Accent diversity at the Bar

A sociolinguist’s view on linguistic prestige, RP and accent-based prejudice at the Bar, and the case for expanding diversity in the courtroom. By Dr Rob Drummond

The relationship between the way we speak and who we are is a fundamental one, yet it is also a very complex one. The complexity arises in part due to the fact that none of us has a single way of speaking, just as none of us has a single, fixed identity. We adjust our speech both consciously and unconsciously as we move between the various contexts that make up our lives, presenting different aspects of ourselves as a result. But to add to the complexity, even when this adjustment is conscious and we believe ourselves to be performing a clear and specific identity, there is no guarantee that our efforts will be perceived in the way we intended. Because these perceptions, and our own intentions, are bound up in an intricate and historic network of beliefs, understandings, and misunderstandings around prestige, prejudice, accident, and chance. This is the case for most languages, but particularly for English, which is the focus here.

From a linguistic point of view, no one way of speaking is objectively ‘better’ than another. If we take perhaps the most widely understood and accessible form of linguistic variation, regional accent, it makes no sense to assign a level of superiority to one set of speech sounds over another. One way of pronouncing a word is not better, or clearer, or more correct than another; the variation is simply evidence of linguistic influence and language change over time, and of the maintenance of regional, national, or ethnic identities through speech. The fact that one way of pronouncing a word might be subjectively perceived as indicating a speaker of a higher social status or with a ‘better’ education is entirely due to the social baggage that speech sounds are forced to carry. The allocation of prestige to particular varieties of speech is in itself a self-perpetuating accident of history to do with where in the country the people with power happen to reside.

However, the arbitrariness behind judgements of linguistic prestige should not detract from the fact that the judgements themselves are very real. People do face negative stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination due to the way they speak, and no amount of pointing out how illogical it all is by people like me will make those judgements any easier to bear.

Accent-based prejudice can be overt, malicious, and obviously damaging (just look at some of the stories submitted to The Accentism Project), but it can also be a lot more subtle. Often, it exists around a sense of a particular way of speaking simply not being quite ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ for a particular context. But who decides what is or isn’t appropriate? More often than not, such judgements of appropriateness are based on the chance-fuelled traditions of the rich, powerful, and successful. Or white, male, British, educated RP speakers.

As an outsider to the legal profession, this is precisely how the situation appears within one of the most prestigious occupations: that of a barrister. There is undoubtedly an expectation that members of this elite club will speak in a certain way, and the issue has been discussed on these pages before by people such as Allan Briddock and Hashi Mohamed. Both describe the pressure on aspiring barristers to adopt what is known as a Received Pronunciation (RP) accent in order to help them get where they want to be, and be accepted along the way. The Bar is a context, along with many others, in which speech style and perceived professional competence go hand in hand. But while the ability to speak persuasively and eloquently is an understandably essential quality of a barrister, the implication that such language is better presented using RP is less easy to accept.

Eloquence and persuasiveness are not restricted by accent. It is possible to speak powerfully in any accent, which is, after all, simply a system of sounds with which to pronounce the language. However, eloquence and persuasiveness are, to a certain extent, restricted by dialect; but only in terms of what is expected and understood within the context. It would be nonsensical to suggest that an elderly Yorkshire farmer could not use traditional local dialect to speak eloquently and persuasively, but this would not be understood as such in the context of the court. (Equally, it has to be said that an RP-speaking barrister addressing a group of elderly Yorkshire farmers would likely also be viewed with suspicion and miscomprehension.) But this is an extreme and unlikely example. As any linguist will tell you, the distinction between standard and non-standard English is not at all clearly marked, and few of us speak consistently using standard features in everyday life.

But the courtroom is not everyday life, even for barristers. There is a sense of theatre and performance that can often be overlooked when it comes to questions of language in contexts which have a sense of tradition. I remember as a child accompanying my Dad to church one time, and asking why the minister spoke from the Bible in such an odd way. I suggested that if he spoke a bit more naturally it would be easier to understand and would sound, to my ears, less silly. He replied that he was speaking in this way to show reverence, and to provide a certain theatricality to the context.

But does this sense of theatre have to rely on RP? The fact is, that while a (very) standard English dialect is, arguably, suited to the courtroom on the basis of understanding, formality and even the sense of traditional theatricality, is there a need for it to be delivered in a particular accent? Doesn’t this make an already exclusive and elite profession even more inaccessible to those with accents from other regions or with accents influenced by different heritage languages? Would it not be better for everyone (future barristers and members of the public alike) if there were a greater chance of people hearing their own voices represented at the Bar?

In his writing and public speaking, Hashi Mohamed makes the point that while we might like there to be greater diversity, and acceptance of diversity, at the Bar, we are better dealing with the world as it is, rather than as it should be. In other words, while an individual with a markedly non-RP accent might resent feeling pressured into adapting the way they speak (and subsequently relinquishing a marker of their perhaps proud regional, national or ethnic identity) in order to get ahead, they should not feel obliged to self-sabotage for the greater good. It should not fall on their shoulders to attempt to change such an embedded system.

I completely agree. Instead, it should fall to those already on the inside to challenge the status quo, and thus make it possible for those people coming in to maintain their linguistic identities. But how can they do this? Personally, I think it would be a good start if all those barristers who adapted the way they speak in order to get where they are, gradually started to revert back to their original way of speaking. The standard dialect would remain, but the courtrooms would gradually be filled with more genuine sounds from Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, and Bristol, and from heritage languages other than English. And in time, the message would get out that yes, there are linguistic expectations of eloquence and persuasiveness at the Bar, but look at the wonderful phonetic and stylistic diversity with which this eloquence can be expressed!

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Dr Rob Drummond

Dr Rob Drummond is a Reader in Sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. He researches, teaches, and writes about the relationship between spoken language and identity. More details here: www.robdrummond.co.uk