Humans love status signals, and they can't be legislated away
“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him” — George Bernard Shaw’s famous line from Pygmalion was always my mum’s theory for why British TV and radio is always full of Irish people (like herself). Celtic accents are outside England’s class system of resentment, distrust and competitive disadvantage, and so put people at ease.
That the wrong accent can be a huge disadvantage is a truism featuring in countless plays and novels, and is as old as time. The Shibboleth of the Bible indicates how pronunciation could be deadly in identifying an out-group, a pattern that has repeated down the years, and as recently as the Lebanese Civil war.
But if something is a disadvantage, then the thinking goes that there must be remedy, and accentism — or “la glottophobie” — is coming before France’s National Assembly next Thursday, the proposal making it illegal to discriminate against regional ways of talking.
France has very distinct and strong regional accents — noticeable even to non-French speakers — but until the 20th century the majority of its citizens did not even speak French. When the Virgin Mary visited St Bernadette, she is recalled telling her Qué soï era inmaculado councepcioũ — “I am the Immaculate Conception” — which is clearly not French.
Lourdes would have been beyond provincial back then, but even today “having a regional accent in France means automatically that you’re treated like a hick — amiable but fundamentally unserious,” according the bill’s sponsor Christophe Euzet, from Perpignan.
The law might seem silly, but there is good evidence of wage discrimination based on accents, comparable in size to the gender wage gap, and at least the latter is mostly explained by motherhood. That study was from Germany, but it would be surprising if the same wasn’t found in England or France, two countries where the cultural pull and snobbery of the capital is strong. Even Americans, who despite their lack of aristocracy (or perhaps because of it) are obsessed with status, and can pick up accents from a very brief conversation.
Indeed there is some evidence of accent bias in Britain, and that northern students are ridiculed at university is hardly surprising or new; in medieval Oxford and Cambridge there were numerous riots between students from other sides of the country, often leading to multiple fatalities.
Accent discrimination is real, although whether or not laws against it would do anything but further empower lawyers is debatable. Such accentism might be impossible to remove because accents are subtle status signals, and humans have evolved to pick up on cues. (One of the worst things about Zoom, a friend in finance tells me, is not being able to pick up the status signals and thereby knowing who you can ignore in a meeting.)
And if an accent carries low status, then inevitably it will start to die, which I suspect is partly what agitates the southern French or northern English; no one wants their accent to disappear, because that represents a form of cultural death. Who would want to be the last speaker of the Lincolnshire accent, like the last living speaker of Cornish, facing a terrifying existential loneliness?
Of course in many ways accents are status signals in similar ways to opinions, which is why TV people have often put antediluvian opinions into the mouths of people with strong Lancastrian or Cockney accents, and why the future belongs to the privately-educated head of HR lecturing you about the latest initiative in Diversity and Inclusion.