Accent Softening.

Daniel Lavelle writes for the Guardian about the “accent softening taster session” he’s attending with Jamie Chapman (“the Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle”) at the London Speech Workshop:

I visit Chapman because, since I moved from Manchester to London two years ago, I have been mocked about my accent, which made me think about softening some of my rougher edges. Regional accents not only indicate where we are from, but can reveal our social class, while a recent study found that broad regional accents can be a barrier to social mobility.

The idea of erasing part of my identity makes me profoundly uneasy, nevertheless, it is something that many people are trying. […] Today, businesses – possibly aware of the class connotations – promote their services with more euphemistic words; it’s now about “softening” your accent not changing it and speaking “clearly”, not correctly.

Yet underpinning this are the same old assumptions, says Dr Sol Gamsu, an assistant professor of sociology at Durham University. “Accents are tied into uneven regional geographies of economic and cultural power,” he says. “The associations between intelligence and forms of middle-class and elite speech and accent are deeply woven into British class structures.” […]

“Accents tell you as much about what we project on to people as anything to do with the actual people,” says Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. How you perceive accents can be dependent on your proximity to the location of the accent, she says. She grew up in Blackburn, Lancashire, where the Liverpudlian accent was considered “metropolitan”. This contrasts with the animus that some Mancunians have towards a scouse accent, and the romanticism some Americans hear in its cadences.

Since I have been in London, I have become conscious of what my accent signals – northerners are often depicted as being louts or simpletons in the southern-centric media. During the first few ice-breakers at university, I was told by a well-spoken southerner that I sounded like Karl Pilkington, of An Idiot Abroad fame. […]

Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, however, considers her Brummie accent one of her “greatest assets”, but has experienced some of what worried Griffiths. “Outside of parliament, people definitely will use it as a tool to have a go at you,” she says. “They’ll say you sound thick and you’re common and you don’t speak properly.” The way Phillips writes has also been ridiculed. “Every single time I write anything down about being a mom, or about my mom or other moms – I write it: ‘Mom,’ because that’s how we say it in Birmingham. And every single time someone will be like: ‘Oh, that’s not how you spell it. It’s mum. You’re thick.’ I’m like: ‘Not where I live it isn’t’,” Phillips adds.

I’m fascinated by this stuff, because it’s so different from the attitude to regional speech in the US (though of course we have stigmas too), and I’ll be curious to see what my readers have to say. Thanks, Kobi!


  1. AJP Crown says

    We’re talking about London, right? Nowadays in London, like being bald man, or having a big nose there’s nothing inherently good or bad about an accent, it’s more whether you’re going to use it to project your personality, like the Beatles or Wislon did in the olden days. If you see it as that one barrier that stopped you from getting to the top, then you’ve probably got bigger problems than having a funny accent. I can’t see a northern-Scottish-Welsh-Irish accent as being either a plus or a minus now, but of course I have comparatively little experience of using one. Because of the British past, there are more accents in London than anywhere I know, and you can’t guess who will sound like what. When I was young, in the ’60s, a black man might sound like a Nigerian or a Jamaican and a Pakistani would have a Pakistani accent. Nowadays, they are the Londoners. The whites have Polish or Scots accents. The difference between a Liverpool- and a Boris Johnson accent is more of a side issue.

  2. Well, you might feel differently if you were from Liverpool, innit?

  3. AJP Crown says

    Yes, I now make way for other accents.

    What happens to you if you’re from Surrey and you get a job as a ferryman in Liverpool?

    Don’t mind me. I’ve been watching Alan Partridge on the telly.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Every single time I write anything down about being a mom, or about my mom or other moms – I write it: ‘Mom,’ because that’s how we say it in Birmingham.

    With the LOT vowel? For real? Fascinating.

  5. Trond Engen says

    I guess there’s no longer much shame in being Northern or Irish, but the sociolects and local dialects in and around London is something else entirely. The speech coach is allowed to speak towards the end of the article. “He loves accents”, he says, and explains it’s more about sounding careful and serious — by avoiding glottalizing and th-fronting, which just happen to be defining features of broad Estuary English / Modern Cockney.

  6. Savalonôs says

    Re: “mom”, I might’ve expected she’d be accused of a pointless Americanism.

  7. Didn’t we already thrash this topic to death on the ‘Prissy-posh Yorkshire accent’ thread?

    I can’t agree with AJPC: accent in Britain, and especially in London marks you out both regionally and by class. That applies to within-London accents as much as South vs Northern Britain.

