Tuesday, 26 November 2013

On Accent Week

On Monday 14 November I was asked to comment on BBC Radio 4's PM programme about the case of a schoolteacher in Berkshire whose Cumbrian regional accent had been criticised by a school inspector. Although it was acknowledged by her school that her speech was perfectly intelligible, it seems she was told she should nonetheless adopt something more southern. The story was picked up by the media, and the PM discussion was one of the consequences.

I was horrified that this kind of comment might still be being made. It was common enough a few decades ago, but times have changed, and people value regional accents so much more these days. The BBC itself had its wonderful 'Voices' project in August 2005, when a whole week was devoted to celebrating English accents in the UK, with every local radio station contributing, along with several specially commissioned programmes on national radio and TV. And we do hear regional accents on air much more these days. Listen to Susan Rae's lovely Scottish tones when she reads the news on Radio 4, for example. Or Huw Edwards' Welsh accent on BBC 1.

Anyway... after talking about this and a few other things, and listening to an extract from Dickens read in three regional accents, I ended my contribution with a flip remark to Eddie Mair. 'Why not do the whole of PM in regional accents one day?' 'Well there's a challenge', he replied. And I thought no more about it.

But what do I hear this week on PM? The challenge is taken up, in a small but significant way. They're calling it 'Accents Week'. Every day the 5.30 news is being read out in a regional accent - one that would not normally be heard on national radio (though common enough in local radio stations, of course). Yesterday (Monday) it was a male presenter with a fairly mild Cumbrian accent, notable for its pure 'o' vowels in words like 'go' - very Shakespearean! Today it was a female presenter from Merseyside, with a much stronger accent - 'work' pronounced as 'weark', and suchlike. I found it all enthralling, and all praise I say to PM for engaging in the experiment. I've no idea what accents will be chosen for the remaining three programmes. Listen in at 5.30 each day (or to Listen Again online) and you'll find out.

When you do listen, make sure you make a distinction between accent and professional style. To my ear, the Merseyside presenter wasn't as familiar with the formal Radio 4 news-reading style as her Cumbrian predecessor. A few words were produced a little too rapidly, and the various items of news weren't as intonationally separate as they ought to be in a news summary, tending to run into each other a bit. This is nothing to do with the accent, of course, and it's important not to 'blame' an accent for an issue that is to do with other factors, such as speed of delivery. Even RP presenters swallow their words at times, or drop their voices at a crucial moment so that you can't hear what's being said.

But these presenters, and the PM producers, have made an important contribution to the evolution of a climate of accent tolerance, in which organizations such as the BBC play a hugely important role. I'm delighted that the programme has taken this small step, and I hope it will be repeated - and not just by PM.

13 comments:

DC said...

A mild Welsh accent today (Wednesday). Hope they choose one or two broader accents before the end of the week. And will they dare do something from the Midlands?

Peter Harvey said...

The whole mess about the Cumbrian accent in the Berkshire school was not as initially described. It was caused by a sense of humour failure on the part of an NASUWT rep.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-25015202

Emilio Márquez said...

Attitudes towards accent variation are different in Spain, perhaps because of the fact that patricians and plebeians have usually shared the same pronunciation (at least here in Andalusia, the most phonetically conspicuous region).

DC said...

Well that's a relief, I must say. At least one good thing came out of it! There wouldn't have been an 'accent week' otherwise.

DC said...

Yorkshire today, and a very nice example of a local accent, with a professional presenting style.

Guillemine Fletcher said...

I was disappointed that the accents of the people reading the news summary at 5.30 pm were so much diluted that they could hardly be described as 'regional'.

DC said...

And the week has rounded off with a presenter from BBC Somerset - but again with not a very strong accent. Indeed, one would never have guessed it was Somerset. Pity they didn't do something a little more daring.

Anonymous said...

I like to hear a wide variety of regional accents on the BBC, but not always the same one, i.e. Scottish. The message sent out here is that Scotland is the only "region" that counts.

DC said...

Interestingly, Scottish was the first regional accent to be rejected by the BBC, back in 1980, when Susan Rae (Dundee) presented on Radio 4 - and there was so much protest that she was soon withdrawn. How times have changed! (Susan has been back news-reading for some time now.) There are several presenters with a Scottish accent, but saying 'always' is going a bit far. I doubt Huw Edwards would appreciate being called Scottish, for instance.

I am responding to this message partly to give me the opportunity to say, once again, that I do not normally post messages from people called Anonymous.

Alexander Bochkov said...

Professor Crystal, I have a question about r-dropping. I was watching a Miss Marple episode, A Pocketful of Rye, with Joan Hickson, and I noticed an interesting phenomenon. When Miss Marple's neighbor stops by to give her the latest, evening, edition of the paper with more news about the murder, at first she (the neighbor) seems to say "murder" two times with r. However, when she starts reading the paper, she pronounces the same word, murder, without r in it. Most puzzling is that all this happens within two minutes or so. Why would she do such a thing? I'm aware of Labov's famous study, where rhotic pronunciation was shown to be an element of prestige speech. But what about British accents?

DC said...

Sounds like an actorial inconsistency to me. Or, possibly, a more formal pronunciation that often comes when reading aloud (as when 'says' is pronounced to rhyme with 'ways' and not 'sea').

Chaa006 said...

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the story as originally reported was in fact true, I am not convinced that the matter is as clear-cut as I think Professor Crystal suggests. If, as he states, "people value regional accents so much more these days", then would not a local community such as that of the school in Berkshire be perfectly entitled to value its local accent and to express its concerns that a teacher with a marked Cumbrian accent might negatively affect the retention of the local (Berkshire / "Home counties") accent by the pupils whom she is assigned to teach ?

DC said...

I wasn't aware that I'd said anything 'cldear-cut'. It would indeed all depend on how broad the accent was. This was never made clear in any of the reports. My understanding is that the teacher in question didn't have a broad accent at all.