Posted inWorking Class

Pride and Prejudice: the reality of having a northern accent in Oxford University

‘4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,

you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.

‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’–

‘Them and Uz’

Tony Harrison (1987).

Harrison’s poem here exposes the longstanding socio-linguistic prejudices of the northern voice. Deemed uncivilized, rough and most importantly ‘illiterate’, Harrison’s words highlight the apparent social exclusivity of art, culture and education. Harrison suggests that the use of a regional accent denotes both a working-class, and uneducated status. Although this poem was published in the 70s, the stereotype of a northern accent equalling working-class identity is still unfortunately stigmatised. The characteristic of the ‘rough’ northerner is something that even TikTok has perpetuated. For instance, the resurfaced music of Blackpool grime artist ‘Millie B’ on the app in turn evokes images of users caking themselves in foundation, huge eyebrows and excessive use of a Hollister body spray that created a ‘chav check’ trend. Despite their seemingly comic and satirical purpose, these videos undeniably pave the way for exaggerated and harmful stereotypes that further injure the northern accent; and tie it with a classist and derogative term, synonymous with low social class and uneducated status.  

These stereotypes extend far beyond pop-culture. For instance, one of the reasons Ofsted deemed that my old school needed to go into special measures, was because my teachers had a native Yorkshire dialect which for them, equated to a bad use of English. Apparently, pronouncing ‘right’ ‘reyt’ is grammatically incorrect (it isn’t- it’s just another example of the social snobbery surrounding accent and education). Even in the educational setting of Oxford Uni, the northern accent doesn’t escape these classist prejudices. One of my close friends in college, from Manchester, who was fortunate enough to go to a public school, had someone assume she was working-class because of her northern accent. Why then, through history and to the present day, is there such a deep stigma between the northern accent and an uneducated, working-class status, even at such a prestigious institution as Oxford?  

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived at Oxford, was how different I sounded to other people here. It was the first time in my life where pronouncing a’s as long vowels rather than short ones (as in saying ‘ah’ in ‘grass’ as opposed to saying it the way you’d pronounce the ‘a’ in ‘cat’) was the norm. Indeed, Oxfords admission’s statistics revealed that between 2018 and 2020, London and the South-East made up 48.3% of UK applications. The North-West makes up 8.1%, Yorkshire and the Humber 4.9% and the North-East just 2.1% – an intake thus disproportionately smaller compared to the Southern regions. As a result, having a northern voice in a southern speaking majority can feel alienating. In a subconscious effort to fit it, I’ve found my Yorkshire accent has lost its broadness. I’d say ‘nothing’ instead of ‘nowt’, dinner instead of tea and even picked up London slang- my home friends were very confused when I used ‘leng’ to describe someone. But if I was ever speaking to my mum on the phone my friends have often remarked how I “sounded so much broader”. Although these changes may appear minor, they nonetheless proved in Oxford I couldn’t be fully comfortable in my fully authentic voice.  

It can’t be denied that Oxford still enforces a socio-linguistic hierarchy. Regional accents, especially strong ones, have always undergone a form of being ‘othered’- especially in the study of language. When my English class studied language and dialect in our first year, I remember often being asked to demonstrate how I’d say certain Yorkshire phrases, as if my tutor was expecting me to come out with ‘ey up’, and ‘aye’ (I can assure you most people from Yorkshire don’t speak like this …unless you’re over the age of 50 or from Barnsley). While I’m certain my tutor’s intentions were harmless, it still felt like my accent had singled me out and made me a case study. Equally, when reading Well’s Accents of English Vol 2 The British Isles (1982) for this topic, I was puzzled for hours about the difference between the /Λ/ (as in the ‘u’ in strut) and ʊ (as in ‘foot’). For most northern speakers, these two words actually rhyme, as there is no 6th /Λ/ vowel. Again, an example of how in academic environment south-east dialects assume a linguistic authority and anything that doesn’t follow those rules is deemed an example of a different variety. Academic English itself is written by and for south-eastern or RP speakers.  

But why is the northern accent so often stigmatised as being inherently working-class? The north/south divide inevitably plays a role. Although London has one of the highest poverty rates in the UK, the lack of investment and extent of underfunding in the North of the UK means that the average household income in the north is lower and unemployment is higher. As a result, access into higher education offers fundamentally more difficulties for those from the north. Indeed, in a BBC 2018 report on the north/south divide in schools in 2018, it found children on free school meals in London are not only more likely to go into higher education than other low-income households, but more so than the national average. While overcoming any barriers should be celebrated, ultimately, this disparity only adds to the lack of regional diversity in higher education. Subsequently, the educated voice becomes fashioned for southern speakers. Perhaps it is because of this that I am yet to meet an academic tutor with a northern accent-and why the BBC told northern actress Maxine Peak she wasn’t suitable to play an “educated” barrister. Having a northern accent in an academic space simply become bound in feeling out of place. 

Despite all these prejudices, the pride of that any Northerner carries with their accent never fades. There is always a sense of instant friendship whenever two Northerners meet in Oxford- a mutual understanding of the struggles we have had to overcome to get here. The ‘roughness’ of our glottal stops reminds me of our close-knit communities and our friendliness towards strangers. Our short a’s tell of ex-mining suburbs, holidays to Skeggy and cheap pints. The sheer distinctness of the northern voice is a reminder of how we will never let our accent be lost.