Opinion: there is a dark side to how we react to different accents, something which could result in linguistic discrimination

By Stephen Lucek, UCD 

When I walk into any room in Ireland, one of the first things that people notice about me is that I sound like an American. There's a very good reason for that: I am American. The remarkable part is not that Irish people have deep connections with America and American, but this is something that so many of us do all the time (and almost always it’s simply a way of showing interest and being polite). As Máiréad Moriarty pointed out in an earlier Brainstorm article, our accents are indelibly linked to who we are and what we want the world to know about us. We can think about language as a way of exhibiting or performing identity. 

There is a large body of research on our perceptions of our own and other people’s speech. We call this Perceptual Dialectology and large projects have looked at how we divide up geographic space according to the way that people speak.

Most people have ideologies about language use, and this is a little bit more complicated. We might value a doctor who speaks with an unremarkable accent or expect the GAA correspondent to sound rather specifically regional. So having ideas about language use (and, more to the point, language users) is a consequence of the human condition, something that we all do, and usually innocuous.

From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, is your accent holding you back? Featuring RTÉ Brainstorm contributor Máiréad Moriarty

However, there is a darker side to how we deal with the way people speak. This is sometimes called accentism, linguicism, glottophobie, or linguistic discrimination. There is a growing body of scholarly work that addresses how linguistic discrimination is evident in the jobs market, the housing market and legal proceedings. Public figures are obvious targets for this kind of abuse, and Irish politicians have been forthcoming about the sorts of things that are said to and about them on social media. 

But politicians are not the only people who are subject to linguistic discrimination.In an article on The Conversation last year, Gerry Howley wrote about the linguistic discrimination on summertime hit Love Island. It’s predictable which regional accents are going to criticised and this was backed up by Twitter postings. Reality TV is the perfect place to observe the way the public expresses their ideas about the way other people speak.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, a discussion on Love Island

While it may come as news to some readers, but there is an Irish contestant on Love Island this year. Maura Higgins from Longford announced her arrival on the show with a series of high profile plot points. Somewhat unsurprisingly, shee has elicited a high number of reactions on Twitter. Searching "love island maura sounds" (this works for all contestants) shows us  how she is perceived. When she first arrived, she sounded 'desperate’ and only interested in sex. It didn’t take long for her accent to be noticed:

This is not surprising, based on the fact that Maura was flirting with Molly Mae’s beau, the boxer Tommy Fury. Maura’s Irish accent was not warmly welcomed on Twitter:

Maura’s intelligence was also called in to question:

So bountiful was the abuse of Maura’s accent that an English betting firm made it part of their digital advertising

Not liking the sound of someone’s voice isn’t that uncommon. But where the trouble starts is around Maura's flirtation with Tommy, who is a member of the Traveller Community. This led to a predictable outburst

Linguistic Discrimination is not against the law. All comments about not liking the sound of someone’s voice or the words that they use, even about someone sounding uneducated, are not legally punishable. However, membership of the Traveller Community is protected in equality law in Ireland. No-one in Ireland can be denied a job or services based on their membership of the Traveller Community, and anyone who experiences harassment based on this status can seek redress through the courts. It shouldn’t matter if someone is a member of the Traveller Community and these comments impugn the community as a whole.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, an interview with Dr Sindy Joyce, the first member of the Travelling Community to be awarded a PhD

Of course, we shouldn’t expect any actions by Twitter to remove offensive content based on membership of the Traveller Community. The bigger problem is that linguistic discrimination happens every day. This is a societal problem and one that we seem to accept. But, as seen in France, it doesn't have to be this way. Adults shouldn’t be denied opportunities because of how they speak. Some of us in academia are doing our best to highlight this issue and projects currently underway in Ireland will soon show how deep this problem goes. 

It is true that we live in an unequal society, but societal problems are worth fixing. Any discrimination according to those nine characteristics was perfectly legal until we moved as a society to make it illegal. Love Island may be a bit of silly summertime fun, but it highlights a very serious problem in society. Maybe tackling linguistic discrimination is a fight worth having.

Dr Stephen Lucek is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow in Linguistics in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at UCD


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