PURSUE’s event on accent and language
Our event ‘Language, accent and Unequal Opportunity in higher education’ held on 30th April, provided both a much need exploration into the HE experience of those who speak in a regional accent and also a fantastic celebration of regional identity, accent and dialects featuring input from a host of academics and invited guest speakers.
The following are my reflections from the event, why we felt it was important to deliver such a conference, what we learnt from it and why it is important that we keep this discussion on the agenda.
What Accent means to me
I have had an awareness of accent as long as I can remember. My family comes from different Celtic outposts of the UK and much of my formative years involved visits to see relatives from Scotland and Wales. I recall being immediately being fascinated by the ways in which my family communicated in divergent dialects, even different languages.
Being from Merseyside, you are often aware (especially when you encounter people from outside of the local area) of the fact that you ‘speak with an accent exceedingly rare’ (The Spinners). School trips in primary and secondary school often resulted in interactions with young people from other regions, these often became aggressive and uneasy, usually this was driven by the fact that we were ‘scousers’.
Closer to home, accent was again a divisive issue as far back as I can remember. I am from Knowsley, a Metropolitan Borough, formed on 1 April 1974 (An April Fools gone wrong, perhaps?) “by the merger of Huyton-with-Roby Urban District, Kirkby Urban District and Prescot Urban District, along with most of Whiston Rural District and a small part of West Lancashire Rural District, all from the administrative county of Lancashire.” Therefore, the area in which I was born and raised is a melting pot of Liverpudlian and Lancastrian, this in itself has led to some quite bizarre territorial friction between locals. As Stuart Maconie recounts in his 2007 book, Pies and Prejudice – In Search of The North “Huyton and St Helens are five minutes drive away from each other […] but here the fault line between ‘Scouser’ and ‘Woolyback’ is a crackling seam of animosity among the population […] Essentially, they fucken hate each other, la.” Growing up, this animosity was most prevalent on the football field, where depending on where you were playing; you would be likely to find yourself labelled as a ‘wool’ or a ‘scouse bastard’.
When I moved away from home aged 18 to attend university in Sheffield, I found myself immediately being known as ‘scouse’ by some who I lived with in my first year. I never readily accepted this moniker, not because I am not proud to be from Liverpool/Merseyside, more that I just found it a slightly lazy label. Studying at a post 92 university in another fiercely proud Northern working class city, I never encountered any prejudicial comments relating to my accent whilst at university in Sheffield. However, playing Sunday league football, I vividly recall being told to “shut thee mouth, yer scouse twat”. This tirade came from a referee, hence why it remains ingrained in my brain. I also remember one occasion in my first job after university arriving five minutes late and a colleague making a joke in poor taste about scousers always being late (I was in Sheffield, you can probably figure out the rest). However, in the main, my experience at university in Sheffield was a positive one and I never experienced any discrimination based on my accent.
Accent and Career
Like many young people at that time, who were the first in their family to attend university, I had no real career ambitions beyond university itself. Therefore, I spent a further two years in Sheffield, before moving onto Nottingham for further study and to train to be a teacher. Studying at a Russell Group university, I immediately felt what I would now refer to as ‘imposter syndrome’. Back then, I just felt I did not fit in. I felt this extremely keenly on my History PGCE, when I felt little or no enthusiasm for learning about English Kings and Queens and felt as though my peers were judging me based on my apparent lack of knowledge.
Two memories stand out vividly from this year; the first was during a pub quiz when one of my peers took the piss out of me, as I did not know the answer to a question about “the only child King”. I pointed out that I had gotten many other answers right and was told, “You know a lot about sport and popular culture”. The implication here (whether intended or otherwise) was that sport and popular culture were of lower cultural value than being knowledgeable about the Kings and Queens of England. Nowadays, I would have told the person in question to “fuck off”, but back then, I stayed silent.
