"I’d never really thought about the way I spoke until I moved to London," says Alex, 26, from north Liverpool. "Obviously I knew I didn’t speak the Queen’s English but I didn’t think my accent was especially broad. Apparently it really is though, because if I met somebody on a night out it’d be two seconds before they were asking if I was as dirty as my accent."
When you’re surrounded by other people who sound like you, there's no reason to think about your accent. As Alex found, this makes it all the more jarring when the way you speak begins to be used against you. Depending on where you are from, accents can be used as a way to judge, reject or even sexualise you.
Negative associations with certain accents – be they regional within the UK or non-native – are known as accent bias. Dr Bronwen Evans, an associate professor in speech, hearing and phonetic sciences at UCL, tells Refinery29: "We're more likely to talk about negative biases we have towards a particular accent or voice, even though we know that people also have positive associations with different accents; they [may] find Geordies 'friendly and funny', and some Scottish accents very trustworthy."
The way these associations play out can directly impact people's lives. This is most apparent in the workplace, with several studies demonstrating there is still a clear 'accent hierarchy' in the UK. As part of the Accent Bias In Britain project, researchers at Queen Mary University of London and University of York examined public attitudes to accent 'labels' and responses to recorded voices, before looking more specifically at how accent bias plays out in professional settings. Their research showed that while there has been some reduction of bias compared to earlier studies (the distances between 'highest' and 'lowest' rated accents are smaller in their study), there is still a persistent hierarchy of accents, which penalises "non-standard working-class and ethnic accents and upholds the belief that national standard varieties are the most prestigious". This is an incredibly frustrating finding.
What about finding a partner – can accent have an effect there, too? According to Bronwen, although there is limited research into accents and dating, there is no doubt that accent has an impact on whether we find someone attractive. In 2014, YouGov ran a survey which claimed that the Birmingham accent is the 'least attractive' in the British Isles, while southern Irish is the 'most attractive'.
Rosie, 23, from Birmingham, confirms that she's received plenty of unsolicited feedback about the way she speaks and says that people have made negative comments about her accent "more times than I could count". She goes on to say that people have said her accent sounds "uneducated" or "common" and was even told "that my tone could make great news sound like terrible news. Rude!"
How has it impacted her dating life? "I have had people in the past say things like, 'You were so attractive until you opened your mouth'," although it also swings the other way: "On the other hand I’ve had people [say things] like, 'I absolutely love the Birmingham accent on a girl'." Either way, "these conversations usually end in them taking the absolute piss out of how I say 'BUURMINGUM', which I’m more than used to."
There are a few theories why some accents are considered universally attractive. "We think that accent attitudes in adults typically reflect knowledge of cultural stereotypes about different groups of individuals," Bronwen says. "However, we don't have a good understanding of how these different biases develop."
What we do know is that the way these cultural stereotypes interact is complex – we are more likely to be culturally biased against so-called 'regional' accents, for example, but we are also influenced by individual preferences and the situation in which we encounter a voice. "For instance, even within the same accent background, some voices are preferred more than others in particular situations because they are associated with certain characteristics, like women in public life might be described as 'shrill'," says Bronwen. "Famously, Margaret Thatcher had voice coaching to lower her pitch to sound more authoritative."
She goes on: "People tend to associate certain qualities or characteristics with particular accents which, in turn, impacts what we're drawn to. Standard southern British English and Received Pronunciation might be stereotyped as posh and not so friendly, but they are typically rated highly in terms of intelligence and competence. On the other hand, the Geordie accent is stereotyped as 'friendly and trustworthy' but rated lower in terms of intelligence and competence."
Rosie says that the media has exacerbated negative stereotypes about her accent. "I’ve found that characters on TV with the [Birmingham] accent have, in the past, been portrayed as dull/stupid." Since the success of Peaky Blinders, she reckons the accent has gained a little more credit but notes that it’s "still associated with the lower class". These stereotypes obviously don't hold for everyone, though; other factors, such as a family association, might override them. For instance, you might love a Glaswegian accent because it reminds you of a loved one or someone you like and admire.
Interestingly, these preferences change when applied to people from outside the UK. In a piece for The Conversation, Gerry Howley, a teaching associate in sociolinguistics at the University of Sheffield, points to the work of one PhD researcher who asked native and non-native English speakers to rate 20 different accents including southern Irish, Welsh, Liverpudlian and Birmingham. While the native English speakers followed the hierarchy outlined by the YouGov survey, the non-native speakers rated Welsh second, Brummie third, Scouse sixth and southern Irish 10th in terms of attractiveness. "The non-native English speakers also described the Birmingham accent as 'beautiful', 'cool', 'sexy', 'sweet', and 'lovely'."
This appears to suggest that it isn't the sound of an accent that makes someone appear attractive or not but rather cultural perceptions and internalised biases that lead us to subconsciously dismiss a Brummie or a Scouse person (for example). We can and should check those negative biases, and the impulse to categorise someone based on how they sound.
Happily, the study cited above shows that in the workplace it is entirely possible to resist the urge to discriminate, something that we should do in all areas of our lives. Letting our biases dictate how we treat people, whether deliberately or subconsciously, allows negative biases to flourish unchecked and leaves people feeling shitty and undesirable because of where they come from. Ultimately, an accent can bond people together. As Rosie said: "I think the bad press does rub off on how you see your accent but it’s definitely something I’ve grown to be really proud of. I feel like through all the negativity, there’s no better feeling than hearing a Birmingham accent outside of the city. It’s a bond that no one outside Birmingham can understand!"