Well it seems to me that call centres and tv advertisers have embraced regional accents almost completely these days. Listening to Sean Bean as the voice of O2 (or is it Or Ter Sean?) and that maddening bloke on the Go Compare ads with his S Wales accent and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s no longer possible to market anything with good old Received Pronunciation, except perhaps Crabbies ginger beer. So it was with a smile this morning that I read the article in the i newspaper by editor Simon Kelner, gently chiding TV presenter Donna Air for deliberately softening her native Geordie accent for something a little plummier, now that she is going out with the Duchess of Cambridge’s brother and mixing with an altogether posher set. Whey aye pet. Now you may not be too surprised to learn that Simon is a northerner himself, as indeed am I. Having spent over 40 years living down south I am aware that my accent has gently softened a touch in that time, so I’ll resist the temptation to join the chorus mocking poor Donna for betraying her roots and all that nonsense. Anyway I hope you enjoy Simon’s piece…
Poor Donna Air. The TV presenter (I know this is her job, because I’ve read it: I have obviously never seen her present anything on television) has been widely ridiculed for shedding her Geordie accent in favour of something resembling Received Pronunciation.
You can take the girl out of Newcastle, but heaven help her if she seeks to sound a little less like Jimmy Nail. She is currently stepping out with the Duchess of Cambridge’s brother, and has felt that, in order to fit in with the posh set with whom she’s now socialising, she needed to soften her regional accent. This is not a story of our times: there is a lineage stretching all the way back to Eliza Doolittle, which illustrates how, in this class-ridden country, the way we speak is indicative of breeding, style and even intelligence.
Only last month, the BBC business journalist Stephanie McGovern, who comes from Middlesbrough, said that her strong northern accent is the subject of disparaging comments from viewers. “Despite being a business journalist at the BBC for 10 years,” she said, “I was viewed by some in the organisation as being too common for telly.” She said that she received letters questioning whether she’d been to university, or suggesting she takes elocution lessons.
Even in these enlightened, politically correct times, there are still pockets of prejudice when it comes to accents. The rent-a-quote numpty Katie Hopkins, who was once on The Apprentice, was given plenty of airtime with her assertion that “if you have a northern accent, you sound more stupid”. I have news for you, Ms Hopkins. You couldn’t sound more dumb if you were from the Planet Dumb, watching Dumb and Dumber, while lifting a set of dumb bells. She went on to be more specific, singling out the Liverpool and Newcastle accents as particularly egregious examples of the country’s dialectic diversity. “For some people regional accents are difficult to understand,” she opined. “This is a London-centric country. The London accent is the best reflection of that.”
A ludicrous observation, of course, but even so, you can understand why Ms Air got out her old DVD of My Fair Lady, and decided that “alreet, pet” might not be considered the most appropriate form of greeting with the Middletons. We are all adept at modifying our behaviour to suit our social environment – the late columnist Lynda Lee-Potter said that she lost her northern accent the moment she got off the train at Euston – but it strikes me as bizarre and depressing that we still feel it necessary to disguise our linguistic birthright.
As a northerner myself, I may be sensitive to the accusation that my accent says something about me. But there is another, more positive, way of looking at it. I have just spent a couple of days up north, in the course of which I had to see a car mechanic. He spoke with a broad Wakefield accent. Immediately, I felt I could trust him. He sounded warm, genuine, down-to-earth and honest. Those are the values I pick up when I hear a northern accent. So be careful, Donna, that you don’t lose that in the battle to be accepted in what’s considered polite society.
If you’ve got any thoughts on the impact of accents in today’s world then do please shout!