A Rant: Accents and Bad Journalism

Brian Cox

Brian Cox, victim of dialect slander! (Courtesy, Paul Clarke)

I realize that accents and dialects constitute a fairly obscure topic.  But I’m finding myself increasingly dismayed by how terribly journalism bungles this area of study.

Look, I understand how easy it is to mess up facts when it comes to linguistics.  I’ve only been running this site for two-and-a-half months, and I’ve already had to make any number of corrections to it.  It is easy to miss important data, forget something that you read, or draw unfounded conclusions.

But then there is something like this fluff piece at the Telegraph, about regional accents on the BBC. The piece begins by discussing the recent controversy over professor Brian Cox‘s documentary series, The Wonder of the Universe:  viewers complained the background music was too loud.  But the author decides to go in a different direction:

However, a long-awaited BBC report has found that regional accents are an equally significant factor. The findings could explain why Prof Cox, with his distinctive Lancashire accent, struggles to be understood.

But nobody is saying that. This is an unrelated study, which has nothing to do with Cox, whose accent is so mild that a grandmother from Iowa could understand him. And yet Cox’s picture is there, right at the top of the article, as if his gentle, lilting accent had anything to do with the topic.

Can we please, then, not validate Britain’s mindless sub-culture of dialect haters?  Indeed, in the comments for the article are a slew of loutish trolls ranting about the supposed ugliness of Northern accents.  Good job adding fuel to the fire.

The article ends with an ever-so-shocking response from the Beeb: “A BBC spokesman said regional accents would continue to feature on the BBC despite the issues raised.”

What?? You mean the world’s most respected media organization won’t be hiring a staff dialectician to make sure all their “dodgy” award-winning physicists and reporters speak the Queen’s English? Heaven forbid!

Lest you think this is merely a British phenomenon, there is this recent piece from the Chicago Tribune about dialect coach Linda Gates’ work with an Australian actor to master a Chicago accent. After spending a few a paragraphs discussing the coach’s methods, the piece ends with this laughable quote:

“Sometimes words are completely pronounced differently in British English,” [Gates] said.

Umm, weren’t we talking about an Australian actor? To be fair to Gates, I think the reporter took this quote out of context. But really? There wasn’t somebody editing this article who noticed that Britain is a different country from Australia?

I know it’s easy to criticize. Linguistics is a science that is prone to retractions, contradictory evidence and constant change. When it comes to English accents, which evolve rapidly within mere decades, you can find holes in almost anything if you set your mind to it. Even the three accent-oriented linguists I most admire–Labov, Wells and Raymond Hickey–have borne endless reams of criticism questioning the validity of their findings. It comes with the territory.

But can we at least make sure what we’re writing isn’t wildly contradictory? Or patently wrong?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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7 Responses to A Rant: Accents and Bad Journalism

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    I watched The Chicago Code just to hear the accents. I wasn’t really expecting much. But I have to say Jason Clarke’s accent is horrible. It’s probably the worst one on the show and one of the worst attempts I’ve seen at any accent. It makes me question if this Linda Gates is really qualified to teach anyone how to speak in any accent.

    • trawicks says:

      I can’t really comment on Ms. Gates, but I’ll say this in general about dialect coaches: there is often a dangerous assumption that because somebody has studied voice and speech it enables them to teach accents as well. Voice work for actors is a discipline that is certainly rigorous, and I have tremendous respect for many of the pioneers in the field: Linklater, Rodenburg, etc. But it’s a bit like saying that a really good carpenter is qualified to be architect. Just because you understand the building blocks of an accent doesn’t mean you actually know what learning that accent entails.

      Again, not a dig at Ms. Gates; I know nothing about her or her work. But I tend to approach dialect coaches with a bit of skepticism (despite many great ones).

  2. Erica Walch says:

    I noticed that in a recent New Yorker magazine article on Mo Ibrahim that the journalist felt the need to twice say that Ibrahim spoke with “accented English” — that might not be the exact quote. I meant to save the article and blog about it, but I recycled it.

    There’s a journalistic oddity if ever I read one — like it’s some big surprise that a non-native English speaker has an accent and the journalist has to mention it TWICE. Weird. I’ll try to find the digital version to get the exact quote.

  3. Phil Thompson says:

    With Mother’s Day so soon approaching, I thought it was my duty to defend the linguistic discernment of Iowa grandmothers. My mother has no trouble hearing and understanding accents and I imagine her Iowa neighbors are no better or worse at it than anyone else.

    Of course, I understand that when searching for a quick example of somewhere impossibly remote, rural, and naive, people tend to pick Iowa for some strange reason. I’m not really trying to pick a fight about that. I do think there’s an interesting question underneath it: are there definable cultural factors that would influence a hearer’s ability to understand an accent different from their own? There are unrelated obstacles to intelligibility, like loud background music, but is there some “scale of difference” that correlates to intelligibility. I imagine it’s a complex question, but is there a body of research?

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  5. fletc3her says:

    I found this article while watching Wonders of the Universe and wondering what regional accent Prof. Brian Cox has. I find his accent charming, especially how he emphasizes the “g”s and other letters at the ends of words. I also enjoy the music and the rather casual aspect of the show. It’s easy to relate to him and the show is fun.