Prejudice about regional accents is still prevalent in Britain, and can lead to discrimination, according to leading UCL neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott.
Speaking in advance of delivering the 2017 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, speech expert Professor Scott (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) said: "We sound the way we do for a whole range of reasons - cultural, emotional, social - and we tend to judge other people’s accents on the same basis. I passionately love Lancashire accents, for example, because it sounds like home to me.
"But when our judgements about people’s attractiveness or intelligence or capability are based on their accent, then this cultural baggage we all have has the potential to become discriminatory. The words people are using are a far better test of ability or competence than the way they are saying them."
"This is a really fascinating subject and we’ll be looking at what defines our accents - why we sound the way we do - during the Christmas Lectures later this month. The simple fact is we are always trying to understand people based on the way they sound and this can lead us all to make snap judgements."
A wealth of polls in recent years have attempted to pinpoint the UK’s sexiest or most intelligent sounding accents.
A late 2015 poll by British Airways concluded that a Glaswegian accent is the sexiest, while the Geordie accent is the most intelligent. And a 2014 YouGov survey found the Southern Irish accent to be the most attractive and the Birmingham, or Brummie accent, the least. In the same poll, the Liverpudlian accent was ranked as 11th, out of 12 accents, with an attractiveness score of minus 33.
Yet their findings lack scientific evidence according to Professor Scott.
Meanwhile, research shows that 28% of the UK population feel that they have been discriminated against due to their regional accent, while 80% of employers admit to this discrimination. And when combined with discriminatory attitudes, such as those uncovered by the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which found that entry into elite firms continues to be dominated by people from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds, having a Liverpudlian accent could act as an unfounded barrier to career progression or social acceptance.
Professor Sophie Scott will deliver the 2017 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, being broadcast on BBC Four on the 26, 27 and 28 December at 8pm.
Through ’The language of life’, a demonstration-packed three lecture series, Professor Scott will take us on a fascinating journey through one of the fundamentals of human and animal life - the unstoppable urge to communicate - to discover why communication is such a huge part of our lives, reveal how evolution has honed our capacity to most effectively send and receive messages, and ask whether modern technology is enriching or ruining the way we interact.
- Professor Sophie Scott - photo credited to Paul Wilkinson Photography
- The Royal Institution