The last acceptable prejudice

Why bad jokes are still made about people who speak differently

Last month, I attended an international academic conference. During a conversation with a colleague, I was introduced to a doctoral student from a UK Russell Group university.

Without a ‘hello’, a ‘nice to meet you’ or any of the other pleasantries you’d expect to hear during a professional introduction, this woman looked in my eyes and said, straight-faced, in a booming fake Yorkshire accent: “I’n’ti’?”

After delivering her mockery of my dialect (I hadn’t actually used that phrase), she looked away and continued speaking to my male (non Northern) colleague in a perfectly normal tone and her own accent.

Now imagine a person with another bit of biographical background—black, Jewish or a lesbian, say—meeting someone else, only to be greeted with a broad stereotype disguised as good-natured getting-to-know-you. Now imagine it at an academic conference, coming from a doctoral student at a top university.

This is the last acceptable public prejudice: bad jokes and silly stereotypes about people who speak differently.

.. Language, in contrast, is seen as more freely chosen. And those who have chosen the “wrong” kind of language therefore deserve disdain. To speak English “properly” (which means with a standard accent, and no trace of dialectal grammar) is what any sensible person would choose. Someone who chooses differently, therefore, must not care about high-quality language, or simply did not bother with education. The example above is the worst Ms Edwards can recall, but she repeatedly encounters bewilderment that she did not “lose” her Yorkshire accent (meaning that she did not consciously acquire an accent foreign to her) in order to climb the academic ladder.

.. The collision of academic prejudice and accent is particularly ironic. Academics tend to the centre-left nearly everywhere, and talk endlessly about class and multiculturalism. Many would love to claim genuine working-class roots. But it is precisely working-class Britons who are most likely to have the characteristic accents of their counties and towns—Scouse, Geordie, Brummie. Those same academics who seek to root out class and ethnic prejudice should be allergic to accent-prejudice.