Academics ‘talk posh’ to protect their careers

Scholars downplay regional accents to avoid prejudice, Newcastle University study shows

April 4, 2013

Source: Getty

Speaking terms: academics fear regional accents will limit their careers

Many academics are hiding their regional accents for fear of being mocked, patronised or sidelined by their departments, a study claims.

While discrimination on grounds of gender, race or sexuality were no longer acceptable in the workplace, researchers at Newcastle University claim a “tacit prejudice” against those with broad regional accents was still going unchallenged.

As a result, many staff played down their local accents and “spoke posh” to avoid being classed as an “outsider” by their peers, the study says. With job losses, budget cuts and departmental restructuring, many staff felt having a regional accent could count against them in the event of redundancies, the paper adds.

“It can be very painful for some people to have to talk in a different way than they are used to,” said Michelle Addison, a PhD student at Newcastle, who interviewed more than 30 people at a Russell Group university for the Economic and Social Research Council-funded project.

“People were saying they were very conscious of the social difference carried by their accent and how it marked them out as ‘other’ to their colleagues,” she added.

“One person explained how some staff started speaking in a different voice when a senior member of staff entered the room. They were trying to sound posh by affecting a different image which they felt had more value,” she said.

“Talking the talk” by using a certain accent has become an unwritten rule in the academy, with those with strong accents facing extra difficulties in terms of career advancement and winning plaudits from students, fellow academics and management, Ms Addison argued.

The desire by universities to be “elite” in terms of academic prestige further pressured those with regional accents to speak differently, she added. “In the current environment, universities are in competition with each other and their unique selling point is often to be ‘elite’. In turn, academics wanted to portray an image that is also elite,” she said.

“In times of redundancy and cuts, it is very risky to be classed as outside this ‘elite’ image,” she added. “There is a tacit prejudice that seems to be activated in the workplace.”

The study, titled Talking the Talk and Fitting In: Troubling the Practices of Speaking ‘what you are worth’ in Higher Education in the UK, was expected to be presented at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in London on 5 April.

It is co-authored by Ms Addison’s Newcastle colleague Victoria Mountford, who studied students’ experiences of regional accents in universities.

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Reader's comments (5)

In other news, Pope Catholic.
The painfully class conscious researchers' definition of what is 'posh' or 'elitist' undermines the whole validity of their thesis and research methodology. What they perceive from Newcastle to be 'posh' or 'elitist' may be heard as "clear" and comprehensible English in Swansea, Singapore, or Sydney. The fact is that strong regional accents - whether Geordie, Brummie, Aussie or any other 'ie' are very difficult to follow for those whose English is a 'second language'. Minority accents are only fully understood by minority audiences. They are not what is needed in today's 'global' universities.
Surely exercise of cultural skills is a human right of sorts? Once proficiency is reached 'accent' and indeed 'dialect' provide interest and additional skill levels for language learners to achieve.
Michael Barnes makes a very valid point. Most countries have their standard spoken language, either officially or unofficially. It is generally the accepted standard of speech of the cultured and educated of the capital. Some countries, even tiny ones like Albania, have such different dialects that they are mutually almost incomprehensible within the country, let alone internationally. It is, as Mr Barnes says, a question of clarity and comprehensibility - and, let's face it (and risk the wrath of the absurdly termed "politically correct"), of attractiveness and kudos. Most people dislike a Birmingham accent (including the Brummies themselves according to the Fry's English Delight programmes), and I once (though a northerner myself), when lost on my way to a wedding in Newcastle, asked a local for directions three times without understanding a word and after thanking him drove off in embarrassment - evidently in the wrong direction to judge from his gesticulations. Robbie Burns is wonderful, but do we want broad Scots in the lecture room or Radio 4 or on the BBC World Service (which is rapidly sacrificing its universal comprehensibility and clarity on the altar of political correctness). Just as people dress appropriately for occasions, so they should speak appropriately too. Good "Standard English" speech and pronunciation (which used to be called RP or BBC English) are skills that need to be learn by those who want succeed in most professions, and there is plenty of help available. Just "google" English Speech and Pronunciation, for example, and see what comes up. If you want to play classical music, it's as well to learn and practise until it becomes second nature. No-one is going to listen to you if you play with false notes on an instrument that is out of tune. And the same is true of speaking English. Dr Peter Greenhalgh
It is difficult to judge what exactly the author of the article and those commenting on it are thinking of when they mention regional accents versus posh/elite accents. Personally, I think to say that a regional accent is unclear or difficult to understand (as in two of the previous comments) is very offensive - yes, some people with strong regional accents can be difficult to understand for those that are not accustomed to it, but it is very possible to have a regional accent which is clear and understandable, even to those whose first language is not English. To say that anyone should need to affect "standard English" speech to succeed in their profession is ridiculous and is perpetuating the myth that higher education and academia is for the "elite" and not accessible to all parts of society. Our country has a rich heritage and great variation in accents, and this should be celebrated, not quashed by a bland "standard" accent or pronunciation. There is also mention of dialect, which is a totally different thing - clearly I wouldn't start using Scottish dialect when lecturing students or talking to colleagues from other parts of the country/world...but this doesn't mean I need to put on an "elite" accent in order for them to understand me. To me, the comments on this article act to reinforce the message in the article - that academics feel they need to alter the way they talk to be accepted in the academic community….or perhaps only by the parts of the academic community which have been represented by two of the previous comments.

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