A couple of days ago I tweeted this:
Below is the image included in the tweet, in case it doesn’t appear above. It’s from a recent poll by UK research firm YouGov in which 2018 people in Britain were asked how attractive or unattractive they found 12 accents in Britain and Ireland. In this post I want to address the poll and some of the responses to it.
Some news outlets are calling them “the twelve main accents of the British Isles”, but that’s not what they are. YouGov also uses the term British Isles to refer to both Britain and Ireland, and though the phrase is often intended simply as a geographical descriptor, it’s politically loaded so I avoid it.*
On to the poll results. I found them a little surprising. RP (Received Pronunciation) is up there, as you’d expect, but a long way off the accent judged most attractive: ‘Southern Irish’. This phrase proved contentious in the replies to my tweet, many of which were along the lines of: ‘Oh, do we all have one accent now?’ or ‘What on earth do they mean by Southern?’
These are fair objections, and the first one could also apply to Northern Irish, Welsh, and others. (Also, given the prevalence of Estuary English its exclusion is curious.) But a small, quick survey like this is always going to simplify, generalise, and mislead by omission. Southern Irish was presumably chosen to distinguish it from Northern Irish.
It’s not an unheard-of classification. Séamas Moylan adopts it matter-of-factly in his fine historical review Southern Irish English (Geography Publications, 2009), describing it as the variety “spoken in the part of Ireland roughly coterminous with the Irish Republic (Donegal being the most obvious exception)”. He abbreviates it SIE throughout.
Raymond Hickey’s map of Hiberno-English dialect regions may serve as a helpful point from which to consider the lumping–splitting axis of Irish accents (though it concerns dialect, which encompasses grammar and vocabulary as well as pronunciation).
For a small country, Ireland has tremendous accent diversity. There are huge differences between the accents of, for example, Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Waterford, Limerick, Mayo, Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal, and the midlands. And any area can be further subdivided by those with a good ear for this.
If you asked a group of British people (many of whom would never have visited or travelled around Ireland) what they thought of each of the above accents and others besides, I suspect most of them would struggle to answer. Ireland’s abundant regional accents just aren’t familiar to people who aren’t Irish or Irish-ish, or who haven’t spent significant time here.
Here are the counties, for reference. I’m in Galway on the west coast:
As Ben Trawick-Smith writes at Dialect Blog, in his helpful overview of Irish accents:
The problem is, Ireland in some ways has too many varieties of English to easily classify into smaller sub-areas. Take Dublin, for example. It seems there are as many accents in that city as there are people, and many of these accents are wildly different from each other. These differences are found in many parts of Ireland, where it often seems that every village has a totally different way of speaking from the one next door.
(Tip: Read the comments at Dialect Blog, but not on the YouGov page.)
Just how granular can we go with accent differentiation? Try this:
To return from splitting to lumping: What British people have in mind when asked about the ‘Southern Irish’ accent is open to speculation. I don’t think the survey had an audio/video element. An Irish accent to most people outside Ireland is probably something like those of Sinéad O’Connor, Brendan Gleeson, or Colin Farrell – Dublin-ish. Cillian Murphy and Roy Keane, from Cork in the south south, are exceptions in having fairly well-known Irish accents from outside the Pale.
I like most Irish and British accents, and there are some (like Scottish and Donegal accents) that I’m especially partial to. Feel free to share your favourites or your thoughts on the survey in a comment below. This PDF has the full survey results, with more detail on how the answers break down demographically.
A few more tweets of interest since the post went up:
* I should have tweeted Britain + Ireland or UK + Ireland instead of British Isles + Ireland. Ireland can refer either to the island, including Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK), or to the Irish state, often called the Republic of Ireland. It’s all quite complicated and somewhat beside the point here.
I figured it meant accents of folks living around Cork. Southern Irish meaning the Republic of Ireland? I’m quite surprised.
Interesting that this arises from a recent poll. It seems to reflect a widespread understanding in the call centre business. I recall working in a call centre in Cork back in 2002 and this was cited by the management team as the main reason why we were chosen as a location for out-bound calls to customers of Barclays bank in the UK. Presumably they did focus groups or something.
If you’re trying to flog accidental death insurance to unsuspecting bank customers, a pleasing accent or one that startles its prey long enough to reel them in, makes good sense.
