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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

Are Regional Accents & Dialects Still Important In Society Today?

(Picture Credit - New York Times)

Identity is not just our character. It's our accent, our dialect and our heritage. Therefore, for a myriad of articles to state that regional accents and dialects are on the verge of dying out is quite frankly a travesty. Sure, it could be argued that that the tabloid press are stirring up some meaningless tosh, and maybe they are, but this is an important issue.

After all, regional accents and dialects, certainly in the UK at least, have been popularised the world over due to their cultural importance on both a nation's screens and airwaves. If it hadn't have been for Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, at least in the last few years, the Cockney accent may never have become so popular. After all, with such diversity to champion these days, maybe "Rodney, this time next year, we'll be [linguistic] millionaires!".

Sure, I'm no qualified or well read linguist, such as the effervescent David Crystal, but that doesn't mean that the point doesn't stand. The major factor behind this decline in regional accents and dialects, it can be argued, is thanks to a rigid class system. I'm not going to sit here and lecture on a form of linguistic Marxism; a class system has always existed, and most likely always will, but that doesn't mean that we should have this deference to different accents. Remember that classic Two Ronnies and John Cleese sketch? It'll be like that, only worse, and less hilarious:

Ronnie Barker, as the middle class chap in the middle, would say something along the lines of: "I look up to him because he speaks in Received Pronunciation."

And then John Cleese would look down and state: "I look down on him because he speaks Estuary English."

Ronnie Corbett on the end, obviously as a Cockney, would be left with the classic "I know my place."

It just doesn't work.

Just as a note, RP or Received Pronunciation is Standard, or the Queen's English, whilst Estuary English is the accent and dialect of those from Surrey - a bit of RP with hints of Cockney.

The decline of deference these days is nothing new. Indeed, people during the sixties took great delight in taking the mick out of the upper classes with the satire boom of the time, whilst they became economically enfranchised to a greater extent than ever before thanks to the rise of consumerism. Why is it that the same can't happen with accents and dialects? For some, it's just downright snobbery, but it's not always the truth.

Take our current bumbling Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Boris Johnson. The next time he blathers on about reading Greek poetry for pleasure, just listen to the way he stumbles over words like a small child on a school playground, and before you go mental, I've been that small child on many an occasion. Bloody shoe laces. Anyways, back to Mr. Johnson. It's almost admirable how such a character can get himself elected, but clearly people see something in him. We do live an age of personality politics these days and Johnson characterises this perfectly, with his stumbling over words and odd media appearances with scones in front of the BBC's cameras appealing so much so that he was elected last year with a stonking great majority.

It's certainly not his accent that people look up to him for, which just makes all those impressions on Dead Ringers all the more hilarious. The thing is, as people, it's in our nature and the human condition to love the different and absurd, so impressions of Johnson and former Conservative leader William Hague, a personal favourite of mine, appeal due to the way they sound. Impressions are a marvellous way to demonstrate how accents and dialects can be championed. Sure, some may argue that it's light ridicule, but if you can't see the fun in impersonating these big characters, where's the fun in life?

One of my proudest moments in life was meeting an idol of mine, the brilliant Jon Culshaw, and letting him hear my Donald Trump impression - he told me it needed a bit of polish, but otherwise was "so great; I love that impression." Again, Donald Trump, as leader of the free world, is in the media spotlight and a favourite of impressionists, such as Culshaw and literal Scottish vocal wizard Lewis MacLeod, which only further proves the point that without regional accents and dialects, even as far afield as the United States, comedy as diverse wouldn't be possible.

As time has passed, age-old institutions such as the BBC have moved away from the old and typical BBC English to newsreaders such as Huw Edwards with a deep Welsh accent. This move to regional accents is actually nothing new and has been around since the Second World War. Radio announcer Wilfred Pickles was picked for the World Service broadcasts from 1941 in a bid to unify the nation and give the BBC a more prominent human face, as opposed to the faceless Received Pronunciation that preceded Pickles' appointment. Some backlash came around as a result of Pickles' appointment however, with some listeners less inclined to believe the headlines having been delivered by a Northerner. Small tropes such as “gud neet” (good night) marked out Pickles from his cut-glass RP predecessors, acting as a gateway to a wider audience.

One other major problem for the destruction of our beloved English language is the overarching threat of technology. As the world moves increasingly towards Orwell's dystopian visions laid out in 1984, his views of "Newspeak" may about to come true. If a report from HSBC from a little while ago is to be believed, it's quite frightening to think that in a few decades, accents such as the screeching Scouse or the brilliantly aggressive Glaswegian could be swept away in the sands of time for good. Yes, technology has affected language in the past, with the advent of text speak, but that's a different type of change to this monstrosity. Whilst that was lexical and orthographical change (the change of words and spelling), a complete switch to voice activation software changes the face of language.

Regional dialects, like that of Cockney or Scouse, each have specific terms, that with the introduction of this voice activation software risks the ruin of some of Britain's most beloved terms. One notable loss would be the timeless Cockney rhyming slang. Whilst less used than in decades gone by, rhyming slang is still a core part of the Cockney dialect, with its somewhat coded nature appealing more than most dialects. Slang such as "Barnet Fair" to mean "hair" has been around since the Victorian era and to lose a core part of one of the UK's signature dialects is a partial loss of the fabric of British society. Indeed, it raises the interesting point that technology can be detrimental to English, as opposed to being a help. There's a certain amount of preservation that is offered with technology, but the advent of voice activation software could cause heavy losses of linguistic variation.

Say goodbye to your keyboards folks, there's a new kid on the block. No, not the band. The American voice activation software is here to pillage the Pennines, destroy Devon and savage Somerset. It'll be here to cause destruction, but all is not lost. You might need to speak louder or turn it off and on again before it'll be able to work properly.


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