From time to time I watch old films, classics from the 1950s or even earlier, and I am often surprised at the accents – the norm for the time presumably, but often the actors sound rather more middle or upper class than nowadays. Even the Queen seems to be speaking in a rather stilted way to the way she sounds in more recent years. Listen to a speech she made as a teenager during war time. Then listen to younger members of the royal family nowadays, such as princes Harry and William. Their accents seem very neutral and ordinary in comparison.
When I was growing up doctors and other professionals were almost invariably male, and always had a Received Pronunciation accent – the accent of privilege. Even then, things were changing. I know there was a news reader, Wilfred Pickles, who had a pronounced Yorkshire accent. As far as BBC dramas were concerned, such accents were confined to the depiction of criminals and the lower classes. Nowadays, as long as their speech is clear and intelligible, no accent is a bar to such a job – whether Welsh, Devonian or South Yorkshire.
I have lived in the north for more than 20 years now, the past ten in Yorkshire. Before that I lived in a variety of places as far apart as the Himalayas and Northern Ireland. Here I am surrounded in the main by Yorkshire accents and some of it must have rubbed off. Just occasionally though someone will ask, "‘Are you from Birmingham?" (a place I left well over 40 years ago). I was recently with two people of about my age who came from places not far from my birthplace. Both have been living in the north for many years. One has quite a distinct Midland accent, much stronger than mine, but the other one, even though I know where he comes from, I cannot place by his accent. It has become totally neutral. Was this deliberate? Knowing him quite well I think so.
I remember a television presenter I know. She came from Dudley, a place where people tend to have very strong regional accents. She got a university place at Bristol, about 100 miles further south west. This university at that time, was not known for taking people form the working classes, no matter how clever they were. A few minutes after arriving she went to the toilet. While sitting in her cubicle she could hear many other young women speaking around her. All were using received pronunciation. She came out of that cubicle with their accent. A very conscious decision form someone wanting very hard to be accepted in a strange environment.
That all took place back in the 1960s, and I would like to tell you that all such class divisions have disappeared, but it wouldn’t be entirely true. Things have improved though. Colleges such as the University of Bristol do make a deliberate effort to take students from a wider variety of backgrounds.
As I go into town each week I hear a wide variety of accents all around me – Czech, Ugandan and Polish, alongside Yorkshire in all its varieties from south Yorkshire to the far north. I go to a church where the vicar is obviously Welsh, but his congregation is very mixed in origin – from Basque to Kuwaitis. And it really doesn’t matter. Even those for whom English is very new, and who still have much to learn, are accepted - especially if they smile. Smiles are a part of our international language, and if you can also say ‘Hello’ that is a great start.