    Unlike the Guardian writer’s experience, I’ve seldom seen open mockery, it’s usually more insidious. But I did conclude that London is a horrible place, and left as soon as I finished schooling. The Guardian should have stayed based in Manchester. Indeed Britain is a horrible place because it is so riven by class. I’ve left there too.

    @David M, on the previous thread I noted Alan Bennett says “mam”. There’s a whole dissertation in how Britons pronounce that word, and which ones would never use such a contraction.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Britain is a horrible place

    Not yet. You should stay and help mend it. We need a few more Citizens of Nowhere here to keep the rest right.

    I liked living in London as a young man and have no regrets that I encouraged my elder son to go to university there rather than some provincial place I forget the name of. It’s no country for old men, perhaps.

    One of the unqualified delights of London is that it is impossible to be a foreigner in London. However tiny the ethnic group you identify with, you’ll find enough like you to set up an Association of London Ethnics.

  9. I liked living in London as a young man

    Indeed, it’s a great place for an OE or an extended visit/tourism or to mis-spend one’s youth. Anything that doesn’t involve a great sense of commitment or permanence. It’s when I saw people who’d been strap-hanging on the tube for 40 years and still hadn’t paid off their mortgage and were full of resentment for any off-comers trying to ‘get on’ in life that I asked myself what commitment or permanence would look like.

    Mocking or undermining someone’s accent is a means of saying: I belong here and you don’t. As if paying a mortgage on a house that’s identical to millions, standing on a tiny piece of dirt, in a suburb identical to hundreds, is any meaningful sense of ‘belonging’.

    My father was a staunch Londoner. But his grandfather had migrated from Suffolk/Essex border; yet all my father’s brothers/sisters/-in-laws spent the whole time complaining about ‘immigrants’ (and their not speaking proper English).

    stay and help mend it

    The Thatcher years/harrying of the North did unimaginable damage that’s beyond me to mend. I loved that Northerners/Yorkshire folk kept their integrity, their culture and their accents despite all that damage; whereas Londoners somehow thought the North had become a cultural wasteland.

    I expected Tony Blair (Tory-in-sheep’s-clothing) would be more of the same. I went to a more humane place.

  10. AJP Crown says

    Manchester ‘Mom,’ with the LOT vowel?
    I think it’s more like with the room vowel or perhaps in between the two.

    Britain is an ‘orrible place cos it is so riven by class, like. #grimupnorth
    Not really riven, just obsessed with. But the British Isles’ class-by-accent meme is very outdated. BBC Desert Island Discs, for example, which I hear in the car, is presented by a woman who sounds (to me, a 78 year-old) as if she might work at Sunderland Woolworth’s. And yet I just heard her briefly discussing myths of public & private sector Economics with Mariana Mazzucato (an Italian whose own slightly Italian-accented English was apparently acquired growing up in Princeton NJ). It’s a middle-class discussion on the most middle-class radio programme in the universe; so well done her if this isn’t the norm nowadays.

    I encouraged my elder son to go to university in London
    So did I. It’s so expensive to live there compared to Oslo. Don’t sit down on the Central Line.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Don’t sit down on the Central Line.

    Puts me in mind of Gerard Hoffnung’s handy tips for foreign tourists in London, of which the two most memorable (to me) are

    “Have you tried the famous echo in the Reading Room of the British Museum?”


    “It is customary on entering a carriage on the Underground to shake hands with all the other pasengers.”

  12. AJP Crown says

    Hoffnung: “It is customary on entering a carriage on the Underground to shake hands with all the other passengers.”
    I look forward to following this convention next time I’m there. Smirke’s Reading Room at the BM still exists, by the way, and it is big enough to create an echo (c.17 m. would be the min. diameter and it’s 42,6 m.) It’s just not in use.

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I used to go quite often in the 1950s to the Reading Room of the Manchester Central Library. It was (probably still is) circular, and had a tremendous echo.

    We used to have a group here interested woking in acoustics. Once I went for some tests in their anechoic chamber. We are so used to slight echoes in ordinary life that it’s quite strange to be in a room with no echoes whatsoever.

  14. AJP Crown says

    Rooms that are circular in plan sometimes work as whispering galleries. St Paul’s and Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence have good ones.

  15. I just learned that Woolworths, which was once the quintessential American five and dime store (the setting of the song “Love at the Five and Dime,” in fact) is what eventually turned into Foot Locker.

  16. Jah Wobble has a lovely track on his new album, “I Love Your Accent, Where Are You From?”:

    The bloody ignominy of being a displaced cockney
    You stay at hotels in your own home town
    And get taken for a Kiwi.

