Posh Spice sounds richer, but changing your working-class accent isn’t a ticket out of discrimination

Even one of the UK’s most famous couples is not without accent discrimination. Credit: Bakounine / Shutterstock

Accent – discrimination against someone because of their accent – has a long history in the UK, where the way a person speaks is often an easy way to express their social class. People with working-class accents are often criticized and encouraged to speak “decently”. This is true even for people who have achieved fame or success in the media or politics.

But changing the way one speaks is not necessarily a solution. When people with working-class accents start speaking in a more “elegant” manner, it is often seen as dishonest and insincere speech. The latest example is Victoria Beckham, whose accent in a recent video has come under criticism.

Beckham was born in Essex and raised in Hertfordshire, and her husband David Beckham was raised in East London. Despite the huge wealth and success of the couple, they both come from working class backgrounds and are still seen as such. They were previously described as “chavs” as a stereotypical, pejorative title for the working class.

Their dialects usually included working-class language features from London or southern England more broadly. In 2014, David Beckham was voted one of the British public’s least pleasant voices. In 2010, Victoria Beckham was identified for her looks and accent when she was a guest on American Idol.

The American newspaper The Village Voice wrote: “I always thought the British accent made people sound smart but I thought I was wrong.” Her fellow British judge, Simon Cowell, who was privately educated, was not criticized for his standard Southern English accent.

A recent makeup tutorial video posted by Victoria Beckham has revived old speculation that the Beckhams are changing their accents and even taking public speaking lessons.

variable accents

We all have different dialects. We can speak in different ways depending on factors such as who we are talking to, our emotional state, the formality of the situation and the topic of conversation. But our accents can also change throughout our lives, depending on the ways we speak, depending on where we live and who we talk to (football player Joey Barton was a great example).

Even Queen Elizabeth II experienced changes in accent throughout her life, which matched the subtle changes that occur in Standard Southern English. Research has also found that Glasgow residents who are fans of the television series EastEnders are more likely to speak with elements of a Cockney accent.

Posh Spice sounds richer, but changing your working-class accent isn't a ticket out of discrimination

Angela Rayner, the Labor Party’s deputy leader, is a constant target of the rhetoric. Credit: Robert Rivett/Shutterstock

A person with a working-class accent may also consciously adapt their accent if they feel it is holding them back or perceived as unintelligent (which may be the case). Changing your accent is not easy, and the burden is greater for those whose accent is far from the norm.

There are also examples of people with standard accents suddenly and uncharacteristically speaking with less standard and more working-class accents, such as politician Ed Miliband when talking to comedian Russell Brand. Although Miliband was seen hospitably finding an “accent on common ground” in a generous act of broadening intimacy.

But when someone is thought to have started to speak more “elegant”, like Victoria Beckham (and also Meghan Markle), they may be unfairly ridiculed as fake or pretentious. Victoria Beckham perfectly embodies how people of the working class are criticized for speaking, no matter how luxurious their accent may be. The problem is that it is a working class.

working class accent

My Essex accent is often brought up when sharing my linguistics expertise. In a BBC radio interview, the presenter read aloud a text to listeners: “Try to get someone who can speak properly if you’re going to talk about the grammar.” My experience is not unusual for academics with working-class accents.

People in the public eye are constantly marked with working-class accents. Rylan Clarke has been criticized for his sluggishness (dropped) on The One Show. One BBC presenter was criticized for appearing in the foreground (“thriller” as “friller”).

discussion It follows consistently whether Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the Labor Party, looks “professional” enough in Parliament. “I don’t want a Home Secretary who can’t pronounce the letter G at the end of a word,” Alistair Campbell wrote of Priti Patel.

Lord Digby Jones singled out sports commentator Alex Scott by saying “swimming” was “swimming” in her coverage of the Olympics, and responded that she was proud of her Labor accent that Jones accused of “playing the class card”. He insisted that it was “not about dialects” but instead: “It’s about the fact that they are wrong. You don’t pronounce English ending in ‘g’ without the ‘g.'”

Comments like this show a startling misunderstanding of basic linguistic principles. Beyond that, saying swimmin – or indeed, dropping a t or th-front – has to do with both dialect and caste. Across Britain, working-class people are more likely to speak dialects that identify where they come from and are farthest from Queen’s English.

If working-class dialects are not seen as appropriate in the media, politics, and academia, then working-class people will not be seen as appropriate in these fields. The popular notion that accent pedantry is really just a support for good spelling, decent standards, clear articulation or inherent “correctness” in the English language is the rickety scaffolding of dialect bias that keeps working-class people in their place.

The study found that working-class and minority ethnic accents in southeast England are considered to be less intelligent

Introduction of the conversation

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