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Jamaica Inn complaints reveal widespread accent prejudice

Thick accents, bad accents, mumbling… BBC/Origin Pictures

The recent torrent of complaints about the “inaudible dialogue” in the BBC’s adaptation of Daphne de Maurier’s Jamaica Inn have prompted a debate about actors’ speech. The cause of the problem was variously classified as being due to technical issues, and more frequently, “mumbled dialogue”.

But others brought up the issue of accent, namely West Country speech (Jamaica Inn is set in Cornwall). Some complained that the actors “thick accents were impenetrable”, while others said the accents weren’t convincing.

This amount of conflicting (and vehement) opinion points to a wider issue, something that is only recently being discussed and is perpetuated, partly at least, by the media. This is prejudice deriving from accent, or as it is beginning to be termed, “accentism”.

It is perhaps somewhat clichéd to blame the media for one thing or another, but here it is undeniable. Small examples how the media influence our speech can range from young British girls emulating, perhaps subconsciously, the “Valley Girl” speech of Hannah Montana, to words and phrases picked up by watching Australian TV shows, such as “no worries”.

Of course, this is not deserving of blame, and not something to worry about. Language is a living, breathing entity, constantly in a state of change and flux. But these innocuous examples can lead to problems with stereotyping. And while accentism as a somewhat recognised term is fairly recent, the practice is not. The media has always made use of accents as a means to portray various characters, in film, TV and advertising. This leads to reinforcement, both positive and negative, with regard to the image a certain accent conjures up of an individual.

Some examples. Thanks to Disney, American children regard the West Country accent as the “pirate accent”. And apparently, to be a Star Wars villain, one must speak with an English accent (and then only RP, naturally). So what about the gentle English tones of Alec Guinness, one of the central “good guys” of the story?

But this may be the exception that proves the rule. Here we have simply another stereotyped image of the RP accent. While it conjures up images of media-inspired villainy (certainly in the USA), it also lends itself to images of royalty and power. This fits in well, considering that the wise sage Obi-Wan must instruct this young, American-accented Luke Skywalker, whose accent in this case suggests his naïve manner.

But it gets worse. If you’re an American gangster, the Bronx accent is inevitably the one you must use (and an Italian surname also helps). If you’re a bit slow, a Southern accent works a treat. And given the reach of American film and TV, these stereotypes are very much international.

Of course, the imagery used by the media also helps to reinforce stereotypes. Consider when Susan Sarandon’s character goes to visit the mother of a death row inmate in the film Dead Man Walking. Before we even hear the mother’s (predictably) pronounced Southern drawl, we see an iconic negative image of American Southernness: the young man with the mullet and the open hood of a truck.

The image of the “open hood” was also seen in the film Deliverance, which suggested particularly nasty ideas about the US South, such as mental deficiency and inbreeding. There were even stories that locals from Georgia, where the film was set, weren’t offered jobs later based on the county of their origin.

The situation in the UK is no different. A participant in my research here said to me:

If you’re a Glaswegian on Casualty, you’re gonna be violent. If you’re Scouse, you’re gonna be a scumbag. If you’re from Newcastle, you’re gonna be thick. It’s ridiculous how far the stereotypes go on British media.

And in British commercials, consider the RP voiceover for those Marks and Spencer “this is not just food” ads. Most would not even question the accent used. The RP accent, with its oft associated themes of authority and upper-class living, is apparently the perfect fit for a department store like Marks and Spencer.

But, dare I ask how we might feel if Kerry Katona delivered the voiceover for these ads? We all know the quality of M&S food, but our perceptions might change. Kerry Katona’s accent was apparently appropriate for the more affordable Iceland. Until she was sacked, anyway.

No one wants to feel embarrassed about their accent, or made to feel this way, especially considering the relationship between one’s natural accent and sense of self and personal identity. But accent modification is very often practised by British people, often as a means to sound less regional.

Of course we cannot entirely blame TV, film and advertising. And there have been some positive changes within the media (newscasters with more regional accents), but old habits die hard. “Traditional” stereotypes regarding British accents are still deeply ingrained. But getting out of this cycle is difficult due to the symbiotic relationship between the media and society – the media both reflects, and reinforces, such negative imagery. Steps must be taken to begin to combat such stereotyping.

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