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Research reveals hidden prejudice against Northern English accents

The speech variety that a person uses can unfairly mark them for success or failure, make speakers more or less socially attractive, or more likely to be found guilty or innocent in court. Research into deeply embedded language-based prejudice carried out by Dr Robert McKenzie and colleagues has shown that while explicit biases against Northern English accents tend to be held with less intensity by English nationals, their implicit biases are much stronger. More work is needed to raise public awareness of language-based prejudice in England and the wider UK with a longer term aim to make speech variety a protected characteristic within UK law.

People make judgements about others from the way they speak. Indeed, the language that you use triggers deeply ingrained perceptions of your attractiveness (physical and social), honesty, intelligence, friendliness, education, or social status. These perceptions can affect our life chances, both positively and negatively in a number of ways. For example, research has shown that school children with denigrated accents often receive lower grades by their teachers than those who speak more positively evaluated varieties. Likewise, those who speak with a negatively rated accent are more likely to be found guilty in court cases and are less likely to be successful in a job interview when compared to speakers of so-called standard varieties. Research has also indicated that the media perpetuates public perceptions of good and bad accents.

The Speaking of Prejudice project, conducted by sociolinguist Dr Robert McKenzie of Northumbria University, along with colleagues Dr Andrew McNeill and Dr Mimi Huang builds upon past research into explicit language attitudes bias and has developed measures to also examine more implicit, or deeply-embedded, language-based biases. This is important as it is more difficult to tackle prejudice held at an implicit level. The research team employed a specially developed test to analyse reaction times to associate a series of positive personality traits with Northern English speech and Southern English speech. In this way, the test uncovered deeply held biases towards, or against, the status (e.g., perceived intelligence, education) and social attractiveness (e.g., perceived friendliness, trustworthiness) of speakers of Northern English and Southern English.

The results of the study demonstrated that when asked explicitly, as found in several prior studies, Northern English speakers were rated highly in terms of social attractiveness while Southern English speakers were judged more positively in terms of status. By contrast, at implicit levels, the Northern English speaker was judged much lower for both status and social attractiveness when compared to the Southern English speaker. The difference uncovered between ratings above and below the level of individual awareness provided evidence of changing language attitudes towards a greater tolerance for, if not outright favourability towards, the forms of English spoken in the North of England. Analysis also showed that greater acceptance of Northern English speech was led by younger female English nationals who affiliated most with the north of England. Nonetheless, the study findings demonstrated that many English nationals retain deeply embedded prejudices against Northern English accents and their speakers.

The Speaking of Prejudice project is funded through Prof McKenzie’s’ prestigious British Academy Mid-career Fellowship and was one of only twelve research projects selected for the British Academy Summer Showcase in June 2022 due to its considerable public value. This gave the opportunity to present findings to interested members of the public, fellow researchers, policy makers and other specially invited guests (including MPs from both The Houses of Lords and Commons). The Speaking of Prejudice exhibit offered visitors the opportunity to increase understanding of their own and others’ prejudices towards UK accents by undertaking three interactive activities. The Showcase coincided with the publication of a book detailing the findings of the project:  Implicit and Explicit Language Attitudes – Mapping Linguistic Prejudice and Attitude Change in England by Dr McKenzie and Dr McNeill (Routledge, 2023).

The Speaking of Prejudice study findings have also generated considerable media interest locally, nationally, and internationally with interviews in a range of national newspapers about the findings of the project, and articles were published in The GuardianThe Times and The Daily Mirror. Opinion pieces have also been published in the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, Metro and The New York Times amongst others as well as TV and radio interview/panel discussions including LBC, GB News, BBC Radio York, and BBC Radio Ulster.

The ambition of the project is to raise awareness of the social, educational, and economic consequences of our deeply embedded prejudices towards particular speech varieties. A long-term objective is for speech variety to be given the status of a protected characteristic under equality legislation alongside skin colour, gender, and age. This protection would have a huge impact for people whose speech is discriminated against, consciously or unconsciously, offering greater equality in relation to school success rates, job interview outcomes, as well as within the criminal justice system.

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