Friday, 4 April 2008

Dumb blondes smarter than Brummies: Official

More discoveries from the University of the Bleeding Obvious. It turns out that people make judgements about other people based on the way they speak. And that some regional accents are more prestigious than others.

A couple of psychologists at an outfit calling itself Bath Spa University asked 48 people to look at pictures of four women while listening to women speaking in one of three different accents or without sound. They were asked to rate the pictures on how intelligent the women seemed. And, mirabile dictu, the Yorkshire accent came out on top, closely followed by "the Queen's English" (though not, I assume, actually spoken by the queen). Silence was in third place, while a woman speaking in a thick Birmingham accent was rated the least intelligent of all.

This survey has all the usual characteristics of cod science. A statistically insignificant sample, an inadequately described procedure (at least in the reports), a publicity-friendly subject and a predictable result.

As Professor Henry Higgins put it in Pygmalion, "It's impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him." But it was old news even then.

But that didn't prevent the research leader, Dr Lance Workman from theorising about what creates the apparent prejudice against Brummie accents.

"People associate the Birmingham accent with criminal activity and that criminal activity is associated in people's mind with low intellect," he said. I'm not sure either of those assumptions is accurate. Personally, I associate a thick New Jersey Italian accent with criminal activity far more than Brum, but that's just the sort of neurological damage you sustain watching years of The Sopranos.

Workman continues, trying to account for the better response to a Yorkshire accent:


If you go back 40 years, received pronunciation was seen as by far and away number one for intelligence. More recently we have seen a cultural evolution that has seen regional dialects being seen in a more positive light, although some more than others.

Must be William Hague. In contrast to, say, Clare Short. But then Harold Wilson spoke with a pronounced Yorkshire accent, and no-one thought he was stupid. And what of Enoch Powell (an idiot, perhaps, but not a man of inferior intellect)? He spoke all his life in the gentrified version of Brummie usually euphemised as "West Midlands".

Nope. Dr Workman is talking bollocks.

Making assumptions about people based on the way they speak is as natural as making assumptions about people based on the way they dress, or the job they do (or appear to do), or how they write. Since we're not provided with a recording of the voices used, it's impossible to know whether the Birmingham woman taking part in the tests actually sounded, or was attempting to sound, either unintelligent or unintelligible. Or whether the Yorkshirewoman sounded like Norah Batty or one of the Bronte sisters.

Such surveys have been done many times before, and rarely yield anything surprising. When a larger sample of voices is used, a snooty Edinburgh accent invariably comes top in terms of perceived intelligence, whereas people are more inclined to trust Geordies or folk from Yorkshire. But the tone of a voice more significant than the vowels. Southern English Received Pronunciation can sound authoritative and intimidating, but it can also sound air-headed and Sloaney. New Yorkers sound brash and impatient, if they also sound rich, or ballsy, if they don't. Irish people are imagined to be witty and charming rather than (as used to be assumed) thick. Glaswegian usually slugs it out with Brummie for the wooden spoon. But then the Glaswegian concerned is invariably of the impenetrable Rab C. Nesbitt variety. There's also a much softer, rather musical Glaswegian speech: Commons Speaker Michael Martin is a noted modern exponent.

"These are of course stereotypes that are not based in any way on how intelligent people actually are. It's all about prejudice," says Dr Workman. Is it, though? There is, after all, a correlation - not an absolute correlation, but a clear one nevertheless - between acquiring higher education and losing thicker, more traditional types of dialectical speech.

Education softens the rough edges of regional accents. It also encourages clarity of diction. Speaking clearly and grammatically is a much surer guide to intelligence than regional accents, and is likely to be perceived as such. A person with a posh RP voice might be a high court judge. Or he might be Tim Nice-but-Dim. But a person who speaks impenetrable Glaswegian is unlikely to have ventured far outside the city of his birth. And that is surely becoming more rather than less relevant when making snap judgements about brain-power.

Apologies for the trivial subject-matter. It was this or Blair's religion speech, and having ploughed my way through the transcript I was beginning to lose the will to live. Another day, perhaps.

6 comments:

reasonable robinson said...

How about preciing a version of Blairs speech in 'brummy'? Oright Orchid

The Monkeyman said...

I do find these "research" papers based on such utter crap science really quite annoying. The BBC and their ilk love them, a nice 5-10 minute slot in the news, but its just pointless noise.

Who gives a flying dog fart?

Anonymous said...

Well as an eastend-bred Weegie with impeccable prole credentials I disagree about rab - surely he was clear to everybody inside and outside Glesca!

Edwin said...

damn didn't want to be anonymous clicked wrong button.

The Heresiarch said...

I think the genius of Rab C was that you could understand exactly what he was saying without quite following every word. Unlike, say, John Prescott, where you can understand all the words but the totality can be a little confusing. Or Rowan Williams, who speaks in beautifully enunciated periods but no one has a clue what it is he's actually trying to say.

Edwin said...

I think the secret with RW is to try to follow through to the effect: thus when he recently seemed to be arguing against blasphemy law he was actually arguing for much tougher replacement laws - i think.

I bought a doodle by the man on ebay recently - I support the epilepsy campaign and hardly anyone was bidding for it. I have it on my desk and it is rather pretty but hard to make out...