Tuesday, 26 August 2008

To Each His Own Accent

I write this because I've just about had it with the unnecessary stigma (and ignorance) associated with the way I talk. Pay attention to the content, not the accent, goddamnit!

1. Which British accent?
I'm quite famous at the workplace as the guy with the "British" accent. With that I've often been tempted to ask, which one? As any Brit will tell you, there's no such thing as a British accent ... no typical accent to represent the whole of the island. Britain has a ridiculous amount of different accents and each has their own distinct stereotypes. Today, we have Kelvinside accents (Glasgow "Posh"), Dubliner (Colin Farrell), Brummie (Ozzy Ozbourne), Bristolian (Vicky Pollard), Cockney (Michael Caine), Mockney (Jamie Oliver) South-Welsh (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Scouse (The Beatles), and the list goes on. Basically, every region has its own accent. In some areas people can tell which village someone who lives nearby is from by listening to them speak. These stereotypes are sadly hard to escape on British TV. American TV largely avoids this by not distinguishing between different regions of Britain at all.

Now, I actually don't have a British accent per se. To be precise, it's an English accent: the standard, non-regional form called Received Pronunciation (RP). The term "received" originally meant "that which is generally accepted" or "that accepted by the best society". It's a cultivated variety, a bit controlled, certain words are supposed to be said in a certain way to be considered RP. It's also non-local which means it's not confined to a specific geography. And it isn't ethnic, either, which means you don't have to come from English parents. Notice how many "theatre-trained" Americans such as Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) as well as Australian actors like Geoffrey Rush use this accent (or a form of it) instead of their own regional varieties.

2. I'm not British and I don't have to be.
See above: RP is non-regional and non-ethnic. I don't have be from anywhere or be anyone else. Filipinos forget(?) that RP is an international standard just like General American. As a matter of fact, RP was already the international standard (and the only one at that) ages before any American accent was heard outside the Atlantic.

3. Stop arguing Merriam-Webster pronunciation with me.
Because I use Ox-bridge. And arrogant as it may sound, we were first. Now, imagine you're in a spelling bee, and they have you spell "the quality of an object or substance with respect to light reflected by the object". Will it be "colour" or "color"? I used to always use just colour, but had to grudgingly use color at certain times. School teachers can be a little inconsistent around here and it can get annoying. Some will teach you it's "programme"; some "program". The historical mixture of British and American teaching models has given countless Filipinos the false impression that all English dialects are ultimately the same stuff, and you can use their grammar and spelling rules interchangeably.

Today, there are currently two international standards as far as dictionaries and teaching methods are concerned: the elder British (Ox-bridge) and younger American (Merriam-Webster). Canada is somewhat torn between the two whilst Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa follow British standards almost fully. All other non-native varieties also follow either. Singaporean English follows British, Philippine English follows(?) American, Indian English follows British, etc.

4. Look, I can't go any more neutral than this.
If you work for a call centre, you are bound to hear the absurd notion of "the" "neutral accent". Neutrality will always be relative. Neutral from whose perspective? They should be a lot more specific, really. Something like: "Team, because you're Filipinos and we're going to speak with Americans, it would be best to use a compromise between their General American and your own ugly local accents, okaaay?"

As far as my ancestry is concerned, my accent can't go any more neutral than this. This is my neutral accent. I'm pretty Euro-centric.

Let's put it this way: If I were a Scot from Edinburgh, the neutral accent to me would definitely be Edinburgh Scottish (and even there, you're bound to hear variations). This is why many Manilans think they're "accent-less". Because they live in the capital and their dialect (Manila Tagalog) is the basis of the standard (Filipino). Had the capital been in Batangas City, saying 'ala e' would be standard, wouldn't you think?

5. You've got an accent, too.
Despite popular belief, we all speak with an accent. It's all a matter of perspective. The unaware speaker naturally finds his own accent quite "accent-less". Our neighbours in Manila might not realise it, but they all speak with a distinct Manila Tagalog accent which, as a Caviteño, I find quite dull and lifeless.

6. Philippine English is not wrong.
Some American-educated Filipinos including those "re-educated" in call centres think that the localised variant of English (ie Philippine English) is wrong. Philippine English may not be an international standard but it's not wrong, either. We can't say that one variety is more correct than the other, especially when English is such a pluricentric language. It's perfectly fine to use Philippine English! 

A fair warning, though: Your audience is key. Unique phrases in Philippine English may be interpreted differently when speaking with foreigners.

7. Respect regional differences.
The father is not the son. Whilst it's true that Australian and New Zealander are both primarily descended from 18th century London English, and that the more affluent Aussies and Kiwis actually use a form of RP, the islands of Australia and New Zealand however have native varieties of their own. And it would be best to respect these differences.

And because I'm bad with endings, I'll stop here.

Last modified: 4 March 2011


  1. Hi,

    I'm half Chinese half English raised in England.
    It would be very strange to an English person for a foreigner to have RP accent because RP accent is in fact regional, whatever image the BBC might project. It is definitely southern, specifically prevalent in surrey and a couple of other 'home counties'. It also says a lot about the wealth and social class of your family.

    I love the RP accent and though it may be considered 'international standard' if you used it here it may be considered a bit pretentious because it would sound like you are trying to be something that you are not.

  2. Hello,

    Well, yes, in a way, RP has its origins in a regional accent. As do all "standard" accents, of course. The point I'm trying to make is that you don't have to be from the Home Counties to have a genuine RP accent, in the same way you don't have to be from the American Midwest to have a General American accent. Aren't standard accents attached to education and not ethnicity as you say? After all, what makes a foreigner look foreign these days in London? You've got Britons of Pakistani, Indian, and Chinese descent all over the city.

    I wasn't encouraging people to be something they're not. You can still be Indian, Filipino, or Lebanese and speak English. All I'm saying is that RP (as with GA) is something that you can genuinely have if that's how you were raised or educated with. :)

  3. I wrote something new on the same topic here if you're interested. :)