Even though equal access to higher education is still very much in development, university today is more accessible than ever before. With a greater diversity of students at UK universities, it’s probably true to say that differences aren’t seen with the same level of negativity and intolerance as they once were. However, linguistic discrimination is one key prejudice that hasn’t improved to quite the same extent.
The UK has an incredible variety of accents, and each comes with its own stereotypes. These are the ideas that come to mind when you hear a person speak with a certain accent; where the person is from, their family’s income, their intelligence, how ‘cultured’ they are, etc. These are crippling assumptions, because they seem to reveal all the details of a person’s background and upbringing, and yet simply do not match the truth in many cases. This probably applies to most unis around the country; differences collide as accents mix for what can be the first time in many young people’s lives. However, Durham in particular seems to be a breeding ground for linguistic discrimination.
Notorious for its private school population, Durham uni appears to have only one accent – received pronunciation (or RP). It’s so common in the corridors that it seems like 80% of students sound the same, and therefore are presumed to have a common financial and geographical background. For those whose accents are different, it can create a huge gulf.
For example, for those with northern accents, strong or otherwise, there is a perception that they are ‘common’, less cultured ‘country bumpkins’ – that they ‘have done so well’ to get into Durham. With passing, offhand comments about differences, looks of surprise and moments of misunderstanding, northerners can feel judged as being less worthy of their place. The continuation of these unsavoury interactions, as well as the general feeling of being an outsider, can continue the cliquey-ness normally associated with high school, and can have detrimental impacts on the self-esteem and mental health of students.
It sounds a bit drastic when put like this – but for some it’s a reality. There is a huge hidden proportion of Durham students who have felt inferior because of the way they talk. It’s all a bit taboo, primarily because it’s a tough subject to raise. The same goes with any different, non-RP accent. International students from non-English speaking backgrounds can struggle to express themselves in ways as eloquent and as ‘English’ as their peers. Different expressions and phrases can confuse people who are accustomed to a more ‘standard’ English.
This abundance of received pronunciation, on the other hand, can quilt over the differences within the southern accent grouping. Anyone that sounds southern is often assumed to be ‘posh’, private school educated or from Surrey or London. They can be assumed to have the means to uphold a more lavish lifestyle, which creates pressure to avoid being seen as ‘fakes’ and ostracised. This form of linguistic discrimination is equally as exclusive and harmful.
This is a difficult and sensitive issue, because for the most part people don’t scheme to discriminate – it’s often a natural product of experiencing differences, as unfortunate as it is. So the best we can do is to talk about it, for people to be heard and their issues spoken about. Ultimately, it is by raising awareness and communicating with people unlike ourselves that can prejudice finally be overcome.