Accentism: when and where?

Accent discrimination, or accentism, takes place when people develop a negative attitude towards certain accents. These attitudes are linked to stereotypes, that is preconceived notions that (groups of) individuals hold about other (groups of) individuals regarding, among other things, their competence, education, and social status. Accent discrimination happens every time someone is categorized and unfairly judged or treated based on their accent.

Examples of accentism date back to ancient times, one of the first being narrated in the Bible’s Old Testament (Judges, 5-6). In the clash between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, the latter would recognize enemies trying to retreat across the Jordan River by asking them to pronounce the word shibboleth (‘stream’). The Gileadites, who were unable to pronounce the sound ‘sh’ (/ʃ/), were captured and killed. Since then, ‘shibboleth’ has become a technical term to indicate a word or phrase that is distinctive of a particular group (especially in terms of its pronunciation). 

Recent examples of shibboleth used in conflict situations include the so-called ‘Parsley massacre’, namely the mass killing of Haitians by Dominican dictator Trujillo in 1937, and the Black July, the anti-Tamil pogrom marking the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983. During the former, the way people pronounced the Spanish word for parsley (either with a Spanish or with a French/Haitian Creole accent) determined their fate. Whereas during the latter, Tamils were identified and attacked based on their pronunciation of the Sinhalese word baldiya (‘bucket’). 

Accent discrimination is far more widespread than what we may think. It takes place every day and everywhere, crossing age and social groups and spanning various private and public settings, with significant impact on the lives of those who are discriminated against. US-based research has shown that bias against certain ethnic and regional accents may lead to unequal access to employment, housing, and education (Massey & Lundy 2001). Along the same lines, people speaking with a regional accent in Germany have been reported to incur a wage penalty of approximately 20% when compared to people speaking with a standard German accent (Grogger et al. 2020).

Accentism is also pervasive in the media, for instance in movies (Bleienbacher 2012), videogames (Ensslin 2010), and even cartoons targeting young children (Lippi-Green 2012, Ch. 7).

Interestingly, accent bias tends to develop at a very early stage of life, as claimed in a still unpublished study (Jeffries et al. 2023) discussing how children as young as five are able to discriminate between different groups of speakers based on their pronunciation of features associated with northern and southern varieties of British English.  

Awareness of accent discrimination is still patchy, but it is on the rise. For instance, while in a 2007 UK-based study, only 3% of employers mentioned accent or dialect as an Equality and Diversity issue (compared to, for example, 60% referencing disability and 58% referencing ethnicity/race), in a more recent survey, as many as 76% of employers admitted to discriminating against applicants because of their accents. 

Accounts of accentism for languages other than English and in countries other than the US and the UK is still limited. A recent study has highlighted the presence of prejudice against speakers of Italian with a Chinese accent, on the part of both teachers and pupils. 

It is important to note that accent attitudes can vary widely and are influenced by multiple factors. Challenging stereotypes and encouraging awareness and appreciation of linguistic diversity can help address biases and promote a more inclusive attitude towards accents.

With its focus on accentism in education, CIRCE aims to map the attitudes of teachers and students in four different countries, to raise awareness of linguistic discrimination practices in schools and universities and foster greater tolerance towards accent variation.