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Viewpoint / Taking pride in speaking with a regional accent

‘We often talk about racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ageism and such, but rarely about discrimination towards regional accents’, writes Whalsay journalism student Chloe Irvine.

SINCE being in Edinburgh I have experienced countless remarks regarding my Whalsay accent, some of which were light-hearted jokes and didn’t concern me, others were needlessly boorish.

Chloe Irvine.

The most shocking – I was on the train in standard class. Returning to Edinburgh from Inverness since being at my friend’s 20th birthday. There were four people sat across from me drinking red wine, who I would describe as being very posh spoken. They were discussing each other’s careers, types of cheese, places they’ve travelled and all the things stereotypically and commonly associated with ‘posh’ people.

I decided to phone my mum and speak to her. I was busy talking to her and minding my own business. Then the lady closest to me on the other side leaned into the man next to her and said, “What kind of an accent is that!” Both of them looked me up and down, from head to toe. I was staring right back at them. Yet they felt no sense of shame or penitence at the realisation I had overheard everything.

The tone in which she spoke and her facial expressions indicated abhorrence and sheer disapproval towards me. It felt almost as if I was regarded inferior to them based on the fact I speak differently. Although I did not say anything, it deeply enraged me, as previous comments I have received in Edinburgh and in parts of Shetland outside of Whalsay have done so. This time it was particularly heinous. This encounter occurred just a week ago on a ScotRail train.

I would be completely delusional to believe Whalsay accents are always easy to understand if you aren’t a native speaker. However, surely I should have the right to have a private conversation in my accent without such animosity.

This issue isn’t just exclusive to me or those with my particular accent. According to HR News, eight out of 10 employers have confessed that regional accents has an impact on whether they decide to employ someone or not.

A teacher from Cumbria told the Guardian that they were advised to speak “less Cumbrian”. Pupils from the West Midlands were also reportedly forced to stop speaking in their regional accent, so that they have a greater chance of getting employed in future. Surely this is a cultural loss, classist and down-right snobbish.

Imagine if the entire United Kingdom sounded the same? No one would have a sense of regional identity or pride in who they are and where they come from. As a result of uppity opinions and pressure to speak the ‘Queen’s English’. I have been told to “speak English” on countless occasions, but this request simply doesn’t apply to me because I’m not English, nor do I wish to be, and I among others take pride in speaking with a strong regional accent.

Therefore, receiving unnecessary insults regarding your speech is pernicious. Perhaps, the lesson is to have more inclusivity for those with strong accents, rather than trying to alter the way they talk to please cavalier societal standards, as accents don’t determine intelligence or knowledgeability.

This attitude also particularly applies in journalism, especially in the television sector. The Times released an article on how BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg “broke the mould” just for having a vaguely Scottish accent and went to Edinburgh University instead of Oxford. However, she is privately educated and comes from an immensely privileged background.

Many social media users who responded to the article, didn’t even realise that Kuenssberg was Scottish, due to the elocution in her voice. Yet she stated in the interview that 10 years ago she wouldn’t have “landed the number one political job on TV” due to what The Times of London described as a “strong Scottish accent”.

Therefore, if her being a correspondent for the BBC is a celebration of representation, then what hope do aspiring journalists such as myself and others with strong regional accents have of reaching success? Surely this demonstrates a lack of diversity and inclusivity in our mainstream media.

The fictional crime series Shetland on BBC One has actors speaking in a Glaswegian or non-Shetland accent. With the use of words such as ‘aye’ which we don’t even say. However, their characters are supposed to be Shetlanders.

A course mate of mine told me that he had no idea that Shetlanders speak the way I do, as his only guide has been the BBC crime series. Usually if you obtain a role of people from a different place, you research the accent and try to mimic it.

For example, Idris Elba put on a South African accent when he played Nelson Mandela in the film Long Walk To Freedom despite actually being English. Chiwetel Ejiofor spoke with an American accent in the film 12 Years A Slave despite really being English. Meryl Streep spoke in a Polish accent in the film Sophie’s Choice despite being American. Margot Robbie spoke in an American accent in The Wolf of Wall Street even though she is Australian. Colin Farrell spoke American in Tigerland despite actually being Irish.

Therefore, why can’t accents such as Shetland accents be correctly represented? Television and film have recently had to diversify racially and gender-wise, so that the people onscreen reflect the viewers at home, as well as make them feel like they belong and are represented and normalised. So, isn’t it time to do the same with regional accents?

This article originally appeared online on 8 April.