Are Local Accents Under Threat in the Age of Globalism?

ARE LOCAL ACCENTS UNDER THREAT IN THE AGE OF GLOBALISM? Accents locate us in terms of geography, heritage and to some degree cultural values.

The rapid onset of globalisation over the past few decades, however, has begun to pose an interesting question. As the populations of the world’s leading cities become more mobile and multi-cultural, will local accents continue to play as large a role in our conversation?

Or will we, borrowing eclectically from a vast array of languages and styles of speaking, find ourselves taking on a blend of accents which means we sound like everyone and no-one at the same time?

Steph McGovern, the business editor for the BBC Breakfast programme was recently sent £20 by a viewer, who suggested she put it toward a course in elocution. The viewer’s aim, apparently, was to help alter her clearly northern accent.

Whilst hardly demonstrating a grasp of good manners, this viewer’s action reflects one of the most interesting media and social challenges of our time.

We live in an age of globalisation which, combined with digitisation – our growing reliance on digital gadgets – means that we’re surrounded by global information, news and entertainment 24 hours a day.

This process of globalism represents one of the major trends shaping human societies today. The future, however, is almost never a result of trends. It is most often shaped by a complex interplay between trend and counter-trend.

The synergy between the two sees the gradual emergence of a new status quo.

When it comes to globalism, the counter-shift is tribalism.

We see this emerging on a number of fronts. Most often, we hear about it in its more negative and socially disruptive forms – as xenophobia or even fascism.

There is, however, another form of tribalism emerging, which challenges the hegemony of globalism.

This tribalism, or localism, is expressed in the search for people who share one’s own background, ideals and values.

As more of the world immediately outside our front door sounds quite distinct from us, we look for others whose accent is similar to ours. Perhaps we do this because we unconsciously believe they will think like us, too. (Often they will not, but that’s the illusion of familiarity.)

We appreciate the richness a multi-layered and diverse community can bring, but we retain a taste for the comfort and reassurance that common identity provides. Accent is a part of that shared identity.

So, we have two competing preferences going on at the same time – the desire for global information and cultural diversity, along with a drive to hear from local people or people who sound ‘local’ to us.

It was put to me today in a BBC interview on the subject, that some people from England’s north are learning to change their accents in order to find work – or acceptance – further south.

I can well imagine that this is true and not just in media circles.

For some of us, however, moderating an accent is actually a positive step;  it helps us communicate with a wider audience. Because we are ‘outsiders’ we can bring the benefit of a different outlook, based on uncommon life experiences, without sounding like we just can’t be bothered to be understood.

I’ve lived in the European region for 20 years and I’m proud to say that I still have an Australian accent. However, it has modulated or softened over time.

In my case, this is partly because I travel quite a bit and speak to audiences in various parts of the world. I also provide social commentary in the media, which definitely encourages a deliberate effort to enunciate clearly.

Whatever our work situation, though, it’s a sign of respect for others that we think about how they will likely interpret our words.

Mind you, most of us don’t need elocution lessons; we simply make the necessary tonal modifications through trial and error.

Yet there are two sides to this street. When it comes to people like Steph McGovern – and I don’t know her voice, so I’m not commenting on her accent – the audience needs to adjust too, learning to hear and engage differently.

It is pure arrogance to assume that someone else must do all the hard work, whilst I engage in the process in a very passive way.

Language and accent are two of the most helpful tools we have when it comes to either consciously or unconsciously locating someone.

Sometimes, of course, we can make snap judgements about people which aren’t fair, purely on the basis of their accent.

But trying to modulate everyone’s accent to the point where we could no longer hear regional differences would deliver a huge loss to the dynamic art of human communication.

Even in a globalised world, when it comes to accents I say vive la difference.

© Copyright with Mal Fletcher

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