linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Friday 25 January, 2013]
It’s important to ensure that the difference between accent and dialect is understood. Accent refers only to features of pronunciation, whereas dialect includes distinctive grammar and vocabulary. Some dialects (notably, standard English) are spoken with many accents.
It’s very difficult to write accents down. There have been many attempts to do this in literature, such as Emily Bronte’s version of Joseph’s accent in Wuthering Heights. ‘Nelly, we’s hae a Crahnr’s quest enah, at ahr folks...’ Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy are other authors who often work with accent conventions, and there are several examples in Shakespeare (such as Fluellen in Henry V - pridge, prains, falorous, aggriefed, etc). A useful book for further examples is Norman Blake’s Non-standard Language in English Literature (Blackwell, 1981). The main problem for an author is how to reconcile the need for accuracy and identity with that for consistency and intelligibility. Students should experience the difficulty of trying to write down a local accent, or the accent of a well-known person, in such a way that other people can guess who it is.
Some people are extremely good at mimicking accents, and if you have some ‘naturals‘ in the class, role-play activities can be helpful. Note that such accents are likely to be stereotypes - somewhat artificial versions of the reality, but sufficiently close to be recognisable. Some students may have already noticed themselves being influenced by the accent of the person they are talking to: they start talking more like the other person (a phenomenon called accommodation - one accommodates to the other speaker). Is anyone in the class currently under pressure to change their accent - from parents, friends, the school? Would anyone like to change their accent? Is anyone self-conscious about their accent?
A discussion of accent will raise several issues (see also Peter Trudgill, Accent, Dialect and the School, Edward Arnold, 1975). What is meant by a ‘good’ accent or the ‘best’ accent? Cross-reference will be necessary to the notion of standard English, and it always helps to know something about the historical situation which has led one accent to become prestigious (see Received Pronunciation). What is the value of a standard accent? Consider the importance of being intelligible to all in such contexts as teaching English to foreigners, the ‘talking clock’ on the telephone, or the BBC. Is intelligibility the only issue? Why do accents exist at all? What local or national identities do they express? What about other aspects of social identity, such as occupational accents (policeman, clergyman, lawyer) or ethnic accents? Are there any occupations or contexts where one accent would be appropriate and another would not?
More advanced students might carry out an accents survey: what regional and social accents can be heard in school, or in the community around the school? Stress the non-judgmental nature of the exercise: the emphasis isn’t on whether the accents are ‘nice’ or not, but on the existence of variety and why it is there. (Some sort of audio recording equipment is essential for this kind of work, but students need to check with informants that they don’t mind being recorded.) A similar exercise can be carried out using a period of television viewing. You could also try an accent attitude survey, asking people why they like or dislike certain accents.
CEL 8, 10: IPE 6.3, App; EL 4

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