How accent prejudice reproduces inequalities

  • Date

    Fri 11 Jun 21

portait photo of Dr Amanda Cole

New research by University of Essex finds that accent prejudice is rife among the young in south east England.

The survey is an important piece of research as it looks at how people are judged based on their accent and how this relates to their class, ethnicity and where they are from.

In the paper to be published in the Journal of Linguistic Geography, Dr Amanda Cole, postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Language and Linguistics, reveals how people make biased assessment of others based only on their accent.

She said: “We are all diverse and we need diversity in accents. No-one should feel that they have to forsake their accent to get along better in life.

“In England we all feel deep in our gut that there is a correct way of speaking English because of standard language ideologies which have been centuries in the making. It is no coincidence that the accent which we think of as being neutral and correct is that which is most often spoken by the social and political elite. We live in a vicious cycle in which the most privileged speak with the most esteemed accent and so are judged as the most competent and intelligent which helps them maintain their privilege. This way of thinking is so pervasive that it goes completely unchallenged.”

The report finds working-class people were judged to be less intelligent, friendly and trustworthy than middle-class people when reading aloud the same sentence. People from ethnic minority backgrounds were evaluated by survey participants as less intelligent than white people solely based on their accents.

These negative judgements were compounded if the person was from Essex or East London. In contrast, people from south west London and much of the western home counties tended to be evaluated positively. In addition, women were evaluated by the participants in the survey as being marginally less intelligent but more friendly and trustworthy than men according to the sound of their voice.

194 young people from South East England were played 10-second clips of other young people from South East England reading aloud the same sentence. Those listening to the clips didn’t know anything about the backgrounds of the people they were listening to. For each person they heard, the participants were asked to make judgements about how friendly, intelligent and trustworthy they thought the person sounded.

The results of the survey shows that people from Essex, London, those who are working-class and/or from an ethnic minority background were judged by participants as less intelligent – and to a lesser extent, less friendly and trustworthy.

Of particular interest in the survey is the self-bias effect discovered by Dr Cole. This means that working-class people also judged other working-class people to be less intelligent than they judged middle-class people to be. In addition, people from an ethnic minority background perceived white people to be the most intelligent group based on their accent. These findings demonstrate how ingrained attitudes and prejudices against these accents, and by implication against these communities, have become.

She explains: “Prejudice towards an accent nearly always reflects societal prejudices towards the groups that speak with that accent. For instance, if an accent is considered to be lazy, sloppy or incoherent, we often find that this reflects the way that the speakers of that accent are perceived. When we hear someone speak we can often infer something about their background. This is because the way we speak reflects who we are. Accents are an indicator of where we are from, our social class and our ethnicity, as well as many other factors. There is no default accent, just as there is no default human being.”

Dr Cole says her research findings are part of the first step towards challenging the concept that there is a correct way of speaking. With awareness of accent prejudice may come ways of challenging it.

This research, Disambiguating language attitudes held towards socio-demographic groups and geographic areas in South East England is published in the Journal of Linguistic Geography published by Cambridge University Press.