It’s difficult having a Birmingham accent.
It’s hard speaking in a way that everyone in the UK detests and continually rips the piss out of. When you’re told over and over again that your accent is ugly, it’s difficult not to feel insecure. It’d be nice to feel pride in the way I speak, at least enough so it doesn’t feel good when someone tells me, ‘I don’t think your accent is that strong’. I’m sick of seeing memes about how the Birmingham accent is the aural equivalent of a kick in the balls, or the world’s shittest roast dinner. I’m sick of Jeremy Clarkson telling me I sound thick.
In our proudly egalitarian society, it’s okay to discriminate against people based on the way they speak. Dr Alexander Baratta from the University of Manchester has called this ‘accentism’, and has likened it to racism. Baratta reports that people often feel as if they have to flatten out their accents to escape judgment and progress in their careers, but simultaneously feel ashamed at this betrayal of their self-identity. As a Brummie, I can relate to this – and painfully so. I want to be proud of my Brummie roots, but I feel like I have to tone down my twang to be taken seriously. It’s got to the point where most of us native Brummies can’t even stand the sound of our own voices anymore.
It doesn’t help when even academic research seems determined to prove that the Birmingham accent is the ugliest, least intelligent-sounding, least attractive accent in the UK. How many more of these studies must we conduct before we’re satisfied that Brummie is the most repulsive sound in the known universe? Recently I came across an article in The Telegraph, gleefully reporting a study demonstrating that speaking with a Birmingham accent is ‘worse than staying silent’. What’s next? How else can we shame Brummies? The ostensible purpose of such research is to find out about people’s accent preferences, but the more studies that pile up proving the same point, the more they actually reinforce the preferences they report.
And while I don’t doubt that many people genuinely hate how the Birmingham accent sounds, the extent to which our accent preferences are shaped by social norms should not be underemphasised. In my second year of university, I recall speaking to an international student who casually remarked that ‘the Birmingham accent is horrible’. Clearly, she couldn’t have been too familiar with the accent or she would have noticed that I spoke with it. I wasn’t offended. Rather, I interpreted her faux pas as an attempt to align herself with a belief she assumed I also held. In the UK, Brummie is the accent we love to hate – it’s how we’re supposed to feel. In other parts of the world, people overwhelmingly love the Birmingham accent. This is a decidedly stark contrast, one that I doubt can be put down solely to aesthetic preference.
Things are looking up, though, I guess. Despite a few suspect accents (Helen McCrory, I’m looking at you), Peaky Blinders is doing its best to make the Birmingham accent seem cool. Cillian Murphy in particular does a commendable job with his understated Brummie inflection – and it’s certainly an improvement on that horrendous Hotels4u advert a few years ago (‘anything for yow, cupcake’), which featured a Birmingham-born actor hamming it up for comedic effect. But, it’s unlikely that Peaky Blinders will be enough on its own to shift the public’s perception of our accent: it’ll take more than a single TV programme to change such a deeply embedded belief.
We self-hating Brummies, we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. We long to leave behind our Brummie roots, but we cringe at the thought of adopting a voice other than our own. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope the tell-tale rise and fall of our voices slowly dissipates over time, so the betrayal feels completely natural. We shouldn’t have to feel like this, but it’s difficult to foster any kind of pride in our accents when everyone – even academia – keeps telling us how disgusting we sound. As a society, we need to recognise the effects that accentism can have on people and the insecurities it creates. It’s no joke.
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Words by Greg Woodin