Friday, 1 July 2011

What's in a voice?

As someone from Essex, I’m quite used to people making jibes about my accent and where I’m from. If truth be told though everyone is a bit guilty of making pre-judgements on someone after hearing the way they speak.

But where did these stereotypes and ideas come from?

What is the ideal accent?

I’ve come to the conclusion lately not to hide how I speak. After attending a couple of interviews I’ve realised companies should see more in you than how you speak and I’ve found the good ones do.  Granted, I’ll always try to make my voice sound a bit better and I do have a ‘phone voice’ at work – sometimes colleagues haven’t realised who it is when I’ve first picked up!

So what sorts of connotations (many of which seem to be negative), are linked with what accents? I guess many are associated with being a bit stupid or common – for example Essex, Cockney, Brummie, Welsh, Scouse or Geordie. Yet if you are ‘well spoken’ people tend to think you are well educated and probably of more importance, the downside here though is a lot of society may well decide you are posh and a snob as a result.

Why should you feel a pressure to speak a certain way? Years ago clearly it was a lot worse, the very idea of someone not speaking the Queen’s English on the BBC was simply unthinkable and look at it now. I’m pretty sure I would have been sent for elocution lessons and taught how to sound like a real lady!

I can even remember being at school and being labelled as very quiet (those who know me now please don’t faint in shock!) and this made me very self conscious. Pupils decided because I was quiet this made me ‘posh’ – clearly didn’t know me very well then! Of course I didn’t want to start school life as the one who was posh and stuck up, so I started to try and speak a bit more ‘Essexy’. I’ve never spoken perfect English don’t get me wrong, but I do think my Essex twang I have now was significantly increased by my efforts when I was 11 to make myself fit in more.

As somebody who has always loved learning about linguistics – whether in English A Level at college or through my degree at Uni – I’m well aware of the various features different accents adopt and how people adapt their voice. In fact, when my parents told me as part of their month long trip to Canada and the US they were visiting Martha’s Vineyard I was genuinely excited and piped up how there was a study there many years back. In this piece of research people were against the tourists coming there and adjusted their speech so that they could identify who the tourists were and make them feel unwelcome/left out (or something like that anyway).

There’s also the well known study which compared department stores in New York and how shop assistants used their pronunciation of the ‘r’ differently depending on how high class the store was deemed to be.

I think the age of those around you has an effect on how your voice develops too – as a young child I didn’t have any brothers or sisters and I had an ‘older’ family, so members around me were a lot older, as a result we noticed I picked up a lot of old fashioned sayings they all used. Similarly, before he started school and mixing with people his own age properly; my nephew often came out with one-liners that he’d clearly heard from his grandparents and older generations.

If you have a particularly noticeable accent I’m sure you too find it becomes stronger when you’re amongst certain people. I tend to find the Essex wears off a bit if I’m around people who speak in an accent more closely tied to Queen’s English and then if I react quickly to something without thinking it really comes out!

You obviously also get influenced from those around you. When I was at University the checkout manager at my Saturday job was from Norfolk and my family delighted in laughing at me when I came home and said the word ‘pork’, “you sound like a farmer!”

At the end of the day your accent is just another aspect of you that makes up who you are and I really don’t think you should ever be ashamed or try and change it. Each one has their own pros and cons. I for one being from Essex often find if I deal with someone with the same accent I find myself trusting them more. If I hear a northern accent I tend to feel the person is likely to be friendlier and if I hear an Irish accent, well...I tend to think of Gerard Butler in PS I Love You as Gerry or Colin Farrell – always a winner I think you’ll find!

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