I knew it would happen. There’s Boris Johnson, presiding over a culture in 10 Downing Street where people were clearly allowed to believe that the rules didn’t apply to them. And there was Angela Rayner, being interviewed for Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning, discussing Johnson’s bluffing and obfuscation. ‘The Prime Minister could quite simply have answered the question: Was you there, was you not?’ British culture being what it is, it was inevitable that for some people, Rayner’s non-standard verb forms would be far more appalling than anything Johnson did or didn’t do. Twist the rules, lie to the public, spaff taxpayers’ money up the wall: just make sure you do it in RP.
A level English Language students are always fascinated by different perceptions of accents and dialects. One of the pieces of research we look at in Year 12 is Dixon, Mahoney and Cox’s 2002 matched guise study, which examined the effect of regional accent on perceptions of guilt. Participants were asked to listen to recordings of scripted interviews between a police inspector and a suspect, the latter played by a student who used a Birmingham accent in one set of interviews and an RP accent in another. The suspect was far more likely to be judged to be guilty when he spoke with a Birmingham accent – even though the words he spoke were exactly the same.
Students are frequently – and quite rightly – outraged by this, seeing it as an example of the ways in which people with strong regional accents are discriminated against. But there is, of course, another side to the experiment. You’re more likely to be considered guilty if you speak with a regional accent, but equally, you’re more likely to be considered not guilty if you speak RP. And this is one academic study, but how many people, over the decades, have managed to hide behind the smooth veneer of an accent so inextricably linked to wealth, power and the Establishment?
There are a number of poems that play around with issues of accent and prejudice. One of my favourites is Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’, a pair of caudal sonnets based on the poet’s experience of being a pupil from a working-class background at the decidedly middle-class Leeds Grammar School. It uses phonemic symbols to distinguish between the younger Harrison’s accent – with its rounded [uz] – and that of his ‘nicely spoken’ teacher, with his RP [Ʌs]. In the first of the sonnets, Harrison is castigated for his accent and made to feel inferior, a ‘barbarian’. The poem is full of images of awkwardness – ‘gob full of pebbles’, ‘great lumps to hawk up and spit out’ – and ultimately, the teacher reduces Harrison to silence:
‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.
The second sonnet shows Harrison fighting back. Gaining a defiant energy from somewhere, he vows ‘So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy / Your lousy leasehold Poetry.’ He takes charge, drops ‘the initials I’d been harried as’ and uses ‘my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz].’ It’s an immense two fingers to the authority of RP. The icing on the cake is Harrison’s decision to make the sonnet form his own, adapting it for his own purposes by adding those extra two lines. It’s audacious, disobedient, a refusal to conform. I love it.
I first encountered ‘Them & [uz]’ when I was a sixth former, at my comprehensive school in Newton-le-Willows, the same school that Andy Burnham attended, in the middle of the northern no-man’s-land between Manchester and Liverpool. I was preparing for my Oxford entrance exam and desperately self-conscious about sounding Northern. I next encountered it in my second year at university, in a tutorial for a unit called ‘The History, Use and Theory of the English Language’, a compulsory part of the course that nobody really wanted to do. We’d been farmed out to another college and our new tutor had given us the poem as a way of opening up a discussion about accents and prejudice. As the only Northerner in the group, I was asked to demonstrate a Northern [uz]. It didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem. But I was the only one in the group who’d seen the poem before, and could therefore explain exactly what it was that Harrison was saying.
So even though I could predict what one set of reactions to Angela Rayner’s interview would be, I was also cheering her on, a Northern-accented woman holding an RP-speaking man to account. And let’s hope that this is the beginning of the end for the accent of privilege.