Dialect prejudice?


In dramatic shorthand, a working class character in a film is often given the dialect and/or accent of English of someone from from the southwest of the country, or perhaps a Midlands or northern accent. For example, consider the dialect and accent of Sam Gamgee, the gardener and manservant to the upper-middle class (Standard English/Received Pronunciation-speaking) Frodo Baggins in the recent “The Lord of the Rings” films. The patronising implication is that the audience will associate the “provincial” accent with a less educated, working class character, lacking in “book” knowledge but making up for it in loyalty and determination. For those of you who know the Tolkien books on which the films were based, be honest: could you imagine Sam Gamgee speaking like Prince Charles?

The Received Pronunciation combined with spoken Standard English that the Prince of Wales speaks have become the dialect of Hollywood films’ baddies, a quick and easy-to-grasp code that tells the (largely American) popcorn munching masses that the one with that James Mason accent is the sinister bad guy. Our infatuation with American culture in the form of its two principle exports, film and television have conditioned much of the English speaking world to be prejudiced against this way of speaking.

Once, such a mode of speech could once have marked a person (rightly or wrongly) as educated and trustworthy, the principle being, I imagine, that it was more likely that the person concerned had been to a good school and university, where certain timeless values (Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eton bla bla bla) were instilled. Maybe there was little bit of truth in such an assumption in the era of the British Empire when public schools were the only source of an education good enough to equip a generation with the skills to run that empire. Now of course, a meritocratic democracy rightly prevails: your accent doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter.

Really?

I unashamedly (try to) speak Standard English with an accent that, while not in the same league as that of the Queen’s, nevertheless approaches it. Why? Because I was brought up in several parts of the world. I never lived anywhere long enough to permanently adopt a dialect and accent specific to a particular region. The only traces that have remained are the pronunciation of “because” as “becuzz” from my childhood years in Cornwall and a tendency to use a Barbadian accent when I get excited. I therefore adopted a style of speech that my teachers, grammar books and the BBC advocated. It was, I naïvely thought, neutral in tone and after all, was promoted as being the gold standard of English.

The trouble with Standard English and RP is that they represent the speech of the so called “upper” class whose (in most cases unearned) privilege and wealth are rightly criticised by those outside that particular socio-economic group. Those of us who have adopted RP and Standard English but are not upper class are therefore doomed to experience a sort of prejudice. The prejudice that drives film makers to give Samwise Gamgee a Gloucestershire accent and dialect because it denotes him as servile is, on occasion, matched by a prejudice against those who use RP and Standard English. “If you speak RP and Standard English”, the thinking presumably goes, “you must think you are superior, whatever your social background or your values”. How unfair.

I’m tempted to get a T-shirt printed that declares my membership of the middle class, despite my dialect and accent.

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2 thoughts on “Dialect prejudice?”

  1. i am a student form sheffield doing a dialectal project on the varieties of english used in film and literature and would like ot quote your site, but i would be more confident if i knew you were speaking from a point of authority. are you?

  2. Hello Alex,

    You’re welcome to quote me if the URL is credited, but my only qualifications are that I speak mostly Standard English with RP, I have an ‘A’-Level in English and an Honours degree in French Studies. Other than that, I’m just opinionated, so I doubt I qualify as an authority for your purposes 🙂

    Good luck finding other sources. You might, by the way get some mileage out of Eddie Izzard: ask him why he uses James Mason’s voice as the voice of God in his stand up routines…

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