We have had considerable discussion on the issue of racial prejudice. And quite right, too. But today I want to think about another prejudice. It rarely gets considered, it can have important advantages and disadvantages, and it appears to be near universal, at least in the UK. And I have to say that because I must accept that I certainly have it. Do you? If so, you may recognise my confession.
The issue is accent. It would seem that we make instinctive judgments about the people we meet. Some accents depend on origin – say Scottish or West Country. Immediately they indicate to me the nature of the speaker. For instance, I assume a Scotsman to be careful about money. The West Country accent suggests rural, and all that goes with that. But the ordinary English accent is what I have in mind.
Quite simply an English accent immediately suggests class – and with the right class — comes intelligence and reliability. It can sometimes be taken too far. Rees Mogg is an example — rightly or wrongly, I assume that his accent was constructed by him or his forebears. Nor, my mother assumed, is the accent of the Royal Family. When I went out into the world my mother said, “Don’t marry into the Royal Family – they are upstart Germans.” However, that issue, unsurprisingly, never occurred. But my mother was a Thorold, and the Thorolds are a pre-Conquest family. My mother was not in any way a snob – she always had excellent relationships with the servants: some of whom, after 60 years, still send me Christmas cards.
I have a vivid memory of Wilfred Pickles reading the BBC News in the late 40’s. I found that I could not rely on his rustic Yorkshire accent, and had to check it with a BBC News read in a public school accent. I have a theory that the criterion to be accepted by a leading university is related to accent. It may be changing nowadays.
The word ‘girl’ interests me. The common pronunciation is ‘gurl’. But, until I started school, I used ‘gal’. And I fear that I still do. No one takes any notice nowadays so another measure of background has sunk into the background.
The subject is an important one. Racial prejudice is rightly condemned because it leads to unfair assumptions. So we may have a picture in our minds of the characteristics of Jewish people, or Irish people, or working class people – and so on. And perhaps we are not aware that all such groups affect our judgments of the people we meet – whether positively or negatively. But although our day to day judgments are not seen as racialism, the vices of racialism may abound without the knowledge of the individual who is unconsciously making the judgment. Me, certainly – and you perhaps?