On Dumbing Down (and Smartening Up) Your Accent

There's a debate going on over at the UK's Telegraph between two middle-to-upper class men about the trend of "dumbing down" your accent and inventing a backstory in order to claim more working class roots than the ones you actually have.

In an op-ed posted on Monday, gallerist and club owner Alex Proud expressed his annoyance at "mockney" culture, stating:

After all these years - after Thatcher, Major and Blair, after endless claims that we're a classless society and considerable evidence that most of us are middle class - we're still obsessed with being working class. Every time I think we might have grown out it, I hear the mangled vowels of another public school mockney or a celebrity declaiming their working class roots with the kind of self-righteousness you normally reserve for trying to prevent a genocide.

Proud finds it irritating when formerly working class people who now earn considerable money "won't shut up about how authentically working class they are," but more so, he's bothered by middle-to-upper class people who idolize and put on the airs of the working class through speech or by downplaying their own wealth.

He adds:

The trouble is, our love of all things working class comes with three important riders. The first is that, as someone who isn't working-class, I should constantly apologise for my comparative privilege. The second is that, if I refuse to do so, I should be righteously pilloried as some a Little Lord Fauntleroy. And the third is that, really, it would be better for everyone if I pretended to be working-class myself.

(Proud also says "Is growing up a bit poor really that bad? What about people who were born a bit short? Or a bit ugly? Personally, I tend to be a bit fat and bald. Perhaps that's what's held me back. Should I remind you of it every time I open my mouth?" but I'll let you work through that problematic statement on your own time.)

Earlier today, writer Alan Tyers joined the discussion, arguing that Proud shouldn't be so quick to judge middle class people who put on lower class affectations:

The days where we all lived in little villages and dealt only with people who sounded like us and were from the same background have gone for ever. Movement of people around the country, immigration and an erosion of the line between traditionally middle class and working class jobs (although not, sadly, an increase in social mobility) mean that we live and work alongside people from all over Britain and the world.

Might it be that Alex's try-hard downward mobilisers are actually just trying to get along with people?

To Tyers, mockney-ing up your accent could just be a way to make the peasants feel more comfortable when interacting with and living among the wealthy elite. (They thank you for your consideration, I'm sure.)

It's hard to move this debate into an American context, mostly because it's the most monocles-popping-out-of-eyes, cigar-room-on-the-Titanic, British-sounding argument to happen in recent memory, but also because our class systems, while similar, aren't entirely identical.

Proud argues that the U.K. should "be a bit more American" because here, apparently, we "are more interested in where you're going than where you've come from." I guess you could say that's true in that I know way more people who have tried to erase their regional accents than I do people who have exaggerated them. Coming from the midwest, I always experience a flutter of embarrassment when, after a few drinks or if I'm feeling particularly tired, my answer of "no" comes out as "no-ah."

There's a certain pride that comes from having successfully erased where you've come from, particularly if you're from some seemingly unglamorous part of flyover country or if your accent was once dubbed as too Valley or too Brooklyn or too whatever isn't perfect broadcast-ready American English.

So maybe we are "more interested in where you're going than where you've come from," but that's hardly ideal either. Living in a big coastal city, I would have a far harder time being taken seriously in meetings, job interviews and life in general if I came in talking like Frances McDormand in Fargo and that struggle is nothing compared to what it would be like for someone who, say, grew up in project housing or in Appalachian coal country and speaks in a way that we, as a race and class obsessed society, have deemed as uneducated and worthless.

Linguistics is a surprisingly fraught topic of conversation that tends to bring out our worst prejudices. Whether you're going after people for putting on an accent that you think they didn't earn or judging them for speaking in a way that's all too authentic, it all comes back to this — you think they're speaking wrong. Alright, fine, but how about next time you don't like the way someone talks, you, instead of getting all uppity about it, simply try minding your own business?

Lastly, it's interesting to note that there's one fairly quintessential voice missing from the Telegraph debate and that's the voice of an actual working class person. I'm sure they have thoughts about rich people pretending to be like them because it's trendy and I'd much rather hear what they have to say than listen to some club owner blather on about how hard it is to be judged for being unapologetically wealthy.

Dry your tears with your money, fancy man! All of the people at the bottom feel very sorry for you.

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