Accent, identity and prejudice
Accents are everywhere. Your accent tells a listener a lot about you. Patterns in your speech provide information about your biological make-up, social class, ethnicity, geographical origin, even how you are currently feeling physically and emotionally.
In fact, we cannot speak without providing this type of social information, as “the interweaving of socio-phonetic and linguistic information in speech is so complete that no natural human utterance can offer linguistic information without simultaneously indexing one or more social factor[s]” (Foulkes & Docherty, 2006). But what do we mean by the term accent and how might your accent affect your life prospects?
Accent and Sociophonetic Variation
Accent refers to the sound patterns that speakers produce when they speak, and it is in this sense that we all have an accent. Our accent is how we express ourselves as individuals; it helps us quite literally voice our identity. The term accent needs to be distinguished from dialect; accents exhibit variation in pronunciation only, whereas dialects also include differences in grammar and vocabulary. In common parlance, however, accent is usually used to indicate a way of speaking that is different from either a socially prestigious accent, such as a regional accent or sociolect, or from a local way of pronouncing language, such as a non-native accent (Derwing & Munro, 2009).
The features of speech that are affected by accentual variation, so-called sociophonetic variables, include segments, i.e., how we produce vowels and consonants, as well as differences in stress, rhythm, intonation, and voice quality. Foulkes and Docherty (2006) define sociophonetic features as
“variable aspects of phonetic or phonological structure in which alternative forms correlate with social factors. These factors include most obviously those social categories which have been examined extensively by sociolinguists and dialectologists: speaker gender, age, ethnicity, social class, group affiliations, geographical origin, and speaking style.”
Many of these features can only be controlled to a limited degree, if at all. Speakers have little control of biologically-determined features. A good example here is the pitch of our voice. Whilst we can change the habitual pitch of our voice and how much of our pitch range we use, we are biologically constrained in this by the size of our larynx (voice box) and the mass of our vocal folds. A larger larynx containing more massive vocal folds results in deeper lower pitched voices, making male voices lower than female ones. As such pitch can function as a social index of biological sex.
Features which we can control are those that are socially-determined and therefore learnt. For example, research has shown that different languages exploit speakers’ natural pitch ranges in different ways; female speakers of German use lower pitch, a narrower pitch range, and have less pronounced changes in pitch throughout the utterance when compared to female British English speakers (Mennen, Schaeffler, & Docherty, 2012). These patterns are learnt and are indeed shown to be approximated by second language (L2) learners. For example, in the speech of native first language (L1) German and L2 English bilinguals (Mennen, Schaeffler, & Dickie, 2014). Variation in pitch patterns throughout the utterance have been identified as an index to mental well-being, where depressive mental states are marked by a monotone pitch with little or no variation (Breznitz, 1992). Consequently, an English native speaker with limited knowledge of German listening to a German speaking German may incorrectly assume that the speaker is upset or unhappy, as has indeed happened within my German-English family circle.
Regional variation is also learnt. A well-known example of British English regional variation is the distinction between varieties used in Northern England (NE) and Southern England (SE) in relation to the pronunciation of the so-called STRUT vowel (Wells, 1982). In NE, the vowel in bus, hut and put is pronounced with the same vowel that occurs in the word foot /ʊ/, exhibiting a FOOT-STRUT vowel merger. However, in SE a separate additional vowel phoneme /ʌ/, so that the vowel in foot is pronounced differently from the vowel in bus, hut, and put. The use of the FOOT vowel in words such as bus, hut and put will immediately identify the speaker as hailing from Northern England. Associated with this is variation indicating social class and to some degree social context, as FOOT-STRUT merger is often no present in the speech of more mobile educated speakers who instead use a vowel realisation more compliant with the more prestigious southern English accent is used (Strycharczuk, Brown, Leemann, & Britain, 2019; Wells, 1982). It is important to note at this point, that once a speech pattern is learnt, it is often difficult although not impossible to modify it later due to acquired constraints in perception and production.
Accent and Identity
Individuals use their linguistic experience, to construct their identity and to position themselves within the social world (Foulkes & Docherty, 2006). Having one’s own accent, or indeed accents, is part of this. Wendy Altinör’s entry “Any other” Mixed Ethnicity on the Carnegie Education blog reflects on the interconnectedness of an individual’s daily multilingual experience on their sense of ethnic identity and the frustration of not being able to represent this fully in the 2021 Census.
