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Abbeygate student Helena Stawarz on 'first impressions'

In a single second I can ascertain everything about you as a person, read you like a book. Sounds like a superpower doesn’t it? Surely if that’s the case then we should all stride around in long billowing capes with a shiny ‘S’ on our chests, it sounds a reasonable suggestion...

Alas, the superpower of a blanket judgement isn’t as heroic as it may appear. Commonly seen as a harmless, if not unconscious snap decision made at the sound of one’s voice, do we realize that our brains have been fine-tuned to scrutinize? Rationally the concept appears absurd, arbitrarily classifying people by their pronunciation of ‘bath’ or ‘scone’. But, like it or not, the manner of which we speak is in fact a vehicle of higher social meaning.

Our accents can be a reflection of our identity, our heritage. Simply talking about our weekends can pour out a wealth of information regarding our socioeconomic status, our ethnicity, our gender and so on . . . All you wanted to do was blather on about your date to the cinema; instead, the listener is grabbing their quill and parchment to write a captivating memoir about the ins and outs, the ups and downs of your life. Well, that’s not entirely true . . . few people use quills nowadays and parchment is a nightmare to procure.

Abbeygate Sixth Form College
Abbeygate Sixth Form College

Fundamentally, there’s nothing inherently dangerous with grasping an indistinct understanding of one’s background (hence the surface-level judging done in the process) since there are established studies proving a correlation between linguistic quirks and social class. For instance, Malcolm’s Peyt’s 1985 Bradford Study exhibited ‘H-dropping’ in words such as ‘hat’ as a trait belonging to the majority of lower-class individuals whereas the upper-middle class used it far less, in approximately 1 in 10 opportunities. Statistics such as these demonstrate a basic pattern explained by nuances found in varied class culture.

Although, in light of academic studies conducted by Petyt and many other bored linguists, I do take care in noting that we can be found guilty with the crime of generalisation. Claiming there are no middle-class, white males who abuse non-standard terms such as ‘innit’ would be akin to claiming Elon Musk is indeed, not an alien. An unequivocal impossibility.

Danger arises when our preconceived ideas surrounding accents become prejudiced, when the nature of our scrutiny becomes discriminatory. A study conducted by Timmings (2017) shows just that, evaluating how accents (focusing especially on foreign) affects employability. Unsurprisingly, job applicants with native English accents were of much greater employ than those without in the USA, most notably for customer interactive work.

Whilst not every accent will be music to our ears, what’s critical to remember, is that these preferences (arguably perpetuated through the media) do not equate to a person’s ability. For instance, the famed BBC being consistently dominated by ‘standard accents’ upon announcing the exhaustingly familiar coronavirus update. The titling of ‘standard’ seems rather irrational considering only a small privileged minority from the South East of England speaks in this particular fashion. Moreover, the lucky few which possess standard accents are known to be treated favourably within public institutions.

Pervasive myths spurt out utterly baseless claims in which standard accents connote to those of professionalism, higher intelligence and ‘status’. Whilst unfortunately there is a definitive trend in higher educational attainment and the upper-middle classes, accents should not be treated as a prerequisite for either a gleaming work ethic or a lousy, anarchic attitude. Accents should be a personal piece of one’s identity, something to take pride in. Anything else and one is merely subscribing to those myths as fact. There are no villains or heroes, only people.

Helena Stawarz is a Year 12 student who is studying for A-levels in Philosophy and Ethics, English Language and History. She is also completing an Extended Project Qualification.

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