An accent is an oral expression, a precise pronunciation within a particular language. Accents can often be confused with dialects which are varieties of language that differ in vocabulary and syntax. Commonly, people do not believe that they themselves possess one, however it is impossible for anybody to speak without using an accent. Accent variation is an important part of sociolinguistics because people often attach significance to different accents. This study concerns attitudes towards accent variation; the accent at the centre of this study is the non-standard accent of English, Liverpool English, commonly referred to as Scouse.
Liverpool English is one of the most recognisable accents in the country, and arguably, the world. The Scouse accent is infamous for its harsh, nasal tones and despite some similarities; it is distinctly different to the accents of the surrounding areas. A famous linguist, Fritz Spiel, once described the accent as ‘one-third Irish, one-third welsh, and one-third catarrh’ The accent is widely known for its negative stereotypes and the reason for this study is to investigate the hypothesis that Students at the University of Wales, Bangor have a positive attitude towards the Liverpool accent.
Accent variation is often most noticeable within the vowels used in pronunciation, however with the scouse accent, both the vowels and the continents are affected by the accent. The accent of an individual can often reveal information such as where they come from. However accents can also invite stereotypical judgements of social class, wealth and levels of education. The Liverpodlian accent has been heavily influenced by the Irish accent, for example Liverpudlians tend to pronounce the letter ‘H’ and ‘Haitch’.
The huge success of The Beatles in the 1960’s, a band who were all originally from Liverpool, helped to publicise the city of Liverpool in a positive way and encouraging the accent to be perceived as friendly. And a more recent positive change saw Liverpool become Britain’s favourite location for call centres (Ward, 2000). Despite these positive changes, which succeeded in generating a more positive public image for the city, a significant stigmatic view of the accent still appears to remain in modern society and this study will outline whether these stereotypical viewpoints are held by the students of the University of Wales, Bangor.
In 1975 a study was conducted by Giles and Powesland using a method called the matched-guise technique. This technique involved playing a recording of a speaker imitating different accents and then asking participants to rate the speaker on different categories such as attractiveness or social status. The study found that standard accents such as RP were more likely to be associated with a person who is a prestigious and articulate speaker. However, accents associated with urban areas were considered unattractive and thought to be spoken by low-status speakers. Rural accents were regarded as being aesthetically pleasing but inferior to RP in terms of social status. This particular study was repeated by an undergraduate student Sarah Wood (Stockwell 2002) who replicated the study but made some adjustments such as only using native speakers of the accents in her recordings and used all female students in their 20’s in order to control gender and age to improve the analysis. Her study concluded that southern accents attracted the highest ratings in most categories and the northern accents came out worst, with the urban accents being the most stigmatized. These studies highlight the stigma attached to particular accents and may be an important factor in the attitudes of the students of Bangor, towards the Liverpudlian accent.
The Liverpool English accent has been regarded in society as being ill educated and low prestige. This stereotypical view could well be influenced by the media’s representation of Liverpudlians, who are often portrayed in a negative or criminal way. In 2004, the BBC conducted an online poll to determine attitudes towards the accents and languages in the British Isles. The poll, of which there were 5000 participants, concluded that Asian, Liverpool and Birmingham accents were “unpleasant to listen to and lacking in social status” (BBC, 2004). In addition to this, participants were asked to rank celebrities by how pleasant their accents are. The Liverpudlian accents of celebrities Cilla Black and Paul o Grady were received negatively by participants. Another survey of 1000 participants, conducted by Bury Technologies, also concluded that the accent is unpopular, as Liverpool came out at the bottom of the poll of British accents. One third of Liverpudlians who took part in the nationwide survey admitted to changing or calming down their accent whilst being interviewed for a job in order to benefit their career.
To collect the relevant data, an online survey was conducted, in which participants were asked two questions. In the first question, participants were asked to state which words came to their minds when thinking of the Liverpudlian accent. Secondly participants were asked whether they thought there should be an increase in the amount of Liverpudlian accents within the media, and their reasons for this. The Questionnaire was sent to Students at Bangor University only to complete.
