How outdated stereotypes about British accents reinforce the class ceiling

Eton mess. Tim Ockenden / PA Archive/Press Association Images

Research by the UK government has found that working-class applicants are held down by a “class ceiling”, when it comes to recruitment to top companies. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission uncovered a great deal of evidence that recruiters favoured people with certain accents over others, regardless of their academic merit.

The study found that, despite efforts to improve social inclusion over the past fifteen years, elite firms continue to recruit predominantly from those whose accents reveal a privileged background. One reason for those who speak what’s known as “Received Pronunciation” (RP) or “The Queen’s English” having a better chance at being recruited is the implicit assumption that the posher the voice, the higher the IQ.

‘Standard English’

Despite being spoken by only 3% of the population, RP is widely considered as “Standard English” and is recognised as the tongue of those belonging within the upper echelons of society, in particular by those who have received a private school education. In contrast, specific regional accents are often perceived as inferior and belonging to groups lacking in prestige.

It has long been recognised that the way many of us perceive social standing and ability is firmly rooted within the class system, with rank, education and material possessions all immediately implied by the recognition of a particular accent. But surely in the 21st century, notions of a relationship between accent and ability are now out-dated?

In order to gain some insight into this question my colleague Hayley-Jane Smith and I researched attitudes to regional accents by randomly pairing accented voices with faces. We asked people to rate both how attractive and how intelligent a given young female was when reading a passage with one of three accents – Birmingham, Yorkshire and RP. We also added a silent condition where participants saw the face but did not hear any dialogue. We randomised faces with accents in order to control for differences between faces.

The results suggested that, while regional accents do not have an effect on the perceived attractiveness of the speaker, they do have a significant effect on perceived level of intelligence. People ranked the Yorkshire accent as the most intelligent followed successively by RP, silence and then the Birmingham accent.

Brummies are not dummies

Famous brummie rocker, Ozzy Osbourne, is not famous for his IQ. Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com

It is important to stress that this study did not test levels of intelligence but merely examined stereotypical beliefs related to regional accents. In fact, contrary to popular belief, there is no clear correlation between an individual’s accent and their ability. The findings do however, raise two questions. Why was the Yorkshire accent rated most highly? And why was the Birmingham one rated even lower than the silent condition?

While RP may remain the most advantageous accent when seeking employment in a prestigious company, this does not mean that it is still regarded as the best accent to have by the general populace. Recent shifts in zeitgeist may have resulted in the RP accent now being seen as less prestigious in some quarters.

Some of our own participants perceived the RP accent both as privileged and dull – a finding that has been shown in other studies. Relatively recent changes in higher education may have helped to change this perception. Over the past 30 years the UK has shifted from an elite higher education system with a participation rate of around 15% of young people to a mass higher education system with around a 40% take-up rate.

This may well have had a knock-on effect on how highly regarded those with a public school background are. This does not of course explain why Yorkshire was rated so highly by our participants. But the Yorkshire accent is associated with trustworthiness, which in turn is associated with intelligence.

In contrast a number of studies have found negative associations with the Brummie accent. This may be related to the flat vowels that are associated with it. Examples of this include the pronunciation of pie as “poi” and pint as “point”. A well known Birmingham joke involves the terms “cup of tea” and “kipper tie” being mixed up. Flattening of the vowels seems to be seen as an indication of low intelligence, despite not being supported by any empirical evidence. It is merely a negative stereotype.

Accent research is delving into the issue of how individuals with different accents are perceived and treated within society. This is particularly the case when considering employers who may hold unfounded negative stereotypes. Despite changes in attitudes of the general populace to RP, when it comes to recruitment to the elite professions, it is clear that many of those with regional accents are still hitting a class ceiling.