We often talk about racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ageism and such, but rarely about discrimination towards regional accents. Since moving to Edinburgh to study, I have experienced countless remarks regarding my Whalsay accent, some of which were light-hearted jokes and didn’t concern me, others were needlessly boorish. The most shocking was on the train in standard class, returning to Edinburgh from Inverness after a friend’s 20th birthday. There were four people sitting across from me, drinking red wine, who had what I would describe as very posh accents. They were discussing each others’ careers, types of cheese and places they’d travelled to.
I decided to phone my mum and was busy talking to her, minding my own business, when one woman leaned into the man next to her and said: “What kind of an accent is that!?” Both of them looked me up and down, from head to toe. I was staring right back at them, yet they felt no sense of shame at the realisation I had overheard everything. The tone in which the woman spoke and her facial expressions indicated abhorrence and disapproval towards me. It felt almost as if I was regarded as inferior to them, based on my accent. Although I did not say anything, it deeply enraged me, as previous comments I have received in Edinburgh and in parts of Shetland outside of Whalsay have done.
I would be delusional to believe Whalsay accents are always easy to understand if you aren’t a native speaker. However, surely I should have the right to have a private conversation in my accent without such animosity.
This issue isn’t just exclusive to me or those with my particular accent. According to HR News, eight out of ten employers have confessed that a regional accent has an impact on whether they decide to employ someone or not.
A teacher from Cumbria told the Guardian that they were advised to speak “less Cumbrian”. Pupils from the West Midlands were also reportedly told to stop speaking in their regional accent, so that they would have a greater chance of getting employed in future.
Surely this is a cultural loss, classist and down-right snobbish? Imagine if the entire United Kingdom sounded the same?
I have been told to “speak English” on countless occasions, but this request simply doesn’t apply to me because I’m not English, nor do I wish to be, and I, among others, take pride in speaking with a strong regional accent.
Prejudice against regional accents applies particularly in journalism, especially in television. The Times published an article on how BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg “broke the mould” just for having a vaguely Scottish accent and going to Edinburgh University, instead of Oxford. She is privately educated and comes from a privileged background. She stated in the interview that 10 years ago she wouldn’t have “landed the number one political job on TV” due to what the Times described as a “strong Scottish accent”. If her appointment is a celebration of representation, what hope do aspiring journalists such as myself with strong regional accents have of success? Surely this demonstrates a lack of diversity and inclusivity in our mainstream media.
The fictional crime series Shetland on BBC1 has actors speaking in a Glaswegian or non-Shetland accent, using words such as “aye” which we don’t say. However, their characters are supposed to be Shetlanders. A course-mate of mine told me that he had no idea that Shetlanders speak the way I do, as his only guide has been the BBC crime series. Usually if you obtain a role of people from a different place, you research the accent and try to mimic it. Idris Elba put on a South African accent when he played Nelson Mandela in the film Long Walk To Freedom; Chiwetel Ejiofor spoke with an American accent in the film 12 Years A Slave; and Meryl Streep had a Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice. Why can’t accents such as Shetland accents be represented correctly? Television and film have recently had to diversify in terms of race and gender, so that the people onscreen reflect the viewers at home. Isn’t it time to do the same with regional accents?