It was the first time I’d spoken up.
I’d sat in seminars for five weeks at university, putting my head down whenever the tutor made eye contact, hoping they’d spare me the embarrassment of speaking. They might have been disappointed but their eyes soon glazed over. They returned their attention to the boys who were using the lesson as their personal debate club.
I’ll just say it: At first, I found my English course at Leeds pretentious, inaccessible and boring. Thoughts of quitting university dominated my waking hours.
And then just over a month into my first year, I pepped up after attending a lecture on accents. Hearing about the way we judge regional accents and dialects in Britain – a country still steeped in its class system – piqued my interest.
That interest soon boiled over into anger. I started to see what I had written off as freshers’ teething problems in a new light. I thought of how my flatmate repeatedly corrected the way I said "bath" as "baθ" or the time someone called my hometown of Hull a "shithole" when they were flirting with me at a house party.
"I’m from an hour down the road yet people act like they’re astounded to find a northerner here," I told the room. "I have a Hull accent. Why is my accent and my way of saying things any less valid than someone else’s?"
It was quiet for a while. Someone laughed. "Well," the seminar tutor said. "Let’s ask everyone if they can understand you first."
As an island nation obsessed with class, we Brits have an interesting relationship with accents. Alarmists, including academics, love to warn that the end of regional accents is nigh, but the UK’s accent diversity has been the largest of any country for hundreds of years. The UK is home to an estimated 40 different dialects alone according to language teachers Education First.
Britain’s colonial history made the English language ripe for export and there are an estimated 160 dialects – styles of grammar, words and phrasing – of English around the world.
Yet out of all the dialects and accents we have, one spoken by just 3% of the UK population sits pride of place: Received Pronunciation (RP). The RP accent, believed to have originated in public schools and universities of 19th-century Britain, was the speech style of the social elite and the media for most of the 20th century.
Since the formation of RP, the link between accent and class has become entrenched. The notion is that educated people speak in RP while other accents are conflated with impropriety, poor education and even low intelligence. Think about the then-scandalous 1938 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H.Lawrence. A regional Nottinghamshire dialect was used by Lawrence whenever sex was discussed.
Prejudice persists. Last month, BBC broadcaster Alex Scott was told she needed "elocution lessons" by House of Lords peer Lord Digby Jones. He tweeted that her east London accent "spoilt" the Olympics coverage. When she responded that she was "proud of her accent", the politician retorted that she was "playing the working class card".
While many called out Digby for his remarks, the event epitomised the grim reality for many women with non-RP accents in the UK today who, despite their best efforts, face bias in their professional, social and romantic lives because of the way that they speak. Sociolinguist Deborah Cameron said the sexist treatment of regionally accented women is "not primarily about gender: it has more to do with status."
"In formal contexts, higher status people tend to talk more than lower status ones. Gender enters into this indirectly, because in most institutions the highest status positions are still far more likely to be occupied by men.”
It is well documented that well-spoken men in positions of power undermine women by accusing them of speaking incorrectly. Boris Johnson once remarked that he couldn’t understand Sky News political editor Beth Rigby, who has what she describes as an "estuary English" accent, sparking outrage.
Alleyne* experienced accent discrimination in her first week at an office job when she was 19.
The Barnsley native moved to London for the internship of a lifetime but said she felt intimidated “working around people who all seemed to have more ‘refined’ accents” than her.
“I’m quite a loud person but at the time I was young and very nervous,” the 25-year-old tells me. “I tried to chat to people on my desk but when people blanked me or didn’t reply, I started to feel jumpy.”
“At one point, my manager asked me a question and called me over to their desk.”
“When I went over, I caught a glance of her Google chat messenger app ripping into how broad my accent was.”
Holly shares a similar baptism of fire story about moving to the capital when she met with execs ahead of securing a Sony record deal at the age of 19.
“I was young, nervous and fresh out of Newcastle,” the 36-year-old former musician recalls. “I allowed my manager to do the initial intro but then when I spoke I was met with ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t believe that accent was real!’”
An audition for a major Hollywood director turned sour when management made her attend elocution lessons beforehand. “The part required me to speak in an American accent,” she reflects.
The Geordie tells me that her accent has been used many times to “belittle” or make her appear "other"– something she says is as frequent as it is ''boring”.
“Before I came to London, my dad told me I had no need to be ashamed of my roots, I can just enunciate and slow down,” Holly says. “I internally marked that exec down as a dickhead who should be pitied for clearly having never left his bubble, or turning on a TV.”
It is well documented that well-spoken men in positions of power undermine women by accusing them of speaking incorrectly.
For 26 year-old Zoé*, who speaks English as her second language, it was her Hungarian accent that became the talk of her acting training.
“My one-to-one acting tutorials focused on my accent for the whole term. I was educated to ‘not sound foreign’ as I ‘won’t get any jobs like that,’” she recalls.
“Even if I can do an RP accent for a role, as soon as people learn I'm foreign, they won't want to cast me or they start treating me differently.”