Being a naturalised Corkonion I suspected that it referred to the Cork accent too, since Cork is always the best everything.
It is, of course, utter, utter, rubbish. Comparing the entire Republic of Ireland against a single Scottish accent? The majority of the respondents middle class and from the south of England? So many things wrong with this appalling poll…
I suspect that the survey mostly reflects English class distinctions; the working class Brummie, Cockney and Scouse accents are disliked. The quaint, non-threatening Leprechaun modern Republic of Father Ted is seen as harmless. I doubt that ‘Southern Irish’ was thought of as attractive by the English in 1921.
Harumph. I see Newfoundland was not included in this. More Irish than Ireland in that there are more accents than you could shake a stick at, many unaffected by modernization and as some have it: “speaking the Cork and Waterford accents as they were spoken 400 years ago.”
A bit of an exaggeration there, I’d say.
And I’m with you Stan, I’m very partial to the lingo of Donegal. Music.
I’m on for the protest march to get Newfoundland included, so long as the ‘What Do We Want? When Do We Want it?’ is softly melodic.
Zombie political rally:
What do we want?
When do we want it?
Oh I would definitely agree to that :)
There are several surprises in the results, the discrepency between Southern and Northern Irish among them. I wonder how to account for that.
However, I’m inclined to dismiss the survey as useless, because I don’t see how you can expect to have a meaningful survey on accent perception without an audio element.
A better survey would be one where respondents are asked to rate specific voice samples on their attractiveness, without being told where the speakers are from. The samples should include several speakers per region (to average out individual differences), and respondents should rank male and female samples separately.
I’d favour the approach where respondents are asked to compare two randomly-selected samples at a time, and an overall picture is built up from the responses of many respondents. Otherwise you risk overwhelming people with choice.
Online accent maps (where you click to hear a sample from particular regions) can be fun. But they are not always well implemented (e.g. the interface may be clumsy, or the samples may lack an even split of male and female speakers), and even at their best they should be taken with a pinch of salt. Whether a voice is attractive or not owes more to the speaker than where they are from.
(Years ago I perused this list of Swedish voice samples and picked out this one as the most attractive female voice. But I don’t pretend that means anything, except that the speaker sounds simultaneously relaxed and enthusiastic, which is a recipe for attractiveness anywhere you go. Listening afresh I also notice a significant amount of vocal fry.)
I wonder — as idle speculation, nothing more — if it makes more sense to rank accents not as “attractive” vs “unattractive”, but as “compensatory” vs “non-compensatory”. For example, perhaps an Australian accent sounds attractive ONLY if the speaker has a naturally good speaking voice, whereas an Irish accent makes everyone sound reasonable (i.e. some accents more than others compensate for an individual’s deficiencies).
Claire: It’s a very vague and generic term in the context. I’m sure some respondents wondered about it.
Orlaith: That’s really interesting, and I’ve heard similar reports before about certain regional UK accents. I’d be inclined to think the research the call centre did or based their decision on is more reliable than the YouGov poll.
Dean: Of course!
ICAL TEFL: Yes, there are too many generalisations, simplifications and omissions to take it seriously.
seajay: There may be an element of truth to that, but ‘harmless’ isn’t enough to explain Irish accents topping the poll.
WWW: My guess is that Newfoundland was deemed too unfamiliar to British residents (if it was even considered in the first place).
Wajiha: Happy to hear it. :-)
Adrian: While I wouldn’t call it completely useless, @VoxHiberionacum’s description of it as ‘fluffy’ is fair, I think. There’s an interesting age difference for the Northern Irish accent: younger people tend to find it significantly more attractive than older people do. Maybe there are political reasons for that discrepancy.
I think an audio-based survey would be better only if multiple samples were used for each, to reduce the considerable bias of relying entirely on one person’s voice. Not naming the accents for listeners first would also be a good step – though naming them does bring other factors of interest into play.
The use of ‘compensatory’, whether in the results or in the survey methodology itself (or both) would require a very clear explanation; the term is otherwise likely to confuse a lot of people.
Just to clarify one thing: my thoughts on the notion of a ‘compensatory’ accent were meant in the broader philosophical context of accent perception, and not in the narrower context of how to conduct a survey on the subject.
