Regional accents in academia

An appalling story from Katie Edwards.

Last month, I attended an international academic conference. During a conversation with a colleague, I was introduced to a doctoral student from a UK Russell Group university.
Without a ‘hello’, a ‘nice to meet you’ or any of the other pleasantries you’d expect to hear during a professional introduction, this woman looked in my eyes and said, straight-faced, in a booming fake Yorkshire accent: “I’n’ti’?”
After delivering her mockery of my dialect (I hadn’t actually used that phrase), she looked away and continued speaking to my male (non Northern) colleague in a perfectly normal tone and her own accent.

The story is followed by a really interesting discussion of the issues (and their gender and race dimensions), so do check it out. (Though I do find the study referred to a bit under-described.)

17 thoughts on “Regional accents in academia

  1. As an American, I find the subtleties of English accents and their significance confusing. I did find this video of Katie Edwards speaking. Is it okay to say her accent is awesome, beautiful?

  2. For a change I’m on the receiving end of prejudice. Like the men Edwards mentions (and like a very close female friend with a working-class Scottish accent), my accent (Irish) has been the topic of mirth, and even once (when teaching some English fifteen-year-old schoolchildren) disrespect. Never though has it been any more serious than a failed attempt at wit. I am finding it hard to believe that any serious discrimination at all happens along this axis (where by ‘serious’ I mean something like ‘worth politically bothering about’); but perhaps things change when gender and accent intersect.

    I suppose that when we’re young and insecure and not at all sure what counts as good philosophy or how to gauge it, we look for metrics everywhere. When I was young I was concerned that Ireland did not have a strong philosophical tradition, and worried that there was something about the place inimical to its nationals becoming philosophers. Had this not been the case (as it is not for literature, something else I harboured aspiration for), I would have found something else to support or undermine my ambitions, so as not to feel entirely without an idea of my chances. For instance, that the white Irish male perspective had been so exhaustively and perfectly expressed by Joyce that there was nothing left for me to say. I rather think that the insecure and young will always find some metric like this; and it’ll of course always go both ways: for instance, the counter to thinking the Irish philosophically unpromising is thinking the English philosophically promising. It seems Quixotic to rail against this sort of minor discrimination, so long as it remains minor; and judging by the weaksauce examples Edwards could muster, none of which I can match in my years in the academy, this is minor. Maybe we can even encourage it, as it shows up the discriminators’ bad character without anyone actually having to suffer much hardship.

  3. I think it’s wrong to think only in terms of bad character, intentional acts, and large-scale discrimination. The growing literature on micro-inequities and implicit bias make it clear that we need to also think about more subtle things. But also, I don’t think her initial example is all that mild or subtle. If the joke had been followed by engaging her in conversation it would seem much more like clumsy humour that one could shrug off. But combined with being shut out of the conversation, it’s definitely the sort of thing that– especially combined with other examples– makes for an unwelcoming environment. And that’s not a good thing, even if the action isn’t horrible or malicious.

  4. STOP, STOP, STOP, NO! I am actually OMG! That is one of the rudest things I’ve ever heard. As the commenter above said, if it had been a precursor to some sort of conversation, then I could (sort of) accept it, but that is just appalling behaviour. I don’t actually get singled out for my accent so much but I think that is, perhaps, because it is not just regional, it is foreign (Irish). It becomes a “race” issue then, I suppose, and that’s just beyond the pale. I get the odd “say 33” of course but it’s not hostile and intentionally humiliating (I hope!) and it doesn’t compare to Edwards’ experience.

  5. Jenny: As I’m unaware that there’s an entire literature on micro-inequities, I’ll probably put my foot in it here, but let me keep digging anyway. It seems there are two sorts of micro-inequity here. There’s the micro-inequity of, e.g., manspreading, which is problematic because it is one of the myriad ways in which sexism manifests. Then there is the micro-inequity of this post, which – leaving intersectional issues aside just now – is just another sort of discrimination, sui generis relative to the others (e.g, sexism, racism).

    If the micro-inequities Edwards experiences are understood as the first sort of micro-inequity, as ways in which sexism manifests, then what’s at issue is not ‘regional-accent-ism’ but the sexism for which this is, as it were, just a cover. The response, surely, is to fight the underlying sexism rather than this mere symptom. (I’m not denying that we should fight the symptom too, but we should fight it AS a symptom, rather than its own sort of political bad.) However, if the micro-inequity is of the latter sort, then I really don’t care. Not because it’s not horrible (against feimineach I have to say that I don’t think it is that bad at all, but the case is so underdescribed that we’re quite probably filling it out in totally different ways (I’m imagining it as someone incredibly socially awkward trying to start a conversation but putting their foot in it straight away and in mortification running away)), but because minor discriminations like regional-accent-ism seem to me to be, for the reasons I gave above, inevitable. I said ‘Quixotic’ earlier: that was a poor choice of term. I had in mind rather the Lernaean Hydra. Of course, as I said, if I’m mistaken about the scale or severity of regional-accent-ism I might also admit that it’s worth diverting some resources that way, but, as I say, I’ve not come across anything serious.

  6. Hmm. I’m assuming regional accent prejudice makes a lot of sense in the UK, due to close connections to class prejudice. But I’m an assimilated foreigner, and I could still be missing something important. Especially about how class works here. There’s always been a lot I don’t understand about that.

  7. I too am really disturbed by this and it is unfair that she has to deal with this bigotry.
    I know my upbringing shows to others in academia too, so I can empathize. However, I don’t know if it would have hindered me since my lack of self confidence has done that job instead.