“I’d met someone who didn’t realise I was foreign until I told them. After that, they corrected me twice and spoke to me like I was dumb. The change was unbelievable,” she adds.
Zoé thinks the UK “has a massive issue with the class system.”
“They hold onto it to an incredible amount, and regional accents are put in boxes of ex-miners and 'funny'' Northerners,” she explains. “Other accents are just nonexistent, even in TV shows set in London where first generation migrants make up 39% of the city. Things have to change.”
Accent bias is also interwoven with racist attitudes – whether insidious or explicit. For Binita*, the discrimination she faces for the way she speaks has racist implications.
The 24-year-old from India interviewed for a communications job in Hertfordshire but after she spoke to the manager on the phone she was almost immediately shut down.
“I grew up in India, where I got my bachelor's in English Literature and then moved to the UK to pursue a master's degree,” she explains..
“After I graduated, I began looking for jobs in PR. During one phone interview, I was cut off before I could finish listing my experience. The interviewer, who was a director of this prestigious communications firm, commented that I was ‘obviously not fluent in English … coming from India’.”
“I cringed really hard in disgust, not so much at what she said but at the arrogance in her tone when she said it. It was most definitely my Indian accent that prompted her to make such an assumption about me,” she says.
There are also intersections with marginalised genders and the discrimination they face.
Thea* internalised negative assumptions about her accent from a young age. In an effort to ditch her “broad Fenland” voice, she began speaking in a “posh, very clipped voice” at around 8 years old.
“I was young and self-conscious,” the 30-year-old says. “I don't know where I got the idea from but I've wondered whether it was a bit aspirational. We didn't have a lot of money. We weren't destitute but my parents had five kids and a ton of '90s credit card debt.”
“I resented our situation, in the way that kids who don't understand material circumstances resent things. I thought that changing how I sounded would somehow manifest changes for me,” she adds.
The voice she adopted mimicked the trappings of upper and middle class families Thea had observed and was almost “theatrical” in nature.
“I'd say things like 'jolly good' and pedantically correct other people on their pronunciation or tell them off for swearing,” she tells me. “I sounded ridiculous but when I got bullied for it, it vindicated my idea of having somehow elevated myself.”
After shelving it for some years, the adopted accent returned when Thea transitioned.
“The way I sounded was the biggest source of discomfort and dysphoria,” she says. “The funny thing was I did the exact same thing I'd done when I was eight, put on this clipped, over-pressed voice.”
“I suppose part of it was that it was quite high-pitched but it wasn't especially feminine. It was like I was about to go into a stage show of The Princess Bride,” she jokes.
As Thea “settled down” and found her place in the world, the voice waned. Now a linguist herself, she wants to learn more about voice, class, and queer identities.
“I call it 'scholar voice' because it comes back when I get nervous in public, particularly with new people I want to impress or in an academic or a professional setting,” she adds.
While the women all agree they haven’t consciously adapted their accent as they’ve grown older, the softening of their speech has also caused confusion at home.
After I graduated, I began looking for jobs in PR. During one phone interview, I was cut off before I could finish listing my experience. The interviewer commented that I was 'obviously not fluent in English … coming from India'.
Similarly to Thea, 38 year-old Dawn* adopted a form of “code switching” by blending her native Brummie with a South Wales Valleys dialect she developed during the five years she studied and worked in the area.
The phenomenon of “code switching” is described as a process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting to fit in. It can be an attempt to “pass” in a potentially threatening environment
“While there my accent did start to change and took on a more South Wales twang. I think part of this was a subconscious effort to hide my Brummie accent and fit in more there,” Dawn says. “However, I then had the opposite problem, that when I came back to Birmingham people would joke about my accent from the Valleys.”
Likewise, Geordie Holly says people “often call me a posh Geordie in Newcastle but it’s certainly not a conscious thing.”
“My accent has softened for sure but my car still doesn’t understand me and neither does Siri, so it can’t have changed that much.”
Each of the women I interviewed may take pride in their accent and what it says about their heritage but holding onto their accents has also brought them unnecessary conflict, ridicule and hostility.
My Hull accent is alive and well – perhaps with more of a Leeds twang than it once had – and any other way of speaking is inconceivable to me. It’s an evolving encyclopaedia, intrinsically linking me to my parents, my hometown and the people and places I don’t get to visit as much as I’d like to. More than anything, it’s uniquely my own. Honouring that connection does have a cost but it’s not one I’m willing to expend to satisfy someone else’s ignorance.
We cannot overlook the fact that today in Britain we are still uncomfortable with women who are not white and RP-speaking disrupting the social order by leaving their hometowns or climbing the career ladder. As these women note, it was when they began to do all of those things that their accents started to become an issue.
Holly is defiant. She says it is always about other people's insecurity.
“My dad faced stereotypes as a man with a strong Geordie accent who has worked all around the world,” she says. “Me and my sister were brought up learning we should own who we are, understand the stereotypes and pity those who hang onto them.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities