Affected Accents: From RP to Mid-Atlantic, Does an Accent Indicate Your Social Class?

If you want to climb the social ladder, you’d better develop the accent for it.

All kidding aside, accents often suggest a certain social class and give the – wink – to those in yours.

Thing Gatsby’s affected British accent in The Great Gatsby.

In Great Britain itself, accents have long been a way to differentiate between the aristocracy and those of the working-class population.

Inference in Accents

George Bernard Shaw wrote in his book, Pygmalion

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

Through accent and dialect, a listener can infer several things:

  • Where the person is from
  • What his social standing is
  • His general background

And when you can infer things about a person, prejudices or stereotypes associated with those inferences might move you to pass judgment based solely on the way someone speaks.

Received Pronunciation & Mid-Atlantic Accents

Regional accents in Great Britain were quite static up until the late 20th century, because many English people were working class and couldn’t afford to travel.

Their isolation forged broad regional accents and dialects, like Cockney and Brummie.

However, those who belonged to the upper echelons of society – the aristocracy and noble classes – had the opportunity to move freely…to a point.

They were mainly mixing with only those of their own social class.

This created a distinct neutral accent called Received Pronunciation (RP), which is largely spoken by Westminster politicians.

The U.S. – or, more specifically, the Golden Age of Hollywood – comparatively produced the Mid-Atlantic accent.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are well-known speakers of it: an affected accent that nobody actually speaks, named for the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where nobody actually lives.

Similarly, RP became an affected social accent used at prestigious schools and universities in the 19th century, so much so that it is said to be the native accent for about 3 percent of the UK’s current population.

Like the Mid-Atlantic accent, the “r” sound is dropped, conveying a sense of refinement and wealth.

Order becomes “awdah.”

Work becomes “wuhk.”

RP also splits off into various distinct accents based on certain social categories.

Mainstream RP is commonly used by BBC journalists, for instance.

Conservative RP is used by the aristocracy and older generations.

Contemporary RP is used by younger generations and is similar to Estuary English (spoken in southeast England’s Home Counties region).

Because the upper social classes largely socialize with only each other, their accents were allowed to grow in isolation from regional accents and dialects. 

Cockney Code: The Rough-and-Fast Rules of a Dialect

From “taking the mickey” to “making Barney Rubble,” the key to understanding dialects is to crack the code.

Some are more difficult to crack than others.

We’ve talked about how dialects formed across the UK, mostly due to its long history and isolation.

So, let’s take a look at how one might decode these complex dialects.

Cockney Rhyming Slang

One of the most commonly known English dialects, Cockney, is spoken by working-class Londoners, most often from the city’s East End – specifically within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside.

The dialect of Cockney is born of rhyming slang, a tradition believed to have originated in a criminal code used to fool the police or to keep customers out of the loop in the mid-19th century.

How does this rhyming slang work?

Random nouns are replaced with the odd words of common expressions. The expressions use words that rhyme with the original noun.

Some examples:

  • “Use your head” becomes “use your loaf” (“head” rhymes with “bread,” as in “loaf of bread”)
  • “I’m going upstairs” becomes “I’m going up the apples” (“stairs” rhymes with “pears,” as in “apples and pears”)
  • “Here’s your wife” becomes “Here’s your trouble” (“wife” rhymes with “strife,” as in “trouble and strife”)
  • “Give me some money” becomes “give me some bread” (“money” rhymes with “honey,” as in “bread and honey”)

Outliers in the Code

There is no end to the quirks of the Cockney dialect.

Some phrases don’t omit the rhyming word; instead, the entire phrase is used. For instance, in the case: 

  • “Would you believe it?” becomes “Would you Adam and Eve it?” (“believe” rhymes with “Eve”)

Other rhyming slang can also use obscure expressions, making the code even more difficult to crack. For instance, in the case:

  • “Having an egg” becomes “having a borrow and beg” (an expression that was renewed during WWII food rationing)

“New Cockney” even incorporates pop culture figures into the language, in the case:

  • “Christian Slater” standing in for “later” or “Sweeney Todd” is slang for a London police force unit known as “the Flying Squad.”

As you can see, unless you know the “code,” you’ll find yourself hard put to communicate in Cockney.

And British dialects in the English language split off even further.

Next week, we’ll look at how the dialect differentiates from Brummie and Geordie.

Sociolinguistics, Language Prejudice, & Regional Stereotypes

Y’all come back now, ya hear?” – Ellie May, The Beverly Hillbillies

No one ever lived after he’d decided ter kill ‘em, no one except you, an’ he’d killed some o’ the best witches an’ wizards of the age — an’ you was only a baby, an’ you lived.” – Hagrid, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Whether you realize it or not, you may judge each of these phraseologies and their accents based on where you live.