A recording of a Liverpudlian speaker was obtained for the study. The person in question was asked to talk for a short period of time about any subject in order for us to provide the participants with a firm understanding of the accent in question. The Individual being recorded held many of the typical scouse accent traits. To ensure that the data was easily comparable, a multiple choice questionnaire was produced for the study. The questionnaire consisted of ten questions concerning personal characteristics and social status, such as ‘polite or impolite’ of which the students had to tick the statement that they were in most agreement with. The Participants, all students from Bangor University, were each played the recording and asked to complete a multiple choice questionnaire designed to obtain the students’ personal opinions and expectations of this person based entirely upon their Liverpudlian accent.
Of the ten respondents to the online survey, the most commonly used words used to describe Liverpudlians were negative words such as ‘chav’, ‘criminal’ ‘thief’. However positive words such as ‘friendly’ were also used more than once. In response to an increase in Liverpudlian speakers in the media, the majority of the participants were in favour of the increase, either due to their being a lack of them in the media currently or because they particularly enjoy the sound of the accent. Two of the respondents remained neutral; however one stated that despite being neutral they find the accent to be ‘one of the ugliest in the country’. The final 3 respondents were against the idea, all claiming that the accent was difficult to understand.
The recording of the accent received a great deal of negative responses such as ‘generally unpleasant sounding’, ‘common’, ‘irritating, loud’ and ‘rough, harsh sounding’. On the contrary some participants responded positively, describing the accent as ‘friendly’ and ‘a nice sound’ The answers to the questionnaire support the common stereotype of ‘scousers’, with the majority of respondents assuming that the Liverpudlian would be untrustworthy, impolite, unfriendly, not wealthy, not educated past GCSE level, not in full-time employment and not have a high IQ level. On the slightly more positive side the majority of respondents assumed the Liverpudlian would not have criminal record, be average looking, and passive.
The study was limited to one particular social community. Only students at the University of Wales, Bangor were asked to participate and therefore the results are not statistically significant. The study only involved 30 participants and is not reflective of a large enough scale for the data to be considered representative on behalf of all of the students at the University.
A substantial flaw in the methodology of this survey is that the person on the recording was not reading from a particular script or text. His chosen dialogue may have influenced the opinions of the participants and their results may not have been an accurate reflection of their view of the accent itself, but rather of this particular personality. A more beneficial approach to the study would have been to have the speaker to read a text that was specifically written to contain accent variants of the Liverpudlian accent as this would have provided an accurate representation of the accent being discussed.
Within the recording the speaker expresses certain opinions and makes personal comments, this kind of speech could have easily affected the opinion of the students, particularly regarding questions of politeness and friendliness. The individual also made a comment when discussing his accent that ‘no UK residents tend to like it’. This information could have influenced a previously unbiased participant who took part in the survey as it shows the accent in a negative light and implies that having a dislike towards the accent is a common response. To have had the speaker read from a given text would have neutralised any alteration in his speech that may have occurred due to the subject or unscripted nature of the recording. Also the study may have benefitted from having a speaker with a broader accent, as although it was clearly a Liverpool accent; it wasn’t particularly strong which could be misleading by not presenting the students with a typical, strong Liverpudlian accent.
The background of the students could have influenced their level of loyalty towards Liverpool and the accent. The students chosen for the survey should have been restricted to those without a particular devotion towards to city, such as it being their hometown or birthplace. Having impartial participants would have resulted in a more accurate and honest representation of the students’ point of view as oppose to the student giving a positive view based on blind faithfulness rather than the accent.
This questionnaire assessed the students’ levels of expectations regarding the personality and social attributes of a person with a Liverpudlian accent. The following graph interprets the gathered data in terms of the students’ expectations of the speaker after hearing the recording.
An overall view of the data suggests that the students involved in the study, on average had negative opinions regarding an individual with a scouse accent, particularly in terms of honesty and social class. This study was performed using only a small sample of students from one university, which is not a good basis for investigating this hypothesis. The study would have to be repeated and carried out on a much bigger scale for the information to be representative of all the students at the University of Wales, Bangor.