It might be of use in an academic write-up of the survey results (if they support the relevant hypothesis), but probably not in a single-page summary.
Good point by Adrian about the methodology used and not providing voice samples.
Talking of voice samples, am I just imagining things or did Ryanair (something of an Irish brand) make a conscious decision about three or four years back or so to change its prerecorded in-flight announcements from an Irish accent (female, I think) to a (male) Scottish one? To tone down the Irishness of the brand, as it were?
When a capitalist enterprise such as Ryanair makes decisions about such minutiae – from the cock-a-doodle trumpet on landing to the amount of luggage you can take on board – I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair amount of research and thought have gone into it.
Liking or disliking a particular accent is purely subjective, and factors such as social class, ethnicity and a host of other factors, for both auditors and speakers, come into play.
As a speaker of Central New Jersey English, and fan of various accents, in my subjective opinion, “Southern” Irish IS very pleasant; educated Southeastern British is clear and efficient (as long as you understand rhoticity); General Scotts is pleasant, but Glaswegian borders on incomprehensible, even for an (admittedly-self-styled) aficionado of other accents; I recently turned off an Emma Thompson film less than halfway through, because I hardly understood the dialogue, and I’m an Emma Thompson fan. Did I forget Welsh? Very pleasant, but for sheer musicality, the Irish accent wins.
Yes, of course there are several different accents in each of the large areas picked by the survey, and in some of the smaller ones, too. There were several different accents in London 50 years ago when I lived there – how many there must be now it is so much more multicultural I just can’t imagine. I’m not sure that fact by itself nullifies any value the survey might have. What astonishes me is the absence of Highland Scottish, which would be the one closest to unseating “Southern Irish” in my mind (well, apart from Cockney, of course, which is beauty itself).
My ignorance of Ireland would astound you, but I suspect the difference in the surveyors’ minds between Southern Irish and Northern Irish is simply that what they are calling Southern Irish are those Irish accents that lack those distinctive features we identify as most common among the Loyalist / Ulster Scots / Presbyterian population. I hope in my ignorance I haven’t phrased that too gauchely (if there is such a word).
As to the British Isles, this is an unfortunate business. I admit to calling them that (as a geographical term) except in the presence of Irish people, because it’s obvious why they might find the term unpleasant. Of course it is the original term, long before today’s different political entities formed in these islands (yes, I tend to call them “these islands” in the presence of any of our cousins from the Republic, which underlines the real need for an alternative modern term). At one time “the Atlantic Islands” was floated, which is hardly accurate (“some Atlantic Islands”, surely) but has something of a ring to it. My impression is it seems to have gone out of use (while “these islands” persists, in an embarrassed sort of way).
“Atlantic Archipelago” shows up in seven titles at Amazon.ca.
Wiki has an article about the “British Islands naming dispute”,
and the “value free” use of British Isles as mere geography vs
“value laden”, p.o.v the nationalist.
(“I have no use for nationalism” — Mikhail Gorbachev, ca. 1988,
not quite his famous last words but close it.)
Atlantic Archipelago sounds fine to me. Of course we’d all have to learn how to spell “archipelago”, but that apart it has my vote. An alternative would be to make something up, Erinalbion Isles, say. Except that might annoy the Manx.
“Northwestern Europe” works for me. Simple and descriptive, however much it might annoy certain Brits who want to cut loose from the rest of their continent.
Adrian: Understood, and agreed.
Mise: There’s no reason for the banners not to be perfectly polite.
Mel: I couldn’t tell you, but it wouldn’t surprise me. And if true, I agree that it’s not the sort of thing a big company would be likely to do on a whim.
Marc: I seem to remember the film Trainspotting being released with subtitles in the US, on account of the accents’ relative obscurity. Optional subtitles are a good idea when this is a possibility, and for hearing-related reasons too. Irvine Welsh of course writes in a distinctive Scottish eye dialect, as does James Kelman in his books – Glaswegian in his case. Such material helps one ‘tune in’ to a dialect, I think, though for an Irish person the various Scottish accents aren’t so hard to understand.
