”
The purity culture surrounding the English language grows more insidious when combined with Britain’s own brand of racism and xenophobia. By implying that a ‘true Englishmen’ speaks with an RP accent, immigrant communities are excluded from the very idea of Britishness. More than that, the accented English of immigrants and ethnic minorities becomes associated with unintelligence, criminality, and general ‘otherness’ (the irony, of course, is that most immigrants to the UK are speaking their second or third language – which is more than can be said of the majority of the native population). Accent purity is not just an addition to Britain’s brand of racism and xenophobia, but an integral part of it.
The full spectrum of the English language deserves to be represented in British culture. This does not just mean tolerance for those accents that you find ‘sexy’ or ‘cute’, but a full acknowledgement that there is no one form of ‘proper’ English. It is important to remember that Received Pronunciation is itself just an accent, rather than a natural, default way of speaking. Accents are part of who we are. They are how we express ourselves, how we understand the world, how we relate to one another.
Accent purity is not just an addition to Britain’s brand of racism and xenophobia, but an integral part of it.
I would tell you to look beyond how someone speaks and instead listen to what they say, but this is counterproductive. Accents and dialects are part of how people communicate and so to ignore them is to ignore a whole aspect of meaning and of personal identity. Accented English is eloquent. Accented English is articulate. And crucially, it is beautiful.
Image credit: Jason Rosewell