Why I wish I’d kept my Welsh accent
Accentism, the pressure to use RP, can have dire psychological effects. And changing the way I spoke was a disaster for me
The Guardian, Thursday 10 July 2014 01.21 AEST
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Joan Bakewell on Late-Night Line-up
Joan Bakewell with Harold Pinter on Late Night Line-Up. ‘She used to joke that when she went to Cambridge, she ducked into a toilet, shed her Lancashire accent and came out speaking perfect cut-glass RP.’ Photograph: BBC
According to Alexander Baratta, an English lecturer at Manchester University’s school of education, “accentism” – the pressure on people with regional accents to switch to something closer to received pronunciation – is the last taboo. He likens it to racism, arguing that “people make snap judgments based on accents”, and that in an effort to fit in, many of us modify the way we speak, with potentially dire psychological consequences.
I know the feeling. I come from south-east Wales – the east is significant. I went to a large comprehensive, and if you had heard me speak at the age of 18 you would have said I had a Welsh accent, though nothing like as strong as those further west or in the Valleys. It was a dangerously malleable accent, as befits so liminal a town as Newport, which has never known whether it was Welsh or English. I had the good fortune/misfortune to get a place at Oxford university and, within a month or so of getting there, my sing-songy near-Welsh Bristol-estuary accent had gone, to be replaced by a monstrously posh voice that made Terry-Thomas sound common.
Joan Bakewell used to joke that when she went to Cambridge in 1950, she ducked into a toilet, shed her Lancashire accent and came out speaking perfect cut-glass RP. It took me a bit longer than that, but at the end of the first term – a mere eight weeks – I had swapped Lower Welsh for Higher Oxford. Much later in life, I did a session with an actors’ voice coach to write an article, and she told me my accent was not Oxford of the 1970s but Oxford of the 1950s! My switch had been as extreme as you could get.
Oddly, unlike Joan Bakewell, I never deliberately set out to change my accent. My friends insist that must have been the case, but it wasn’t. It was entirely subconscious. I presumably felt a need to conform with all the public schoolboys with whom I now had to mix, and the accent had to go – along with the cheap stripey suit I wore for the matriculation photograph, which they said made me look like a bookie.
For a while I noticed that when I was tired, my Welsh lilt would return, so even though I hadn’t rationalised it, I must have been making a deliberate attempt to make the change. When I went home at the end of the first term, I had it pretty much off pat, and made little or no effort to switch back to the old accent – strange, because Baratta says many people keep two accents on the go at the same time: one for home, where they feel relaxed; the other for work, where they are trying to impress. When I went back to Newport, I got a few peculiar looks from old schoolfriends – though no serious flak. My parents, bless them, said nothing at all. To this day, I have no idea what they made of my sudden transformation.
Forty years later, I realise the change of accent was a disaster. “You can’t underestimate how important accents are,” says Baratta. “Changing your accent can undermine your sense of being.”
That’s putting it a bit strongly, but I do hugely regret having lost my accent and joined the superficially posh set. I would love to sound like Dylan Thomas and bore people to death by drunkenly reciting my awful, verbose poetry in pubs. Leaving Wales for England, swapping animated working class for anaemic middle class, losing the accent – it all added up to deracination. Perfect for journalism, the hollow world of the perpetual outsider, but damaging for life.
My accent remains a bit of a hybrid. Marked upper-class drawl; definite hints of Prince Charles (you can almost see the hand in the tweed jacket); but also some anachronistically flat vowels that betray me – if I had been a German infiltrator in Britain in 1940 I would surely have been rumbled. Many people think I come from Australia or South Africa – colonial, clipped, not quite English. Karl Miller, the former editor of the London Review of Books, was convinced I’d been to Sandhurst and was a member of the SAS.
“We should acknowledge that any form of workplace discrimination, including accentism, should not be tolerated in a society which seeks to be more inclusive,” says Baratta. It would be interesting to know how extensive such discrimination is – the research sample on which Baratta bases his findings is tiny, and drawn only from schools and universities.
Most army officers sound the same – hence Miller’s confusion – so there’s certainly something at play there; a colleague at the Guardian reckons she would never have got a job in journalism if she’d kept her extreme Essex accent; and the chance of a Scouser who’s kept his or her rasping accent becoming prime minister remains distant. Accentism is alive and well, except at the BBC which now seems to practise Reverse Accentism, sidelining anyone who speaks RP. One day, valuing content more than form, we will stop making value judgments based on the way people sound. But that is some way off.
If I could have my time again, I would play up my Welshness rather than hide it. I am a proud working-class Welshman with coal, steel and rugby in the blood, not an ersatz Englishman. But thanks to my wretched voice, Karl Miller is not the only person who thinks otherwise.