Answer the following questions about the extract below. For each discussion point, you need to bring in other critical theories you have studied in the course.
Social accents are not bad in any linguistic sense. Nor are any individual vowel and consonant pronunciations bad in themselves. It must be clear that, if it is not bad to pronounce hour and our identically, it cannot be bad to pronounce hill and ill the same either. The only bad thing about lower-social-class accents is that they symbolise low social status. The majority of people who do not speak with a BBC accent therefore run the risk of being discriminated against by undemocratic individuals and institutions in certain social and occupational situations.
Chapter 7 ‘Bad Accents?’ (Penguin 1992)
1. What is implied by the phrase ‘social accents’?
Describing accents as ‘social’ implies that the way one speaks is indicative of one’s belonging to a specific social group, and that one’s belonging to that group suggests that there is a link between accent and social identity. In this viewpoint, a speaker’s accent is viewed as being not merely representative of their region of origin, but also their levels of educational achievement and, in some unspoken way, their ‘intelligence’ as well as their class background.
In other words, accents in isolation from society cannot be classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ except insofar as society itself imputes to those accents positive or negative characteristics.
Some critical and theoretical perspectives to consider here are:
- attitudes to RP as a prestige form;
- the role of accommodation theory and code switching, and;
- Peter Tridgill’s study on the relative attractiveness of different regional British accents.
2. What does the extract above imply is the link between accent and social status?
Accent can be indicative of one’s social status because specific phonological features of particular accents are not only linked to geographical variation, but also to class and levels of educational achievement. For example, the dropping of the ‘h’ in the pronunciation of the noun ‘hill’, rendering it as ‘ill’, is seen to indicate that the speaker belongs to a lower social class regardless of the speaker’s region of origin. According to social identity theory, by Giles and others, as people become more educated, they choose to self-identify as belonging to a group which is characterised by a smoothening of the ‘rough’ edges of accents, and when joining this group, speakers tend to mimic that group’s speech patterns in order to engender a sense of belonging to a group they perceive as having more prestige.
Some critical perspectives/concepts you may consider here are:
- Howard Giles’ accommodation theory
- Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theories
3. If judgments about accents are described by Trudgell and Andersson as being ‘undemocratic’, what does that adjective imply about these critics’ position on the prescriptivist versus descriptivist debate?
The implication here is that the critical quotation in the springboard material can be described as prescriptivist rather than descriptivist. The connotations of the adjective ‘undemocratic’ imply that social judgments placed on bad accents lead to unfair distributions of power, because those with a ‘lower-social-class’ accent are often excluded from positions of influence or voice in social institutions.
A critical perspective to consider here might be this one, written by linguist David Crystal, in which he argues that accents and their variety are a source of beauty in the English language:
4. The extract above seems to suggest that individuals who speak with a ‘lower-social-class’ accent ‘run the risk of being discriminated against in certain social and occupational situations’. What are these situations, and are there any other situations where such ‘lower-social-class’ accents do not lead to negative judgments being made about the speaker?
Students should be encouraged to think of real world scenarios where lower-social-class accents can lead to discrimination and prejudice. For example, to what extent would a person speaking with a heavy West Yorkshire accent calling a customer service complaints line be treated with respect and professionalism when compared with an RP speaker making exactly the same call to the same complaints service line?
Alternatively, students should be encouraged to think of situations where accent is seen as being indicative of one’s loyalty to a particular group. For example, Labov’s study of the speakers in Martha’s Vineyard would prove fertile grounds for discussion. Although the speakers in Labov’s study are not representative of a specific social class, the principle that speaking one’s own accent is evidence of one’s pride at belonging to one’s group could be applied to other situations where this might be relevant to class. For example, Peter Kay’s portrayals of the subculture of northern English working men's clubs.
Examine the links between lower-social-class accents and upper-social-class accents and the concepts of overt prestige and covert prestige. Illustrate your ideas with a range of examples.