Accents in Britain/Aussprache und Klassenunterschiede

At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum writes of the Neil Entwistle case, citing this:

bq. Priscilla Matterazzo told Connolly that her daughter returned to Massachusetts with her husband and baby in part because, the affidavit said, “Neil would never amount to anything in England because of his accent: He was obviously a coal miner’s son from a working class background.”

Pullum writes that this would be inconceivable in the USA.

bq. I wish I could dismiss it as nonsense to say that having an accent that marks you out as being from a working-class home in Worksop, Nottinghamshire (near Sherwood Forest, in the middle of England) might alter your employment prospects in a downward direction. But it is undeniable that if you elide initial [h] and pronounce putt the same way you pronounce put, speakers of British English will instantly draw a few conclusions about your likely intelligence level, reliability, morals, etc.

I suppose in the USA you don’t put a photo on your job application (unlike Germany) and you don’t mention your race, but ‘black English’ on the phone would not lead to such conclusions?

Anyway, there’s no doubt that people are aware of class in Britain. Things have changed a bit – I know some people who, forty years ago and maybe even less, learnt received pronunciation and gave up their regional accents. At that time, you scarcely heard an ‘accent’ on TV. Nowadays, watered-down Cockney or Estuary English would not even indicate class.

Meanwhile, back to the Entwistle case – when Neil Entwistle turned up in England in January, followed by Massachusetts prosecutors, it was at first said that he was not being sought in connection with the murder of his wife and child, but later he was described as ‘a person of interest’. I take this to be the US equivalent of ‘helping the police with their enquiries’.

Person of interest is on the Lake Superior State University 2006 List of Banished Words, and I’d only just met it:

bq. PERSON OF INTEREST – Found within the context of legal commentary, but seldom encountered at cocktail parties. “People with guns want to talk with you.” – Melissa Carroll from Greensboro, NC. “Does this mean the rest of us are too boring to deal with?” – Patricia Johnson from Mechanicsville, Va.


12 thoughts on “Accents in Britain/Aussprache und Klassenunterschiede

  1. Entwhistle is described as a “computer technician”, capable enough to be accused of responsibility for “a website … offering get-rich-quick schemes linked to p**n.”
    While racial prejudice certainly remains active in some areas, I believe that an African-American with that sort of programming ability could look forward to excellent career opportunities in the U.S., and would not be likely to see a move to another country as necessary for advancement.
    Here in the U.S., our real problem is not that black programmers can’t get jobs, or can’t get promoted, but rather that too few black youth are getting such skills in the first place.
    If the career outlook for a skilled programmer with the wrong accent is really poor in Britain — and I don’t know anything about this one way or the other — then the situation is genuinely different there.

  2. I can only guess what Entwistle meant by ‘would never amount to anything’, assuming he was the origin of that statement. I can’t see a skilled programmer being affected whatsoever in Britain. I imagine the statement about ‘too few black youth are getting such skills in the first place’ would apply in Britain too.
    What Entwistle might have meant is that there are certain old-school-tie networks that an outsider is unlikely to get into, but these would be in other fields of life than programming. It sounds as if he had a chip on his shoulder, but I don’t know enough about his background to confirm that.

    I haven’t been following the case, except that it came up when I was in England. I have seen a quote by Entwistle said to be on the ‘friends reunited’ site where he writes of his achievements in university rowing ‘Rowed throughout my degree – proud to be that white rose. Showed those public school $%^&’s how to do it properly.’, which suggests animosity against the minority who go to public schools (in the BE sense of the word).

    But I think this is fairly recent. I imagine it will be commented on in the British press too – especially the press in the Nottinghamshire area!

  3. >> suppose in the USA you don’t put a photo on your job application (unlike Germany) and you don’t mention your race, but ‘black English’ on the phone would not lead to such conclusions?

  4. Any old English accent should help in the U.S. When I came here after legal training in England, the English taint in my German-accented version of English was helpful. There are still lawyers to be found who British-ize their American mother tongue. And commercials for high-priced products favor English accents, no matter which English region the narrator may hail from. So, I am not surprized that Entwhistle found his accent beneficial in the U.S.
    At the same time, I doubt that any coal-miner’s kid from West Virginia would not suffer a similar fate outside of West Virginia unless the person acquired a more neutral American accent.

  5. Last night I was listening to NPR (I love internet radio) and I heard an interesting report on their show “All Things Considered” about how the regional differences in America are becoming more and more different.

    I’ve added a link below to the interview with Professor William Labov, a University of Pennsylvania linguist and author of the book “Atlas of North American English Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change,” who claims that there is a shift of vowel sounds in the inland northern cities. He calls it the “northern city shift.”


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