Why do some accents sound better than others?

One man’s soothing sound can be another’s harsh tones. HBRH/www.shutterstock.com

When a funeral planning business recently decided to open its new contact centre in Newport, South Wales, it said it was doing so because Welsh accents sounded more empathetic and consoling – beating off competition from Teeside, another popular call centre location thought to have a friendly accent.

Everyone has something to say about their favourite accents and which ones they hate. If I asked your opinion on, for example, the Liverpool (Scouse), Birmingham (Brummie) and southern Irish accents, what would you say? You might not like the sound of the first two, although you might find the Irish accent pleasing to the ear – but why? What is it that shapes how we feel about accents?

A considerable amount of research has been done to find out why people have such strong opinions about accents. One of the key methods that dialectologists use is to play lots of different regional accents to people who come from a range of locations. The listeners rate the voices they hear on a scale according to, for example, how educated or friendly the speakers sound to them. Listeners typically get to judge speakers on competence and status traits, like intelligence and self-confidence, as well as social attractiveness traits, such as friendliness and sincerity.

In one notable study listeners compared Received Pronunciation (RP) speakers with speakers from South Wales. RP – which many linguists now call Standard Southern British English (SSBE) – is an accent associated with high social prestige. Non-linguists sometimes also call this type of speaking “BBC English” or “the Queen’s English”. Think Emma Thompson and Patrick Stewart.

In the study, the RP voices were rated higher for intelligence, self-confidence, independence, ego, and job status. The South Welsh speakers meanwhile were rated more trustworthy, sincere, supporting, and understanding. The results of other similar studies are highly consistent. Standard accents tend to be rated highly on status and competence characteristics, while regional accents are consistently viewed more favourably for social attractiveness traits.

Regional listening

However, the consistency of listeners’ attitudes to accents only holds if we ask native English speakers who live in the UK. One PhD researcher asked listeners to rate 20 different accents including southern Irish, Welsh, Scouse, and Brummie. The native English speakers predictably rated southern Irish highly while the others came 15th, 17th, and 19th respectively.

In contrast, the non-native English speaking listeners rated Welsh second, Brummie third, Scouse sixth and southern Irish tenth. The non-native English speakers also described the Birmingham accent as “beautiful”, “cool”, “sexy”, “sweet”, and “lovely”, which might come as quite a surprise to native English people who give the Brummie accent a really hard time for being “ugly”.

Studies like this where people from different places consistently rate accents differently to native listeners demonstrate that in actual fact there is nothing innately attractive or ugly about how an accent sounds. So where do we get these attitudes from?

The reason that standard accents are perceived more favourably is probably because of the social and cultural pressures that operate within a community. So, standard English is perceived more favourably than regional dialects because of the social and cultural authority of those who speak with an SSBE accent. Standard language is traditionally viewed as the language of the elite and while SSBE speakers may be stereotyped as sounding “posh”, the standard forms are considered by most to be “correct”. From a very young age, society makes us believe that anything else is “wrong” or “lazy”, and if we want to get a job and succeed, we must use the standard forms.

However, when it comes to rating differences between regional dialects, for example in the case of southern Welsh vs Brummie, it’s likely that our attitudes are more closely linked to our local environment.

From a very young age, we shape our attitudes to everything around us, including social connotations, even if we never come into contact with them. We learn from a range of sources, including people around us and the things we see and read.

People from different places are associated with distinct characteristics and as a result, the accents they use are also associated with those characteristics. Speakers of SSBE are thought of highly as they are seen as being professional, successful, and wealthy. People who speak with strong urban dialects are often considered to have lower status because of a historical reputation of those areas for higher crime rates, unemployment, and industrialisation. However, people from other countries have not grown up around these specific cultural stereotypes and have not developed these perceptions. As a result, they do not associate those characteristics with the accent and so they rate speakers differently.

In addition, our own experiences impact our attitudes. If we have (or hear of someone we know having) a negative or positive experience of someone from a particular town or city, we subconsciously connect those good or bad feelings with certain features, such as their accent. When we later hear that accent, this can trigger those feelings and make us attribute them to anyone who talks in that way.

So next time you find yourself having a strong reaction to the way that someone speaks, try to remember that what you think is ugly and nasal may be someone else’s lilting and beautiful.

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