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Accents are to be celebrated, not discouraged

Ben Wilson argues how recent criticism over Alex Scott's accent exposes the ridiculousness of accent prejudice in the UK.

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I’m not quite sure how Lord Digby Jones has gotten this far in life without presumably having ever been exposed to an accent unlike his own, but that seems to be the only reasonable explanation for his recent antics on Twitter. If you’re not sure who Lord Jones is, or what this story is all about, then let me enlighten you as to what is arguably the most needless display of pedantry I have seen in the media.

A former House of Lords cross-bencher, Jones was born in Birmingham and educated at Bromsgrove, a private boarding school in Worcestershire, before studying law at UCL. During the Olympics coverage, sports presenter, pundit and former England and Arsenal W.F.C footballer Alex Scott (MBE) was subject to criticism from Jones over her pronunciation of certain words on the broadcast.

Scott was born and raised in East London to an Irish mother and a Jamaican father, in what she describes as a working class family, and as a result of this upbringing speaks with a fairly identifiable East London accent. Jones suggested that Scott took lessons in elocution, and refused to let her “play the working class card”, criticising her for omitting the letter ‘g’ from words ending ‘ing’.

To me, this seems to be a linguistic feature directly tied to Scott’s accent and not, as Jones suggests, an improper use of language. The meaning behind Scott’s words is completely unaffected by her accent, and given the chance I would like to pose to Mr Jones that between Scott’s 140 caps and her status as an English Football Hall of Famer and former Olympian, she is more than adequately qualified to present on the Olympics broadcast.

It’s almost as if her accent is...irrelevant?

This row is tied to a much bigger sociological problem, being the way that people often attach educational status or intelligence to different accents. Having an accent fairly close to received pronunciation myself, but having lived in a rural part of Cornwall where the local accent is distinct and often quite strong, I have been aware of this issue for some time. Coming to university in the North has highlighted it to me even further, with students from every corner of the UK (and indeed the globe) mixing in an academic setting, based in a part of the country with its own identifiable regional accent. It’s easy to assume that all academics would speak in prim and proper Queen’s English because of the way this way of language has become tied to the middle and upper classes and subsequently to a certain level of intelligence. However it doesn’t take long to realise that, at university, there are plenty of people much smarter than you and with much thicker accents.

What’s interesting about university is that it is often a significant contributor to the theory that ‘accent softening’ is on the rise, given that many student’s accents alter during their time at university into what linguistics experts consider to be a ‘new’ kind of received pronunciation. The idea is that as technology and transport advances and it becomes ever easier to mix with people from different areas of the country, the average Brit is moving closer to an accent which represents all regions. As much as the mingling of people from different regions is largely a good thing, it does seem a shame to think that in the future we may see a decline in regional accents. What people like Lord Jones seem to ignore is the importance of accents in the evolution of language, and their contribution to the beauty of language as the way by which we connect as humans.

William James famously said that “language is the most imperfect and expensive means yet discovered for communicating thought”, and if he was right then how can there be such a clear cut ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to pronunciation? I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as a poor use of language; if I did it would completely devalue my English degree, but I do feel strongly that the real idiots are not the people omitting letters from the ends of words but those who are unable to coexist with them. Fortunately the whole row seems to have left Alex Scott completely unfazed and, if anything, more proud of her accent and upbringing than ever. Jones’ opinion is simply outdated, and disregards the identity and heritage often tied to somebody’s accent. Let's hope that having so readily demanded elocution lessons for others, he will perhaps consider some lessons in keeping his thoughts to himself.

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