It’s not just what you say, but the way you say it

“Accent policing” seems to target women more than men

“Accent policing” seems to target women more than men

Although we might not speak properly ourselves, many of us want to hear our public figures and personalities speaking English correctly – especially, it appears, if the speaker is a woman. The jury has forever been out on what precisely constitutes “correct” English: it might be the “Queen’s English”, or “received pronunciation” (RP), or old fashioned “BBC English”. But as far as the delivery of our language by politicians and presenters is concerned, for some listeners a regional accent on air can quickly make that air turn blue.

Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Angela Rayner, is frequently targeted not for what she says but for how she says it. After a recent round of media interviews, she tweeted: “I’ve been on the media this morning so my accent and grammar are being critiqued.

I wasn’t Eton educated, but growing up in Stockport I was taught integrity, honesty and decency.” There’s no arguing with that: perfectly proper. But Rayner is not alone among politicians in enraging the so-called “accent police”.

Another leading Labour figure, Birmingham born Jess Phillips, Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence, is regularly attacked for her “Brummie” accent. And on the government benches, Home Secretary Priti Patel has been accused of adopting a “fake” middle class accent whilst being unable to pronounce the “g” at the end of words ending in “ing.”

Such criticism is often deeply unpleasant and not reserved for politicians. Former footballer, now television presenter, Alex Scott, is hailed for her all-round, sporting knowledge but often slammed for her strong East London accent. And Lancashire -born presenter, AJ Odudu, was a firm favourite when on the dance floor in Strictly Come Dancing, but some viewers reckoned they turned the sound down during her post-dance interviews. There are more examples too numerous to mention.

So why do women in the public eye come in for much more abuse about their accent and grammar than their male counterparts? Why is it that the same regional accent can be considered charming when spoken by a man, but an unpleasant earful when coming from a woman?

And why would most sporting Cockney chappies’ chatter, however banal and cliché ridden, raise more nods of approval than Alex Scott’s dynamic and informative conversation?

The answer to these questions is of course part of the wider argument about misogyny. But in this area alone there is a telling factor.

As an example, Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “plum-in-the-mouth” accent has earned him the nickname of “Lord Snooty”, the fictional “upper class twit” from the Beano comic.

It’s all rather a laugh, and somehow criticism over a man’s accent is often a laugh, rather than the barely veiled attack it can be over a woman’s. Veiled. Perhaps that is a significant word for those men who would still, consciously or sub-consciously, like to silence women in the public eye and see them back in their “proper place”. Those men need to realise: It ain’t gonna happen!  

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