The example of Roma adolescents using their L2 accent to signal group affiliation is only one of many. Speakers also use their native language accents to either affiliate or distance themselves with social groups and communities of practice. In Bradford, descendants of Punjabi-speaking immigrants signal and ethnic origin by retaining some of the L2 accent features of their elders, e.g. postalveolar or retroflex tongue position of /t/ /d/ and /n/, in their own native English speech (Heselwood & McChrystal, 2000). These features, furthermore, are more common in the speech of male children. Heselwood and McChrystal (2000) speculate that the males are trying to associate more closely with their Punjabi heritage whereas girls are more likely to adopt the speech patterns of the majority community in the Bradford area. They point out female preference for more standard forms have been widely reported in the literature. Speakers also use their accents to signal sexual orientation by using more sibilant pronunciations of /s/ sounds (Munson, McDonald, DeBoe, & White, 2006) or self-identify as nerds (pro-school) or rebels (anti-school) by using different realisations of the word-final unstressed vowel in words like happy, busy, or really (Kirkham, 2015).
The importance of being able to express your identity to through your accent is perhaps most poignantly illustrated by looking at individuals who have lost their capacity to speak due to degenerative disease such as Motor Neurone Disease (MND) or may never had it due to a motor disability such as cerebral palsy. Speech Generating Devices (SGDs) can help restore individuals’ ability to communicate. Whilst this is usually a priority, users express that they also value highly functionality that permits them to have a personalised voice that is age- and gender appropriate and permits them to express their individual identity (Marshall, Hynan, & Whitworth, 2019) including regional accent. Recent media reports of the comedian ‘Lost Voice Guy’ Lee Ridley finding his Geordie accent voice have brought the issue into public attention. You can read about it in his own words here.
Judging Accents: Attractiveness
Public fascination with accents is high. Reports on the perceived attractiveness of both L1 and L2 accents are frequently reported in the media not only for English but also other languages. For example, the results of a YouGov poll ranking UK accents identifying the Birmingham accent as the ugliest and a Southern Irish accent as the most attractive one are published by the Liverpool Echo with a strong rebuttal of the ranking of Scouse as the second ugliest accent in the UK. Non-native accents are frequently included alongside native accent rankings in terms of how sexy they are. Much to my satisfaction (and admittedly surprise) my own accent has been voted sexiest for women as the daily Mirror headline announces: German Accent Voted Sexiest by British Blokes - But Women have Different Choice. The choice of sexiest accent for men of the women taking part in the poll was a Scottish accent.
We also use social indices other than regional accent to judge attractiveness. When Collins (2000) asked a group of women to judge whether men were more likely to have a hairy chest on the basis of listening to an audio recording of men’s spoken vowel sounds, the women concurred in their judgments; the lower pitched the male voice the more attractive and hairier a man was judged to be. Interestingly, the actual hairiness of the manly chest bore no relationship to the women’s ratings as the pitch of the voice was not an indicator of relative chest hairiness. In this study there was also no correlation with body size and vocal pitch although this has been reported elsewhere (Evans, Neave, & Wakelin, 2006).
Judging Accents: Prejudice and Discrimination
Whilst all this polling and indeed the “hairy chest” study might be judged merely amusing, there is a much darker and more troubling side to our propensity to make assumptions about individuals based on their accents. Dixon, Mahoney, and Cocks (2002) investigated how regional accent affects judgments about guilt in a British criminal justice context using a matched-guise experiment. Their study showed that speakers with a Birmingham regional accent were much more likely to be perceived as sounding guilty than speakers with a standard accent. They also demonstrated an effect for race and type of crime, eliciting the strongest judgments of guilt for Black suspects with a Brummie accent suspected of a blue collar crime. Cantone, Martinez, Willis-Esqueda, and Miller (2019) report comparable results for a US American context which finding that judgment of guilt by jurors increased when judging Mexican American and Black American defendants as compared to White defendants. Where a defendant had what the authors described as a “stereotypical accent” the likelihood of a guilty evaluation increased.
Studies which examine the effect of both appearance, e.g. skin colour, and accent have repeatedly shown that ultimately accent has a bigger effect than appearance (Kinzler, Shutts, Dejesus, & Spelke, 2009; Paladino & Mazzurega, 2020). Adults and children are more likely to accept another person as being ‘one of us’, if they sound the same rather even if they do not look the same. Notably, processing time was greater where there was perceived inconsistency between the categories, e.g. “sounds the same but looks different” or vice versa (Paladino & Mazzurega, 2020). Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that race and accent discrimination are closely correlated and stated issues of accent intelligibility are often used as a cover for race discrimination (Derwing & Munro, 2009).
Speech patterns thus function as an effective way of identifying perceived outsiders (Derwing & Munro, 2009). In particular, speakers with non-native accents have been reported to be more prone to a sense of not-belonging (Gluszek & Dovidio, 2010), to be subjected to harassment (Derwing & Munro, 2009), and to be judged more negatively by managers in the workplace (Russo, Islam, & Koyuncu, 2017) with predictable consequences for their mental health, behaviour, and quality of life. Furthermore, there is evidence that native speakers invest less effort in understanding foreign-accented speech, due to a subconscious assumption that the speaker will be difficult to understand (Derwing & Munro, 2009); a self-fulfilling prophecy of communicative failure.