The second memory I have of that year came towards the end of the course, when I had decided that I was not going to pursue (no pun intended) a career in teaching. I had arranged to meet with my tutor to discuss my next steps. When I said I did not have any formal plans for the future as of yet, but would like to continue working with young people he told me that he could see many opportunities for someone like me, with my background, in this space. I did not really understand what he meant and asked him to clarify and he said something like “Oh, you know, probation”. As I have recounted in a previous blog, I found this quite amusing and genuinely think he was trying to be helpful, but this example just serves to illustrate how stereotypes and connotations can permeate aspects of the student experience encountered by those who speak in regional accents.
Why is Accent Important?
Within the past few years, there have been a number of articles in the media exploring discrimination encountered by students because of their regional accent. A 2020 report entitled ‘A Report on Northern Student Experience at Durham University’ uncovered a “toxic attitude” prevalent amongst many of the institutions staff and students with respect to students from the North of England, with some truly shocking views apparently being prevalent amongst the student body. If you are interested in reading more about this, click here. It is clear that Durham is not the only ‘elite’ institution at which this type of behaviour is common and therefore we wanted to deliver an event that explored this issue in detail.
What did we learn?
We already knew that issues around accent, dialect, language and discrimination were complex and multi-faceted, but our event brought together a number of fascinating and insightful speakers from across the higher education sector. Importantly, the event also featured speakers from outside of the sector as part of our panel discussion. All of the speakers are contributing (via either projects or publications) to a greater understanding of the discrimination encountered due to the way people speak and this made for a lively and energetic session, which provided plenty of ideas for next steps.
Further details of our guest speakers and their content can be found below:
Dr Rob Drummond (Manchester Metropolitan University) – Rob is a Reader in Linguistics, specialising in sociolinguistics, and head of youth language in the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies – Rob spoke about the Accentism project.
Dr Maureen Farrell (University of Glasgow) – Maureen is a Senior Lecturer (Culture, Literacies, Inclusion & Pedagogy). Maureen spoke about her work in promoting Scottish dialect through Children’s Literature – Here is Maureen discussing Scots Language and Culture in the Curriculum at the Association for Scottish Literary Studies conference in 2020.
Dr Diane Potts (Lancaster University) – Diane is a lecturer in the Linguistics and English Language Department at Lancaster.
Rufeida Alhatimy (Social Knowbility) – Rufeida spoke about her experiences establishing student led projects to challenge prejudice encountered by under-represented groups/first generation students in HE.
Bob Moston (Merrym’n) – Bob is a singer-songwriter and teacher from Stoke described on his own Twitter as a “DIY Stoke-folk troubadour” who sings “songs from the dirty dishwaters of the Potteries.” He recorded a special video for PURSUE, which you can watch here
Ben Dyer (The Inspirational Learning Group) – Ben is the Managing Director of The Inspirational Learning Group (TILG), an organisation committed to playing its part in providing meaningful engagement with employers for young people. To watch Ben talking about his career and motivations for establishing TILG, click here
Simon Hughes (The Athletic) – Simon is a journalist and author, who has written seven books about Liverpool FC – including ‘61 Minutes in Munich: The Story of Liverpool FC’s First Black Footballer’, Howard Gayle. Simon has also written ‘There She Goes’, a modern social history of Liverpool as a city and ‘On The Brink: A Journey Through English Football’s North West’. Here is Simon talking about ‘There She Goes’.
Professor Jane Stuart-Smith (University of Glasgow) – Jane is a Professor of Phonetics and Sociolinguistics (English Language & Linguistics), her current research focuses on phonological variation and change (especially in the Glasgow accent, and English more generally). Click here to find out more about Jane’s Speech Across Dialects of English (SPADE).
What’s up next?
PURSUE are already planning follow up events to explore issues relating to the themes covered in this session. Initial details of our next two online conferences are provided below:
‘The influence of working class communities, friends and families’ – To be held in September
‘Making university truly accessible to working class people’ – To be held in December
We intend to use the findings from our conference series to produce a short publication highlighting our ‘manifesto for change’ based upon our initial Seven Endeavours.
The issues covered in this event were complex, manifest and deeply embedded within society. As such, we feel it would be useful to explore them again in further detail at a future event. If you would like to contribute to this, please contact us via email@example.com or leave us a message via https://workingclassinwp.com/contact/
 Stuart Maconie, Pies and Prejudice (2007)