Writer Rosie Park (another RP), explores the nuances of verbal classism in the UK; the entrenchment of class into British and Irish accents and the (justified?) Celtic prejudice against the widely renowned RP accent.
Before moving to Glasgow from Belfast, my Northern Irish accent rarely crossed my mind. Freshers’ week, however, quickly brought my accent to my attention. When I announced I would, “be there in an hour (arr)” or asked if anyone had seen my “hair (hur) brush”, I was met with either a compliment, a laugh, or someone’s failed attempt at mimicking me. When I went home at Christmas in first year, I remember waiting for the same reaction but quickly remembered in Belfast my accent was “posh” and so nothing worth complimenting.
My accent being mimicked in Glasgow, has never and will never feel condescending. A tease (ripping the piss) is the language of love in both Northern Ireland and Scotland. From the Scots to the Northern Irish and vice versa, the imitations and the laughs are accepted with open arms. It should be considered a form of affection. The tolerance comes from the fact that as two nations, we feel, sound and are exceptionally similar. We have a lot in common; Celtic heritage, the looming grey sky, the sectarian divide and the same notoriously contentious relationship with Westminster rule. The way we sound is everyone’s first impression of this, the first box we are all slotted into.
The mutual understanding between the Scots and the Northern Irish can by no means be attributed to some idea that we are countries populated by pushovers. In fact, we pride ourselves on being the quite the opposite. So, naturally, when we are mimicked by an individual which we perceive as intrinsically different to us, the reaction may often be less sympathetic. Frequently the recipient of this less sympathetic reaction are the English, more specifically “posh” English.
When I say “posh” English accents I’m referring to the likes of Prince Harry or Judi Dench. This accent has been dubbed ‘received pronunciation’ (RP), or is often referred to as “the Queen’s English”. For many people in the UK, RP is representative of so much more than just another regional dialect.
In the context of my home, RP echoes a troubled history. The accent is a subtle reminder of colonisation, civil war, struggles with independence, “catholic or protestant?”, “Derry or Londonderry?”, bar brawls and a capital city divided by peace walls. Conflict is therefore our association with the accent. It would be wrong of me to suggest that everyone else’s association with the received pronunciation accent aligns to our niche history with it. It would also be wrong to suggest that our association with it only goes as far as our past history with it too. The issue is far broader than that.
It’s impossible for anyone not to pin social associations to accents. In the UK, our society contends with class distinctions, and whether it’s an unconscious fixation or a deliberate contemplation, our preoccupation with this class divide is ingrained. From the moment we hear someone speak, we begin building our mental portrait. The UK’s accent diversity has been the largest of any country for hundreds of years, in the UK there are an estimated 40 different dialects according to language teachers Education First. Yet, despite only an estimated 3% of the UK population speaking with the RP accent it is the one we are most subjected to daily. Thought to have its origins in 19th century British public schools and universities, the RP accent was the speech style of the social elite and the media for most of the 20th century. The association with the accent and class is entrenched.
The RP accent is continually given the most exposure in the news and continues to be the dominating voice of politics. In Northern Ireland the voice which can be heard on the tannoy on our trains is the utterly alien RP. Researchers from Queen Mary’s Linguistic department’s recent study of accent biases in the UK found that roughly 70% of news readers in the UK use RP. A leading member of the study, Professor Sharma made the point – “If we only hear farmers on TV sounding like they’re from the West Country, we’re surprised to meet a lawyer with that voice”. The more regional accents go unheard on the news or in politics, the greater our accent biases become. The study in Queen Mary’s found that in law firms, London working class accents were perceived as notably less competent for a job as a junior solicitor, even where their responses matched those speaking in RP. It comes as no surprise that public perception of the accent hasn’t changed; in 2019 the accent was rated the most prestigious, following a trend set by similar surveys in 1969. The accent that remains the national standard therefore grossly misrepresents the majority of the nation.
RP continues to represent opportunities that seem somewhat inaccessible or, at the very least, challenging. It symbolises the myth of meritocracy, a promise we have been told is materialising. Therefore, we begin to resent it. We dismiss RP as belonging to posh, privileged English wankers. Our bias and resentment against the accent is (I hope) understandable, but carrying this stereotype and resentment towards the accent daily is somewhat indefensible. So, we must try and forget our biases, and hope this false association with prestige is forgotten.