Attitudes to accent labels

What attitudes do the UK public have towards different accent labels?
An accent 'label' is a commonly recognised name for a well-known accent - for example, what does the term “Cockney” or “Queen’s English” make you think of, and what thoughts do you have about people who speak with that accent? For this study we asked a sample of the British public to rate 38 different accent ‘labels’ for their prestige and pleasantness.

Overview

Accents are social objects – things people encounter in the world and have specific beliefs about. These beliefs can come from personal experience, from media representations, and from popularly held ideas about different groups. We all have intuitive reactions to different accent ‘labels’ – reactions that are often related to stereotypes about the people with those accents.

We had two goals. First, to provide a historical timepoint comparing present-day attitudes to accents in Britain to those from 15 years ago (reported in Bishop et al. 2005) and those from 50 years ago (reported in Giles 1970). 

Second, it is not necessarily the case that attitudes to accent ‘labels’ will match the reactions people have when actually listening to someone speaking with an accent. Our accent labels survey provided a benchmark for comparison with the outcomes of our subsequent work, which looked at people’s reactions to accents under different conditions. 

Young lawyer working remotely

Full description

This study examines current public attitudes to 38 different British accents. Participants were presented with a list of all of the accent labels and asked to rate each one (on a scale of 1-7) for its prestige and pleasantness. 

Our survey uses prestige and pleasantness to target two well-known social associations of accents, namely ‘status’ (prestige, hierarchical advantage) or ‘solidarity’ (social closeness, in-group rapport). Standard accents are often associated with higher status ratings and non-standard accents are often associated with higher solidarity ratings. We use the terms used by Giles (1970) and Bishop et al. (2005) to ensure comparability to their findings.

Carried out via a dedicated website, the survey allowed us to document the general prevalence of accent bias in the UK, and to what extent this varies according to region, age, social class, gender, or psychological profile.

Participants: who took part in our survey?

Participants in the national survey were a large stratified sample of individuals (over 800) representing the demographic balance of the UK population. 

They were recruited with the help of a professional market research company, which allowed us to obtain a large and more balanced sample of respondents. 

Participants ranged in age from 18 to 79 and included a representative number of people in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The sample was balanced for gender and included all major ethnic groups. 

Procedure: how was the survey carried out?

We followed identical procedures as in Giles’ and Bishop et al.’s earlier studies. However, we expanded the accents examined to 38 (as opposed to the 34 used in the Bishop et al. study) by including newer accents that have emerged over the past two decades (‘Estuary English’, ‘Multicultural London English’) and well as some additional non-native accents that have become more prominent in the UK (‘Chinese’). 

Via the website, survey respondents were presented with a list of all 38 accent labels and asked to rate each one (on a scale of 1-7) for its prestige and pleasantness.

Once participants finished rating the answers, they provided information about their personal background (including gender, ethnicity, age, region of origin, highest level of education, occupation, English accent, languages spoken), and completed a short questionnaire about their exposure to different UK accents, the diversity of their own social networks, their beliefs about bias in Britain, and a set of psychological measures such as their level of concern about being perceived as prejudiced. 

Sharing our results

We provide a short summary of our main results of this study here, and a comparison of how these results compare to people’s attitudes when presented with accents under different conditions here.