Accent features of speech provide the listener with a plethora of social information which results in often automatic assumptions about the speaker which may in many cases have a negative effect of the life prospects and well-being of the speaker. Unconscious bias to speech patterns is a form of linguistic discrimination. As accent identifies us as belonging to one or other social group, it is inextricably linked to other forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism, classism, etc. It is important to raise awareness of how we react to as well as interact and communicate with people who speak with an accent that marks them out as being ‘other’ or ‘not one of us’. As listeners we share responsibility to ensure successful communication whatever the social context.
Breznitz, Z. (1992). Verbal indicators of depression. The Journal of general psychology, 119(4), 351-363.
Cantone, J. A., Martinez, L. N., Willis-Esqueda, C., & Miller, T. (2019). Sounding guilty: How accent bias affects juror judgments of culpability. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 17(3), 228-253. doi:10.1080/15377938.2019.1623963
Collins, S. A. (2000). Men's voices and women's choices. Animal behaviour, 60(6), 773-780. Retrieved from http://webhost.lclark.edu/clifton/behav/Discuss4b.PDF
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Dixon, J. A., Mahoney, B., & Cocks, R. (2002). Accents of Guilt?:Effects of Regional Accent, Race, and Crime Type on Attributions of Guilt. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 21(2), 162-168. doi:10.1177/02627x02021002004
Evans, S., Neave, N., & Wakelin, D. (2006). Relationships between vocal characteristics and body size and shape in human males: an evolutionary explanation for a deep male voice. Biological psychology, 72(2), 160-163.
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Gluszek, A., & Dovidio, J. F. (2010). Speaking With a Nonnative Accent: Perceptions of Bias, Communication Difficulties, and Belonging in the United States. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 29(2), 224-234. doi:10.1177/0261927X09359590
Heselwood, B., & McChrystal, L. (2000). Gender, accent features and voicing in Panjabi-English bilingual children. Leeds Working Papers in Linguistics and Phonetics, 8(1), 45-70.
Kinzler, K. D., Shutts, K., Dejesus, J., & Spelke, E. S. (2009). Accent trumps race in guiding children's social preferences. Social cognition, 27(4), 623-634. doi:10.1521/soco.2009.27.4.623
Kirkham, S. (2015). Intersectionality and the social meanings of variation: Class, ethnicity, and social practice. Language in Society, 44(5), 629-652. Retrieved from https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/77DC6A075F9CA2E33CA14DC933C729A5/S0047404515000585a.pdf/div-class-title-intersectionality-and-the-social-meanings-of-variation-class-ethnicity-and-social-practice-div.pdf
Marshall, S., Hynan, A., & Whitworth, N. (2019). Perceptions of people who use AAC about the potential of speech-generating devices to express identity. Communication Matters Journal, 33(3), 38-40. Retrieved from https://www.communicationmatters.org.uk/app/uploads/2019/10/cmj_vol_32_no_3.pdf
Mennen, I., Schaeffler, F., & Dickie, C. (2014). Second language acquisition of pitch range in German learners of English. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 36(2), 303-329. doi:10.1017/S0272263114000023
Mennen, I., Schaeffler, F., & Docherty, G. (2012). Cross-language differences in fundamental frequency range: A comparison of English and German. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 131(3), 2249-2260.
Munson, B., McDonald, E. C., DeBoe, N. L., & White, A. R. (2006). The acoustic and perceptual bases of judgments of women and men's sexual orientation from read speech. Journal of Phonetics, 34(2), 202-240. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wocn.2005.05.003
Paladino, M. P., & Mazzurega, M. (2020). One of Us: On the Role of Accent and Race in Real-Time In-Group Categorization. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 39(1), 22-39. doi:10.1177/0261927x19884090
Russo, M., Islam, G., & Koyuncu, B. (2017). Non-native accents and stigma: How self-fulfilling prophesies can affect career outcomes. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 507-520.
Strycharczuk, P., Brown, G., Leemann, A., & Britain, D. (2019). Investigating the foot-strut distinction in northern Englishes using crowdsourced data. Paper presented at the Proceedings of ICPHS.
Wells, J. C. (1982). Accents of English: The British Isles: Cambridge Univ Pr.
Dr Nicole Whitworth is Head of Subject for Languages in the Carnegie School of Education. Her academic background is Linguistics and Phonetics. She specialises in first and second language acquisition of speech and the teaching of phonetics and pronunciation.