Thursday, 2 June 2011

Accents and Attitudes...

Number one singles, high-profile romances and a regular slot on one of Britain’s most watched TV shows, arguably all of these would have been eclipsed by Cheryl Cole’s starring role on the judging panel of the US version of the X Factor. Yet, following Fox Broadcasting’s decision to relieve Cole of her duties after just two weeks in the job, we now know this is not to be. Cole’s meteoric rise to stardom in this country was no doubt helped by her well-known looks, but it was her North east roots and yes accent, which won her the tabloid accolade “Geordie Princess”. Following a well-trodden path of British superstars unable to “crack” America, (Oasis, Robbie Williams), Cole’s dismissal is noteworthy because it was her domestically-lauded Newcastle twang, apparently incomprehensible to American ears, which allegedly proved her undoing. 

In the United Kingdom surveys have consistently found that British ears find the Geordie accent desirable. Last April a study carried out by call-centre operator Sitel found that 2000 people rated the Geordie speakers the most likely to put them in a good mood and similar research undertaken by Travelodge, Cool Brands and the Aziz Corporation found Geordie to be the “sexiest” “coolest” and “most attractive” accent in England respectively. Clearly though this is a reputation it is not afforded across the pond. “When people say an accent is beautiful, ugly, charming or whatever, they are reacting to what they know about the area where that accent comes from” says renowned sociolinguist Peter Trudgill. Without this social context as a reference Americans do not have the favourable reaction to Cole’s voice that British people do. But not only do they not like Geordie, they can’t, by all accounts, understand it: “The further away an accent comes from the more difficult it is to understand” Trudgill continues. Accents only become more comprehensible through exposure and having rarely heard someone from Newcastle speak before, American TV audiences cannot be blamed for their inability to understand it.

Cole’s bad luck aside, the fortunes of those with regional accents pursuing a career in the media are certainly better now than they were 60 years ago. In 1941, Yorkshire born Wilfred Pickles became the first person with a regional accent to read the BBC’s national news broadcast. The reaction this precipitated from the London based media was derisory to say the least, as it marked a break from the BBC’s earlier policy of favouring received-pronunciation, now frequently dubbed “BBC English”. Thankfully a great deal of progress has been made since this time; so much in fact that Dr Joanna Thornborrow, from Cardiff University’s Centre for Language and Communication Research, believes “It is now advantageous to have a regional accent in the media”. Thornborrow notes that when she plays broadcasts from the 40s and 50s to her students it sounds as alien to them as Wilfred Pickles must have to the metropolitan elite of his day: “They are not used to it, they feel they are not the target audience”. It is no doubt a desire on behalf of the BBC and other broadcasters for their audience to identify with presenters that has led to a greater proliferation of regional voices, what Thornborrow terms “the democratisation of the media”.

Work in this field however is far from complete. “Some progress has been made. There are now people reading the news with Scottish, Irish and other regional accents” says Peter Trudgill, “but you still do not get people in positions of broadcasting eminence with strong regional accents”. Trudgill also identifies a hierarchy among regional accents which means that “some accents have a better chance than others”. He feels West Midlands and rural speakers are particularly underrepresented and Dr Thornborrow thinks more marked regional accents are permitted only in certain, less serious, genres. This point is corroborated by Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC who last year admitted that work was still needed to ensure “more variety”.   

Cole’s downfall was in fact pre-empted. When her American appointment was first announced in early May, numerous commentators questioned whether Cole would “tone down” her Newcastle dialect, which in turn prompted her empathic denial “'Never! I would be crucified where I'm from if I tried to change my accent.” And though this may seem like cutting your nose of to spite your face, Trudgill was unsurprised, “the bond between regional identity and accent is strong” and fewer regions demonstrate that strength better than the North East. Should Cole have compromised and carefully enunciated each word she spoke on air there’s no doubting she’d have been vilified in her hometown. As it stands she can now return home prematurely but with reputation intact.

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