Now that the current crop of inmates disporting themselves around Love Island have settled in, members of the mainstream and social media have been passing judgement on the “islanders”. While I’m by no means a regular viewer of the show, as a sociolinguist, it is the comments that are being made about the way some of the contestants sound that have really caught my attention.
Linguistic discrimination, also called linguicism, is discrimination against somebody based on their use of language. This can include their vocabulary, the sound of their accent, or their grammar.
When the show started at the beginning of June, 11 young people moved into their luxury accommodation on the island and immediately social media lit up with people passing judgement on their demeanour, their looks, body language and what they had to say. From a sociolinguistic point of view, it’s been easy to predict who of the 11 would receive the most criticism – there’s a body of research to back this up and, for anybody who has studied this, there were few surprises.
In general, speakers with more standard southern accents are less criticised, and those with accents that we are socially conditioned to think of as funny, friendly, and socially attractive, such as Welsh, Scottish and Newcastle accents, also get off lightly.
However, the Liverpool accent is frequently found near the bottom of the list when people are asked to rate how much they like the sound of different accents. One young islander, Hayley – from Liverpool – has been widely criticised on Twitter. Viewers have variously stated that her voice is “annoying”, “cringeworthy”, “makes [your] skin crawl”.
Hayley’s speech prompted one viewer to ask the twitterverse: “What level of education does this girl have” because “it’s so difficult listening to [her] speak.” Another tweeter left this tweet:
Now, if I were someone who discriminated against someone because of their language, I’d be pointing out that the last sentence in that tweet needs some punctuation – and by the way it’s “you’re embarrassing”. There’s more than a sprinkling of irony in someone being a language pedant and then getting it “wrong” while doing so. And while Hayley might say some surprising things, it tends to be her accent that people queue up to criticise.
Links between a lack of education and use of language have long been used as justification for oppression and control of people by the dominant ruling classes throughout history. Whether it be putting down the Welsh Treachery of the Blue Books (where it was falsely concluded in 1847 that the Welsh were ignorant, lazy and immoral, and that their use of the Welsh language was partly responsible) or whether it is used as a tool of the class system, language snobbery is and has been used to oppress people.
Unfortunately, accent prejudice is now so deeply ingrained within us that it’s incredibly frequent to hear speakers describing themselves as sounding “common”. I spend much of my teaching time at university trying to get my first year students to understand that there is no such thing as a “common”-sounding or “bad” or “correct” accent – but in fact these are societal norms that have been imposed on us.
Like it or not
Back on Love Island, another islander who received negative attention was Niall from Coventry. His voice was criticised for being annoying – but, according to Good Morning Britain’s Piers Morgan, Niall’s biggest crime was his use of the word “like”. The presenter demanded that a clip of Niall be played several times. He also mocked Niall’s West Midlands accent by doing an impression that sounded more like a really bad stereotype of a West Country farmer (or Worzel Gummidge if you’re from my generation):
But like I didn’t actually like say to her like before she went like anything like I didn’t say like …
The use of the word “like” is currently one of the most stigmatised aspects of linguistic variation. Its use is generally attributed by non-linguists to adolescents and young people – when it is often perceived as a sign of lexical indecision, perhaps through having a small vocabulary or just not knowing what you want to say. However, research shows that the use of like in utterances always performs a function. It frequently acts as a marker that may be used to sustain or repair a sentence, link information in the utterance together, or alternatively mark a boundary between the different points the speaker is making.
Like receives so much attention that there’s even a book on “800 years of like”. In the book, Canadian linguist Alexandra D’Arcy details the different uses of like, the fact that there is a long history of use of like by speakers of all ages, and dispels a number of the myths and stereotypes associated with it.
It would be easy to dismiss the comments about the Love Islanders as a bit of fun, but there is a much darker side to linguistic discrimination. In the US, a study showed that some potential employers, real estate agents, loan officers and service providers linguistically profile callers responding to adverts, despite this being against federal and state law.
Although we now hear more regional dialects on the TV and radio, more than a quarter of Britons feel discriminated against because of their accent. Teachers feel that they need to change their accent to be taken more seriously and teachers with northern accents have even been told to “posh up”. Experts in their field face prejudice because of their accents – including my colleague Katie Edwards, who has spoken out over times she has felt that she can’t be taken seriously as an academic with her Doncaster accent.
Even masters of their craft have been typecast and discriminated against just because of the way that they speak, such as the acclaimed actor Maxine Peake – who was told to lose her Bolton accent because the character she was auditioning for had been to university. The list goes on.
So why can we not seem to shake our prejudices about dialects? Well, part of the issue is that by now, these attitudes are so deeply ingrained within us that we all tend to believe the hype. Our standard language ideology maintains that standard accents are associated with the upper classes, privilege, education and opportunity.
Despite John Major’s 1990 declaration that the former prime minister wanted Britain to be a classless society, more recent evidence indicates that class divides are just as bad as before. And unfortunately, it seems that linguistic discrimination really is one of the last acceptable forms of prejudice.