Following the news that researchers predict all northern accents will die out in the next 50 years, one writer reflects on the complicated journey she’s had with her Yorkshire voice after moving to London.
“Bouquet residence, lady of the house speaking.” Growing up, I laughed every time Hyacinth Bucket answered the phone with this line in Keeping Up Appearances. God forbid if the vicar or the neighbours discovered Hyacinth’s parents and sister still lived on the council estate she grew up in. Today, I think about Hyacinth when facing my own relationship with my status in society – particularly the role my voice plays in it.
When the government talks about social mobility, I’m perhaps one kind of example of what they mean. I grew up in a northern town in a single-parent, low-income family. At one point, we were declared homeless in order to get an emergency council house. Through dreams of aspiration, going through higher education and a skip and hop down to London, I’ve managed to break into a competitive industry dominated by middle-class men.
But the reality is that, throughout all of this, I felt I had to edit myself to get by and get ahead. I know I’m not the only working-class woman who’s done this. And for women of colour, it’s on another level: earlier this year, the Trades Union Congress reported that 31% of surveyed women of colour say they were unfairly passed over for or denied a promotion at work. Many Black women ’code-switch’ to fit in with white norms.
For me, monitoring my voice has been a big factor. I always assumed that professionals in London would associate a regional accent with my upbringing – an upbringing that, thanks to the pressure to be ‘socially upwards’, I couldn’t help but see as being ‘lower’. So, I always made a conscious effort to dilute my Yorkshire tones and keep things neutral.
I was perhaps right to make the assumption, as research by the University of Manchester in 2019 suggested that broad regional accents are a barrier to social mobility. Senior linguistics lecturer Dr Alex Baratta said: “Social mobility can also mean ‘accent mobility’ – individuals can ‘move’ their accents to coincide with a move in postcode.”
But to deny my real accent is to deny my identity. There have been times when family members have pointed out they think I sound ‘posh’. I used to worry they thought I was ashamed. Maybe I was? Playing two roles – north Hollie and south Hollie – has been complicated, and it comes with a lot of guilt, shame and frustration. While I agree that a person’s background should never dictate their future, I wonder if social mobility has created a narrative that someone needs to ‘escape’ from who they are.
That’s why, over recent years, as I’ve started to address the stigma that comes with so many social mobility stories, I’ve come to reacquaint myself with my Yorkshire accent. In fact, I sometimes notice myself putting on a thicker accent and using a certain dialect in a sort of act of defiance. I actually have no idea what my accent is anymore, but I have started to let it work itself out rather than forcing how I want it to sound.
Perhaps the fact that I haven’t been in an office for 18 months has been a factor? Or maybe I’m just at a point where I’m tired of pretending and I know my value. If anyone else wants to judge my worth based on my accent, well… fuck ‘em. I do not want to be a bouquet when I’m actually happy being a bucket.
Just as I’ve got back into the swing of declaring I’m ‘off t’shop’ and shouting ‘y’what?’, I heard earlier this week that researchers at Cambridge University have predicted the northern accent will die out in 50 years’ time. They say that children across the north of England are increasingly using pronunciation used in the south because that is what they are taught and it’s easier to pick up. Basically, northerners will pronounce words the same as southerners within half a century – and that’s really, really sad news.
I don’t want to think of a world where everybody pronounces the two Ts in butter. Or where bus drivers and shop keepers don’t call you ‘chuck’. And an office wouldn’t be the same without debates over how to pronounce ‘scone’ (draw out that O, people) and what word to use for a round bread roll (it’s obviously a ‘bap’). Let’s not even get started on how to say ‘bath’ (I’d like to point out that there is no R in bath).
I can’t help but think that, despite the reasons cited, the fact that regional accents are still viewed as a barrier in a society fixated on class feeds into this. The only shame I have now is over the shame I had in the first place. It’s time to stop keeping up appearances.