British television executives may think there is a rich spread of voices on the small screen, but in fact the extraordinarily varied historic dialects of our language are effectively censored. The few times you do hear them it’s for light entertainment – usually poking fun. The only exception is when a disaster occurs and news reporters seeks bystanders to react – then we do get to hear how the people of Britain really speak countrywide.
Why? The answer is obvious: our great national taboo, social class. The working-class voice is excluded from British television. Surveys report that Britons don’t like the accents of the industrial cities, such as Birmingham. They reportedly feel more kindly towards “quaint” rural voices, but with the correlative stereotypes that rural speakers sound thick and urban speakers sound criminal.
Welsh, Scottish and Irish accents score a little higher in people’s preferences, which is why you’ll hear newscasters with middle-class varieties of those accents (but using Standard English, never regional, grammar). But when did we last hear working-class London, Liverpudlian or Aberdonian accents anchoring the national TV news?
Sitcoms, sport and reality TV allow regional accents, to a degree – but dialect grammar, the nuts and bolts of everyday language, is rarely heard.
By dialect, I don’t just mean “rural” – though let’s start with the countryside. On Dartmoor field boundaries: “when you stone hedgy you put the stones up edgeways”. That –y is not a mistake, neither is it trivial: it’s a unique piece of grammar marking verb intransitivity. On Cornish hedge-laying technique: “lie hine down there and just ditch hine a little” deploys Old English grammar, still in use from Cornwall to Bedfordshire. People hearing it may think it’s quaint bumpkin speak, but in fact it’s an example of thousand-year-old case-endings being accurately declined.
None of this is mistaken, ignorant or lazy. All of it took centuries to evolve and is still in use as normal, spontaneous regional English. Yet we never hear it.
Why does it matter? Because if there is little exposure to our dialects and accents, then we can’t become accustomed to them, just as we couldn’t understand American English before the days of cinema sound. Yet regional dialects are far older than the Standard English dialect. British English speakers still voice the feudal divisions of the Norman Conquest, with those of us who are non-noble signalling our commoner status by means of accent, grammar and word choice.
If Britons are arranged socially in a pyramid, most are in the working-class base, with the middle-classes in the narrower section above and the nobility squeezed into the topmost peak. It follows that the main ways of speaking are the working-class pairing of regional dialect and regional accent, followed by the middle-class pairing of Standard English dialect and regional accent. Far less common is the upper-middle-class/upper-class pairing of Standard English dialect and Received Pronunciaton accent – although it dominates in the present Cabinet, among art historians and in the investment banking business.
There’s nothing wrong with Standard English, of course. It’s highly useful the world over, and I’m writing in it now. But it’s not the only dialect, and it’s not the one most speakers use. If you speak Birmingham dialect with a Birmingham accent, you are, by definition, a working-class Brummie rather than an earl. So saying you don’t like Birmingham accents really means you don’t like Birmingham working-class people. It says nothing about your aesthetic sensibilities and everything about your social conditioning. If regional dialect speakers are excluded from television – as they currently are – then that is the same thing as excluding working-class people. Which is to say, excluding most of the population of Britain.