Brits judge The Archers characters’ class and likeability on their accent

Those viewed as 'posh' deemed less friendly, a study shows

Radio

Dr Rob Drummond found that non-native British speakers do not make the same assumptions

Britain’s ongoing fascination with class is revealed by the way radio audiences perceive accents in The Archers, new research shows.

Ambridge residents considered to speak with a ‘posh’ voice – such as Brian, Jennifer, Jim and Lynda – are deemed to be unfriendly, while the opposite applies to Eddie and Clarrie Grundy, a study has found.  

However, non-native English speakers do not automatically make the same connection, demonstrating the peculiarly British association between accent and social status.

Power of accent

In a preliminary study, linguist Dr Rob Drummond played short, content-neutral clips of The Archers characters to non-listeners of the BBC Radio 4 drama and asked them to assign character traits to the voices they heard.

Dr Drummond, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “The results showed that many of the accents evoked clear characteristics. This is no surprise, but it does reinforce the power of accent in creating specific identities.

“There is nothing objectively ‘posh’ about Brian’s accent, it simply carries that association in our society. Listeners without English as a first language did not hear Brian as particularly posh, and instead offered a wide variety of interpretations about his character.

Constructing identity

“Non-native English speakers grew up with a different set of cultural and linguistic associations, and have arguably not learned those that exist here in our very status-conscious society.”

Dr Drummond’s research focuses on the importance of language and accent in constructing identity, alongside characteristics such as the way we dress and behave.

He said: “Television and film use voice and accent a great deal in the creation of character – ‘villains’ in American films, for example, often have a British accent.

“However, radio drama relies on accent even more heavily in the process of characterisation, as they do not have the visuals to fall back on.

“Writers of The Archers must be aware of this, as the characters use very broad, almost stereotypical accents. For instance, the Grundys use a generic ‘regional’ accent in order to indicate a rural, ‘low status’.”

Non-native English speakers grew up with a different set of cultural and linguistic associations, and have arguably not learned those that exist here in our very status-conscious society.

Dr Drummond presented his findings at the Academic Archers conference this week, where academics explore real-world issues by drawing parallels with the fictitious events of Ambridge. 

He also discussed the work on BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking show, and wrote about his findings for The Conversation

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