    But the point of my post is that I need your help trying to figure out what ““I’n’ti’” is supposed to mean. Is it a way that people with the accent say Hi, or a common regional phrase, or something that is mean unto itself? Do any of you know?
    I couldn’t figure it out and a websearch was useless to me.

    Thank you.

  8. And Yes I know it doesn’t matter, it was inappropriate no matter what phrase it was, but my curiosity is bigger than me. (anthropologist, we are inquisitive like that)

  9. It is interesting to me the number of comments that relegate this slap in the face (in a professional setting none-the-less) followed by ostracizing behavior to a little bit of nothing or absolutely nothing happening. If the rude woman had mentioned something negative about the author’s appearance and then shut her out of the conversation, would that have been condemned as unbelievable and unacceptable behavior?
    The rude woman worked her alienation “magic” by at once asserting a widely-perceived limited intellect of her victim AND her powerlessness to do anything to protect herself in the community at hand (because it sounds as if this community would have agreed that the rude woman’s behavior was quite understandable under the circumstances). Has empathy taken a holiday?
    From a professional standpoint, this accent-shaming silencing technique is cowardly; it also flies in the face of the search for a richer understanding and broadened viewpoint that should underlie academic study.

  10. This person was extremely rude and obviously “full of herself” but do we have to give it this much attention? Ignore her, for heaven’s sake.

  11. JMC is lucky if his only experience of accent discrimination has “never been any more serious than a failed attempt at wit.” But I think he may have a point that accent discrimination is at least facilitated by sexism. For instance, Australian Premier Julia Gillard got no end of flack over her accent, but we never heard a peep about the (certainly “equally disparageable”) accent of Canadian Premier Jean Chrétien.

    I once found myself at a party in San Francisco with my friend Brian Loar. John Searle approached, and Brian introduced me: “John, have you ever met Adèle Mercier?” Searle looked at me, and said, obviously dismissively: “Adèle Mercier?… Tout est un texte” –the assumption apparently being that with a name like mine, I must be a follower of Derrida– and immediately departed. I find it impossible to believe that Searle would have issued such derisive banter upon meeting a young François Recanati.

    Katie, your accent is delightful, don’t change one phoneme of it.

  12. Yes, “I’n’ti’?” means ‘isn’t it’. That comma after the last i and before the question mark is standing in for an almost ‘h’ sound that replaces the t of ‘it’ – so when spoken, it sounds like int-ih.

    I strongly support what feimineach and Katie Edwards have said. There are clear and deep-rooted prejudices against certain accents in the UK (this is very complex and is multi-directional – e.g. some people in some places might become targets for having ‘Southern’ sorts of accents, inside and outside of academia, not just Northern regional ones). Accent prejudice is associated with classism, racism, sexism, and the history of colonial occupation and conflict within different areas of the UK, as well as outside of the UK. I would definitely want to say that accent prejudice is politically significant in itself (it can happen between people from places only ten miles apart, and in circumstances when factors such as class or race or gender are much less significantly at work to be the obvious explanation for prejudiced behavior). And I certainly don’t think the examples Edwards provides are ‘weaksauce’. I had the same horrified reaction as feimineach when I read about Edwards’ experiences – encountering what she reports in a professional context is truly appalling.

    I’m glad Edwards wrote about this and thank her for doing so: far too many people still feel they have to change or hide regional accents to be taken seriously in academia.

  13. A digression about Jean Chretien’s accent: I remember lots of fun being made of it, stuff about how he’s our first PM who can’t speak either official language properly, etc. I found the following quotation from Good Cop Bad Cop: “You have an accent in both languages. Who was your teacher? Jean Chrétien?”

    I don’t know how much accent stigma there is in Canada, French or English. The strong prejudice against Southern accents in the US was probably somewhat lessened by Bill Clinton and James Carville, but I’m not sure a woman could have played it up the way Carville did.

  14. Adele Mercier, you opine “that accent discrimination is at least facilitated by sexism. For instance, Australian Premier Julia Gillard got no end of flack over her accent, but we never heard a peep about the (certainly “equally disparageable”) accent of Canadian Premier Jean Chrétien.”

    Let’s remember that making fun of Chretien’s accent was a mainstay of Canadian politics during his entire administration.

    In 1993, there was a famous ‘attack ad’ against Chretien that mocked his accent and even his face. The controversy surrounding the advertisement was part of a large national discussion. Odd that you would have missed it! Here’s a summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1993_Chr%C3%A9tien_attack_ad

    The impersonations of Chretien’s accent in Canadian politics and elsewhere are still going on over a decade after the end of his term as Prime Minister of Canada. Here’s a recent example that took place in the House of Commons itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBDZg6LHdvs

    Here’s one from two years ago for the Canadian Football League: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhxvVoSthRQ

    I could go on.

    How odd that you remember so much about Julia Gillard far away in Australia but forget so much about a prominent figure in your own country!

  15. I think the most common regional accent among US philosophers must be the varieties of NY/NJ accent, if those all count as one. I can also think of quite a few who have a Northern Midwest accent.
    I can think of few philosophers with any kind of Southern accent — Walter Sinnott-Armstrong seems to have done quite nicely with his distinctive Memphis accent, but it’s pretty unusual. And very few with Boston accents.

    It’s pretty striking how many of us (US philosophers) have no-particular-region, newscaster accents. (I have one parent with a New England accent and one with a Bronx accent, so mine is a kind of average and not very distinctive.)

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