If you’re from America, you might associate certain stereotypes with the South, and the obvious Southern drawl might trigger prejudice, whether consciously or subconsciously.

One example of this appears in The Routledge Handbook of Sociolinguistics Around the World, wherein a detailed study was conducted by Bucholtz, Bermudez, Fung, Edwards, and Vargas on the perceptual dialectology of California in 2007.

The study found:

“that the most salient linguistic boundary is between the northern and southern regions, although, reminiscent of Clopper and Pisoni (2006), category labels ranging from ‘surfers’ to ‘hicks’ played a role in the social map.”

Essentially, the way you speak – often regionally-based or relative to your sub-culture – may result in a label of some kind.

If you’re from Britain, a coarser accent, like the one spoken by Hagrid above, might be associated with lower-class stereotypes, as opposed to those considered “posh.” 

As mentioned last week, the wealthier classes have always attempted to distinguish themselves through their language’s social patterning. The lower class accents and phraseology, therefore, are often distinctly different from those of the aristocracy.

Either accent might trigger conscious or subconscious prejudices as well. As soon as a person’s mouth opens to speak, their class may be revealed, and the prejudices associated become sharp and glaring.

Sociolinguistics visits all of this and more.

What is sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics is “the study of language in relation to social factors, including differences of regional, class, and occupational dialect, gender differences, and bilingualism.” – Oxford

The sociolinguistics of a country are often nationally-based.

Funnily enough, Americans, who speak English, might not be able to differentiate between the stereotypically “posh” accents and the stereotypically lower- or middle-class ones in the UK.

They may not feel the same prejudices against the person speaking as their British counterparts, whose ear is attuned to these differences and mind is attuned to the prejudices associated with them in their country.

Likewise, those from other English-speaking countries likely don’t have the same associations with the American Southern accent and the South as Americans do.

Therefore, for foreigners, specific social patterning might not reinforce the regional prejudice related to these stereotypes, such as a person’s level of education or intelligence.

This is all deeply entrenched, rooted in the history of the country, regions, and the values, norms, traits, and behaviors associated with them across time.

Whether the regional values, norms, traits, and behaviors have evolved or not, the linguistic stereotypes remain.

Sociolinguistics: How Do Languages Change Across Cultures?

Cross-cultural barriers.

That’s what you’re facing when ethnocentricity enters into international communication.

You’ll run into every communication barrier imaginable, some variables of which include:

  • Language, itself
  • Nonverbal communication norms
  • Authority ranks
  • Technological environment
  • Social environment
  • Natural environment

Understanding the cultures with which you are working and studying up on these variables will help you combat your own innate ethnocentricity, allowing cross-cultural communication to go infinitely more smoothly.

Let’s take a look at how these misunderstandings arise.

Linguistic Misunderstandings

It goes without saying that language is paramount to communication.

But when you work cross-culturally, you may not speak the same language, which means you and your counterpart will be relying on translators to assist communication.

Hiring a good translator can make or break communication, especially considering, even without a language barrier per se, linguistic understandings can still occur.

Take American versus British English, for instance.

Both cultures speak English, with minor differences in vocabulary, so you might assume communication would be cut and dry. But the culturally-grounded differences in vocabulary, phrasings, and accents have the potential to throw a wrench in communication.

Sociolinguistics

Enter, sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics creates rifts in cross-cultural communications via the social patterning that sometimes distinguishes class, inflates stereotypes, or highlights other national prejudices.

In fact, the differences between American and British English actually stem from class distinction, itself.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the British exported the English language to America.

Those who settled in America pronounced the ‘r’ in words, something known as “rhotic speech.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, to distinguish themselves from the commoners, the upper classes began softening their ‘r’s. But the distinction didn’t last long as the masses naturally followed, thus creating a profound difference in pronunciation between British and American English.

The change in spelling and vocabulary was more intentional.

Without standardized spelling, dictionaries were necessary to preserve the pronunciation of words.

Those in the UK were created by scholars in London, while those in the US were compiled by lexicographer, Noah Webster.

According to some, in order to establish cultural independence from the motherland, Webster changed the way American words were spelled (no ‘u’ in colour, for instance), thus creating further differences in the English language across the two cultures.

Minor Details are of Major Importance

Minor details are crucial when it comes to business negotiations, therefore the fine print might be blurred by minor differences in language.

The more minor the detail, the more difficult it is to correct.

For instance, you can spot a major translation error from a mile away. Although correcting such errors may consume a lot of time, look unprofessional, and put stress on negotiations, at least they’re easy to catch.

However, accents, dialects, and cultural language choices can strain international negotiations between two cultures who are, more or less, linguistically on the same page.

We’ll talk more about this next week.