  17. AJP Crown says

    The Woolworth’s in England slowly declined and went bust five or ten years ago. I don’t know if it was still connected to the American firm. As far as I know no one has written a book based on FW Woolworth’s daughter, Barbara Hutton, spouse of Cary Grant and six others including an adopted member of the royal family of the Kingdom of Champasak. She’d be a good subject both for biography and fiction.

  18. John Cowan says

    Another one pulled on me was “If you come here and need a car, just jump in one of the yellow and blue cars you’ll see all over the place. You can drive it around for quite a while before you have to pay for it.” Fortunately for me I don’t drive and I know from Google.

  19. @AJP Crown: Wikipedia indicates that the British Woolworths operated as a separate company from when it was spun off 1982 to it’s demise in 2009. In contrast, the still extant Australian grocery store chain was never part of the American Woolworths; it just copied the name. Some other countries do still have spin-offs of the American brand, including Mexico and Austria apparently.

    Barbara Hutton was the subject of the biography Poor Little Rich Girl by C. David Haymann. Better known was the 1987 NBC television film starring Farrah Fawcett, which won the Golden Globe. I did not watch it, but I remember it was heavily promoted for months. And after the initial broadcast, it was rerun as a miniseries for those people who missed it the first time.

  20. David Marjanović says

    de.WP: Woolworth of Germany, Austria and Cyprus is the real deal, and so are Woolworths of the UK and Foot Locker of the US; Woolworth of Australia and South Africa are unrelated.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    I understand that the Birmingham accent may be stigmatized within the UK, but if they say “mom” instead of “mum” or “mam” I would think that the similarity of that to the AmEng word (as broadcast worldwide via Yankee Cultural Imperialism) might be salient. Unless as suggested above “mom” is not a good eye-dialect representation of the Brummie version and it sounds nothing like the AmEng version.

  22. John Cowan says

    In Brummie LOT is unrounded, as in almost all of AmE except Eastern New England. However, it is not lengthened as AmE LOT is, so there is no merger with PALM.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    I appreciate having been directed to the Jah Wobble track mentioned in a comment upthread. I had to use google to remember the backstory of Mr. Wobble’s stage name which I thought might have some dialect-related interest but apparently “Jah Wobble” for “John Wardle” is not an eye-dialect representation of some common if perhaps non-prestige variety of BrEng but started as merely an attempt to represent the idiolect of Sid Vicious, when drunk.

  24. Keb’ Mo’, however, is a straightforward representation of the AAVE pronunciation of Kevin Moore.

  25. > I write it: ‘Mom,’ because that’s how we say it in Birmingham.
    > In Brummie LOT is unrounded, as in almost all of AmE except Eastern New England. However, it is not lengthened as AmE LOT is, so there is no merger with PALM.

    So assuming what that means is that Brummies use their LOT vowel in the word, they’d be using [ʌ] or [ɑ] or something, which in my understanding are possible RP STRUT values. So Brummies would actually pronounce “mom” similarly to how RP speakers say “mum”, is that right?

    If I’m not mistaken, Brummie is STRUT-FOOT merged, so is this a case of “mum” somehow resisting that merger? Or maybe Brummie borrowed it phonetically and interpreted it as LOT?

  26. David Marjanović says

    Worse: STRUT-FOOT isn’t a merger but a split. If the word is phonetically about the same everywhere, it can’t be FOOT in the North; so if LOT is unrounded, that’s a pretty decent place where to put it, especially if the PALM vowel is too long and the TRAP vowel too front.

  27. dainichi says

    > STRUT-FOOT isn’t a merger but a split.

    Ah yes, of course you’re right. My excuse is that this name is misleading, it should be called the STRUT-PULL split or something like that.

    If my understanding is correct, “strut” and “foot” never had the same vowel in the South. By the time the vowel in “foot” was shortened to [ʊ], the split had already happened, and the one in “strut” had changed (to [ɤ] and later [ʌ]). Otherwise, “foot” would have been pronounced [fʌt] by now, similar to “blood” and “flood”. Some environments, like the ones in “full” and “bush” did resist the change, but [f_t] did not. “Foot” was spared, not because of its vowel’s environment, but because it wasn’t even in the relevant word group.

    In the North, the vowels in “strut” and “foot” did indeed merge, since the split hadn’t happened.

  28. AJP Crown says

    This week on Desert Island Discs:
    Cressida Dick, aged 58, grew up in Oxford where both her parents taught. Educated at the Dragon School (ffs), Oxford High School (an expensive, girls’ public school), Balliol College, Oxford, and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. And yet she has a slightly Cockney accent. What’s that about? Did she acquire it as a grown up?

