Posh accents, discrimination and employment in Australia
UK researchers recently reviewed the hiring practices of 13 elite law, accountancy and financial companies, and found that applicants with posh accents were favoured over their working class counterparts.
So, does a similar process hold in the Australian context? Are your employment chances rooted and rooned by not having a posh accent?
Not in Australia. But the UK study serves as a caution of sorts, and it’s worth reviewing the dynamics of accent and employment in the UK, Australia and beyond.
How we judge accents
We don’t judge accents themselves, but rather the speakers of those accents and our perceptions of those speakers’ qualities. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1519-1556), reputedly spoke Spanish to God, French to men, Italian to women and German to horses.
We commonly judge accents and their speakers along dimensions of prestige and pleasantness.
To these ends, Brits with posh accents may be doubly advantaged. Many are born into these accents or acquire them at elite public schools. And, on the pleasantness spectrum, we tend to be drawn to accents most like our own.
Therefore, if you happen to be one of the estimated 3-5% of Brits who has a posh accent, and you’re reviewing the application of poor Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, then, yes, for poor Eliza, a job will ardly hever ‘appen.
But accents index both positive and negative attributes to employers and potential customers, and posh accents have been fraying in the British sphere since the 1990s. Studies have shown while posh accents index “intelligence” and “success” they are also considered “less friendly” and “less trustworthy” than regionally marked or difficult-to-place accents.
This has led, among other things, to the emergence of what has been labelled Estuary English, a mix of a posh accent and certain Cockney features, such as glottal stops. Tony Blair and Princess Diana were well known speakers of Estuary English.
Linguist Emma Moore talks about Tony Blair and Estuary English in the following video:
Alongside this process, Scottish accents have emerged as having a certain value add in British society. For instance, a 2008 survey found Scottish accents to be the most reassuring and soothing in a crisis. And a 2012 survey found them to be hardworking and reliable in business.
‘Posh’ accents in Australian English
Australian English is judged variously and inconsistently throughout its history, both at home and abroad.
Winston Churchill called Australian English “the most brutal maltreatment that has ever been inflicted on the mother-tongue of the great English-speaking nations”.
Twain was impressed with how Ballarat speakers rendered thank you to a simple Q and you’re welcome to km. Such shortenings he mused, give the tongue “a delicate whispery and vanishing cadence which charms the ear …”.
Within Australia, there has historically been a clear social distinction between Cultivated (British-oriented) and Broad or General, distinctly Australian ways of speaking.
This distinction can be traced to the early decades of the colony. In the early 19th century, GA Wilkes notes new arrivals from Britain garnered the label stirling after money with official standing.
Conversely, those born in the colony bore the label currency, a money with less standing and less value. By 1827, one British observer noted the currency could be identified by their Aussie pride, poor teeth and “nasal twang”.
The tide arguably turned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, as lexicographer Bruce Moore observes, Australians derided the migrant whinging poms, who the Australians believed were often openly and vocally disappointed by the new country.
Among other things, Moore links the word “pom” to the fondness of early 20th century Australian children for giving nicknames, and the subsequent playground rhyming of immigrant, jimmygrant and pomegranate for Brit children. The term whinging pom itself had emerged by 1962.
The late 20th century saw the decreasing relevance of British-oriented, cultivated ways of speaking. This can be linked to a number of factors, including increasing Australian nationalism and the establishment of an Australian Language Research Centre. The ABC first permitted distinctly Australian accents in its broadcasts in 1952.
The prime minister’s office maintained a cultivated feel until 1966 with RG Menzies, who, as Moore points out, described himself as “British to the bootstraps”:
But, by 1972, Gough Whitlam had given the prime minister’s office a distinctly Australian voice:
In contemporary Australia, linguist Felicity Cox observes that a cultivated accent might work against you. She writes, “many Australians feel that that Cultivated accent is not reflective of Australian values”.
“Vowel cancer” and crabs in the workplace
While posh accents are less relevant in Australia, the UK study does illustrate a critical point which is valid in Australia. Accent remains fair game when it comes to racism and classicism. Where it might be unacceptable, to pass comment on ways of dress or manner, ways of speaking tend to fly under the radar.
This process is well-studied within the US and the British spheres. For instance, Rosina Lippi-Green has famously argued that accents in Disney films draw on as well as reinforce minority stereotypes.
Lippi-Green notes that African American accents leading up to the 1990s are predominantly attached to animal rather than humanoid characters in these films. More so, the male minority characters in these films are generally unemployed, and seem to be concerned with nothing more than having fun and please themselves.
This is instructive for the Australian sphere, where speakers of any number of non-standard or broad accents might have the potential to be marginalised.
Writer Kathy Lette (with Gabrielle Carey) brilliantly documents the Australian vernacular the 1979 novel Puberty Blues. Yet, Lette has also been known to warn teens off such colloquial ways of speaking, calling them “vowel cancer”, and encouraging teens to practice “tongue fu”.
It can be dangerous and misleading to judge a job applicant along a single social dimension such as accent. Perhaps this is best illustrated in closing with the 19th century writer Price Warung’s yarn about an Echuca steamboat deckhand named Dictionary Ned. Warung’s stories often focus on the inequities of the convict system.
Ned loved words and carried a dictionary with him wherever he went. Over time, Ned came to memorise the entire dictionary. Yet, Ned found his Aussie pronunciation of these words constantly derided by College Bill, a man of position and the town drunkard.
In the yarn’s climax, Ned, realising his Aussie accent will never be accepted, shocks the town by shifting into French. From that point onward, College Bill is known in town as Ned labels him: “mo-va-soo-jay” (mauvais sujet “evil”). And more relevantly, the town folk come to realise that their myopic focus on Ned’s accent has led them to underestimate his wit and linguistic prowess.