Ashley Davies: The adopting of upper-class accents

Eliza Doolittle's accent was 'changed' by Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Picture: Kobal
Eliza Doolittle's accent was 'changed' by Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Picture: Kobal
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DO people really change their accents to make themselves appear more upper class, or is the process more unconscious, asks Ashley Davies.

The letters page of this journal has in recent weeks turned white hot over the subject of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, though not in the way you might expect. For three or four days the correspondence had focused on the ignominious end to his political career and what the scandal said about the standards we expect from our elected representatives – and what they might expect for their services. But then the focus of the letters swerved and for the past fortnight a more vexatious element of Sir Malcolm’s behaviour has come under scrutiny: his accent.

It’s not just people “on the way up” adapting their accents that irks people.

The correspondence that kicked it all off argued that Sir Malcolm’s only crime had been to change the way he spoke, suggesting that as he sought and then gained more influence in his political career, he attempted to cast off audible evidence of his Scottishness. Actually, the writer was more harsh than that, saying that some Scots “on the make” adopt the “grotesque vowels of the English ruling class”.

Sir Malcolm has reportedly claimed not to have noticed any change in his accent, so it’s entirely possible that it happened unconsciously. People move to different countries and their accents change all the time. I would argue that in most cases, the way they speak adapts in order to make themselves more clearly understood and accepted in their new community, but this doesn’t diminish the belief that there’s something about the posh English accent that often makes many other native English speakers feel as if they’re being perceived as an inferior citizen.

Of course I know it isn’t necessarily the case that the posh English speaker (for shorthand, let’s just call their accent posh RP) sees him or herself as dominant, but sometimes they do, and sometimes their demeanour is informed by that accent, and sometimes it makes everyone else feel uncomfortable.

I don’t have the same accent that I had as a child. I grew up in Africa, where we only noticed accents on people from other countries; they were never really an indicator of class as they are across the British Isles. As kids we put on RP accents when acting “la-di-da” or to demonstrate that a playground character was perhaps not as physically resilient as the rest of us. One friend spent a few months in England and when she returned she pronounced the “e” in “berry” as an “a”, leading the rest of us to torment her for months about this mysterious Barry fellow.

After criss-crossing the world for a few years because of my father’s peripatetic job, I ended up in a girls’ boarding school in England for the final two years of secondary school, and suddenly felt inferior because of the way they all spoke. Their real accent was our joke accent and it was scary. It made me feel conspicuous for not coming from a rich or well-connected family, and it wasn’t long before I sounded a bit like them (the fact that our snobby bully of a careers adviser subtly suggested we’d never get into university if we didn’t conform in every way didn’t help).

When I went back to Africa with this accent I got sideways looks – the “who does she think she is?” vibe – and I don’t blame them. It was hardly an Eliza Doolittle scenario but it was enough for my old pals to think I thought I was better than them. I only did it to protect myself in that posh bootcamp and it sort of stuck.

Often, when young people go away to university, particularly if they’re far from home but still in the UK, their regional accents (for want of a better term) diminish, replaced by something more neutral; an RUP (received university pronunciation) if you will. I’ve also heard stories about young people in Scotland who have an American accent from watching a lot of US television. This might sound ridiculous, but a study conducted by linguists at the University of Glasgow working with the University of Leicester’s department of media and communication two years ago found that Scots who engaged emotionally with characters on EastEnders had a propensity to adapt certain features of that accent, such as saying “f” instead of “th”. Perhaps the same principles apply to impressionable life stages when you emotionally engage with people around you who have a different way of speaking, just as empathetic people unconsciously mirror each others’ physical gestures.

It’s not just people “on the way up” adapting their accents that irks people. Tony Blair – whose alma mater, Fettes, is just round the corner from The Scotsman office and doesn’t strike me as the kind of place that encourages the dropping of Ts – got a lot of stick for his glottal stop. It’s pretty clear what he was trying to achieve by distancing himself linguistically from the elite. Violinist Nigel Kennedy got abuse for coming over all “Mockney” and Jamie Oliver is frequently accused of sounding like he is pretending to be more working-class than he is or was. Anyone who claims this is a classless society needs their head read.

This whole discomfort about changing accents boils down to two things, in my view. First, a lot of people harbour a Trollopian streak that doesn’t approve of people appearing to hide their origins. It’s as if they are worried about being tricked. And when well-known people spend time abroad and return with different accents it’s rare for most folk to applaud them for absorbing elements of a foreign culture. It’s usually met with derision. Have you ever heard anyone saying poor Lulu’s got an adorable transatlantic accent? And how long did it take for folks to forgive John Barrowman for his erratic accent?

And second, absorbing the accent of a culture that we reluctantly perceive as dominant – be that the “ruling class” in England or a cash-rich America – could be read as proof that our own community’s status is declining, or at least not growing. If that sounds like rubbish, think about how many people you know who’ve come back from a spell in Ireland or Wales having soaked up some of their accents.