  29. > she has a slightly Cockney accent

    Could you elaborate? She sounds quite RP to me, but I don’t have much intuition about the matter. Maybe her PRICE vowels are a tiny bit rounded and maybe I heard a few cases of T-glottalization, but nothing really stood out to me.

  30. AJP Crown says

    Yes, it’s quite RP. RP is a big coverall term for many current English middle-class voices. It’s a description of people who don’t have much of a regional accent; perhaps a little bit, perhaps not. Is David Dimbleby RP? He doesn’t sound a thing like Cressida Dick. Public-school accent – and in the old days, ‘BBC English’ – for example, say much more and she certainly doesn’t have either of those. Maybe hers is slightly “Essex,” to use another current term, although Essex really has a regional accent verging on the Cambridgeshire-.

    nothing really stood out to me
    No. It’s fairly subtle.

  31. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    No’ as su’l as all tha’, I find. Although she’s more or less RP, her t is often a glo’u stop, as, for example, in grea’ in her first sentence.

    The interviewer is much closer to the way most people speak on the BBC today. I’m not sure it’s Essex, but I think of it as Essex.

  32. John Cowan says

    “blood” and “flood”

    These are kind of unusual in undergoing irregular shortening so early, though the absolute dating of FOOT/STRUT is disputed.

    “Foot” was spared, not because of its vowel’s environment, but because it wasn’t even in the relevant word group.

    Indeed, which is why foot is diachronically an unfortunate choice for FOOT, though synchronically it’s decent (Wells tried to avoid words that belonged to different lexical sets in different varieties, so e.g. PUT would not have done.)

    In some cases, words were actually respelled to fit in with their new lexical sets, which is why historic wud is now wood.

  33. her t is often a glo’u stop, as, for example, in grea’ in her first sentence.

    Yes, she’s missing out chunks of every other word.

    The interviewer is much closer to the way most people speak on the BBC today. I’m not sure it’s Essex

    I agree it’s that Essexy kind of thing. Apparently she grew up in Sunderland.

  34. > her t is often a glo’u stop

    In final position like in “great” or “lot”, it’s hard to tell if it’s glottalized or just unreleased. If I’d heard a real intervocalic glottal t, that would probably have stood out to me.

    > I agree it’s that Essexy kind of thing.

    This surprises me. I must not know what “Essexy” means. Laverne sounds so clearly Northern to me, with [æ] in “cast”, lack of foot-strut distinction and close-to-monophthongal FACE vowels. Clearly there must be something more subtle I’m not noticing.

    > [“blood” and “flood”] These are kind of unusual in undergoing irregular shortening so early

    They stand out because of “oo pronounced as ʌ“, but AFAIK “mother” and “brother” underwent the same change from [o:] over [u:] and eventually to [ʌ], it’s just that there are so many cases of “(single) o pronounced as ʌ“ that they don’t really stand out.

  35. John Cowan says

    AFAIK “mother” and “brother” underwent the same change from [o:] over [u:]

    That change is restricted to words ending in -ther/-der (other, rudder), and it was actually [o:] > [u] > [ʌ], without a separate [u:] stage at all. The OED reports a spelling moother, but that surely represents [o:].

  36. > [o:] > [u] > [ʌ], without a separate [u:] stage at all.

    Thanks for that info! So I guess that mean they resisted the Great Vowel Shift? I wonder how they avoided merging with GOAT, which underwent [ɔ:] > [o:]. Had they already shifted to [u] before that, or did they merge and split again?

  37. AJP Crown says

    This surprises me. I must not know what “Essexy” means. Laverne sounds so clearly Northern to me

    Laverne has both. My point, as with RP, is that one doesn’t preclude the other and a regional accent or dialect can be the background to social influences. This is in contrast to the older public-school, upper-middle-class English that region didn’t affect. Now it’s like a fine wine: listen to Ricky Gervais in the link below compared to Russell Brand; both speak Estuary but Ricky’s has Berkshire (at the very end, “he’s got proide in what he does”) overtones and Brand’s has hints of rural Essex (see Wiki, Essex Accent). Estuary English may be a better term than Essex. Both names are rightly criticised for tying a location to an accent that occurs for sociolinguistic and related reasons, see:

  38. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    They stand out because of “oo pronounced as ʌ“,

    When Klaus Fuchs was in the news every day after he was found to have passed on information about making atomic bombs to the USSR, there was a public figure in the north of England (Yorkshire, I think) who consistently referred to him as [fʌks]. When told that a pronunciation closer to English would be [fuks] he said he couldn’t possibly say that with ladies present.

    As an aside, my aunt used to go for bicycle rides with Klaus Fuchs during the War (before anyone knew he was a spy).

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