Some of the terms used for the islands are better than others, and their suitability can change with context. The Atlantic Islands and Northwest(ern) Europe seem too vague to me. These islands can have local or contextual utility but isn’t really an option for general use. Picky, I understand why you’d use the British Isles, and it’s to your credit that you avoid the term in Irish company. It’s probably also the most common term (I base this on my impressions, not research), but it’s just not an option for many or most Irish people; it sounds dated and Anglocentric, and the politics can’t be extracted from the phrase. The British-Irish Isles is more inclusive, but still doesn’t include the dependent territories.
I tend to say Ireland and Britain, or occasionally Britain and Ireland if it makes more sense in a given case, but both exclude the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. A real alternative would be welcome. I don’t see Atlantic Archipelago catching on in common currency. B&I sounds like a bank. IONA (Islands of the North Atlantic) might have caught on if Iona weren’t already an island (and a conservative lobby group), though again it’s potentially misleading because of other islands in the north Atlantic. The Celtic Isles is one I hear occasionally and quite like, but I don’t know how other people find it; ditto the Anglo-Celtic Isles, though that one doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily.
Difficult, isn’t it? But I don’t think we need fret about the Channel Islands – people like me who say the British Isles is a geographical term can’t then include the CI : clearly geographically distinct (just don’t tell the French). Politically there is already a term for including the CI: in British law “the British Islands” means UK+CI+Mann as political entities.
I don’t like Anglo-Celtic Isles much. It seems to perpetuate the idea that there are two distinct racial groups here whereas of course we are basically just those people who recolonized these islands (!) as the ice departed. It sounds more divisive than I would like. And “Celtic” anyway is a dubious term. So I would prefer a name that referred to where we are rather than to myths of who we might have been. No doubt our ever-creative language will find the answer.
“The Offshore Islands” might put us in our place.
That’s a fair point well made about the Celtic Isles and the Anglo-Celtic Isles. The search continues!
How about something neutral, like “The Mid-Latitude Islands”, or weather-related, like “The Rainy Islands”?
John: The Mid-Latitude Islands strikes me as vague too, but The Rainy Islands isn’t bad – even if it’s less rainy here than its reputation suggests. Or, to continue the natural theme, The Green Islands.
I imagine that they mean something like what Dialect Blog called the Supraregional Irish Accent when they were thinking of a ‘Southern Irish’ accent because I imagine that is the most common accent in Ireland because of its prevalence in Dublin but also because many Irish people seem to modify to this type of accent once they leave their regional area. As much as people think that they are resistant to dialect levelling it is inevitable that you have to change your accent to be understood. The (boarding) school I went to was like a production line where country accents came in one end and SIA accents came out the other but most people would still have kept their ‘home’ accent as speaking with that SIA accent is not always expedient.
The Canadian comment above was funny because I got that a lot when I studied in England (after the SIA production line). Lots of English people love Irish accents but mine wasn’t Irish enough for many people back in the 90s. I think that they like SIA with a bit of brogue thrown in for affectation.
As you say it bears little relation to the reality of actually living in places like Clare, Tipperary or Westmeath (to name three counties I lived in) where you have a massive variety of accents. Since most places in Ireland tend to have class accents ranging from what was the prototypical Anglo-Irish accent through to accents that are not far removed from their Irish language antecedents the whole notion of Southern Irish English is moot but then generalizations are not meant to be accurate.
Thanks for the link and insights, Aidan. You’re probably right that levelling is at least partly responsible for the accent(s) typically perceived as Irish abroad. Someone else who speaks with SIA is Dara Ó Briain (a native of Bray, I’m told); this struck me recently when I saw him presenting ‘Mock the Week’ on BBC. His accent is very identifiably Irish, but it wouldn’t be considered a strongly regional one, maybe for the reasons you describe, or because it was fairly mild to begin with.
[…] few weeks back, Stan Carey responded to a “most attractive accent” survey which crowned Southern Ireland the most […]
Have people been querying whether RP can be represented geographically, ie as SE England on map? (Unless I’m mis(map)reading?
Ed: I think traditionally it was associated particularly with southeast England, as you say, but I don’t know that that still applies. There is useful discussion at speech talk if you haven’t seen it.
[…] my post on southern Irish accents for related discussion.) Elsewhere in Normal People, the young man with the thick Sligo accent is […]