Accent – how to understand it
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Accent – definition
Accent refers to a speaker’s style of pronunciation.
It may signal the regional or social identity of the speaker.
Accent does not refer to the content of what is being said.
Received Pronunciation [RP] is a form of speech used by (for instance) many BBC newsreaders and members of the Royal Family.
It is based on social class, not on the geographic origins of the speaker.
A Geordie accent is the regional speech style used by speakers in the North East of England.
A Cockney accent is the indigenous speech style used by people in the London area.
‘Book’ might be pronounced as ‘Bewk’ in northern England, but ‘Back’ in southern England.
Similarly, the term ‘car’ might be pronounced as ‘kaar’ and ‘caw’ in these two regions.
Every geographical area has its own characteristic and recognisable style of speech which is used by a group.
Everybody speaks with an accent. Those people who speak with received pronunciation [RP] are merely using the minority speech style of prestige.
It is quite common for a person to speak Standard English with a regional accent.
NB! Accent is not the same thing as dialect.
The term dialect refers to grammar and vocabulary as well as pronunciation. That is, it describes the content of speech.
Fewer than two percent [yes! – 2%] of the UK population speak Received Pronunciation (RP). Perhaps this statistic is surprising when we consider what prestige it has held historically and currently.
RP was once itself a regional accent – that of the East Midlands. It acquired its status because East Midlands speakers converged on London as it became a centre for merchants. In other words, London became the power base and the financial centre, and the East Midlands accent became the spoken standard.
This prestige accent developed alongside the regional accent of the London area. The co-existence of these two accents still exists today. The Cockney accent is spoken in the East End of London by many original Londoners, whilst RP is spoken by many politicians and by upper-class people who live and work in the same area.
The Cockney accent is a regional accent, and RP is class-based.
Many regional speakers feel uncomfortable about their accent. This perpetuates the deference and prestige given to RP.
Recent studies have shown that RP speakers will often be chosen for jobs, despite the superior skills of regional-speaking competitors.
Some presenters on radio and television are employed even though they have strong regional accents. However, they tend to be used on programmes which are not very prestigious, such as weather forecasts, arts programs, and regional news bulletins.
Accent can still be a very powerful indicator of status, and it is often an emotive item in social interaction.
Speech varies subtly between individuals using the same accent. Because of this, a broad description is all that can be achieved. This applies to the classification of other accents too.
Self-assessment quiz follows …
© Roy Johnson 2003
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