Accents and Accentism in Audiobooks
By Emily De Vogele, Cameron Phillips and Paige Anderson
While audiobooks have come a long way since their inception, there is no denying that accentism continues to be very prevalent in the field today. Accentism is discriminatory or unfair behaviour targeting someone's accent, or language use. There’s an important distinction to be made between accentism and preference. Preferring certain accents is not necessarily an issue: we all might favour one accent over another. But when these preferences bleed into unfair actions and behaviours, or subconsciously affect our decisions, it’s called accentism.
There has always been a push for audiobook narrators to read in a ‘posh’ accent or, more accurately, a received pronunciation (RP) accent. This is often referred to as the standard form of British English (it’s what BBC news presenters and the British royal family sound like.) Despite it not being the most spoken accent within the country (the UK), RP is still seen as the standard for British English outside of England. We get a personal take on accentism from those who consider themselves to have a strong accent:
“Being born and raised in Manchester means that I have an accent. It is something I can’t help, nor something I would want to distance myself or my voice from. Like all accents, certain words and phrases make my accent far more pronounced.”
“Ever since I started looking to get my foot in the door within the publishing industry, it has become extremely apparent to me that it is a very London-centric industry. This is the case for many industries, and the economic geography of the UK more generally, but many other industries have made conscious efforts to expand their fields outside of the capital, especially towards the north. This is where I’ll give a shoutout to HarperNorth, a division of HarperCollins that opened an office in Manchester at the beginning of 2020. They do wonderful work, especially with their aim to promote northern writers and voices on a national scale. Having attended many panels discussing accentism in publishing, I have always felt that because of where I live - or the way I sound - that I would be looked over in interviews. At times, I feel that I cannot be myself, both in terms of personality and speech, as it would work against me and my chances of securing a position. It’s easy for London-based companies to hire people who live in and around London. When I’m asked how I will travel to the office or where I’m based, I automatically feel at a disadvantage.
What I will say to conclude is that the pandemic has shown companies that they can cast their net much wider. The increased use of platforms such as Zoom has shown that companies can and should interview people for London-based positions who are further afield and promote remote work. We are just as passionate and valuable as those London-based candidates and have just as much to offer.”
As seen in the testimony above, accentism is something that is very present within the publishing industry. Bath Spa University released a study which found that 67.2% of publishing professionals felt that they had been treated differently compared to those without a strong accent. How then does this prejudice impact audiobooks? One respondent of the aforementioned study claimed that “they had been perceived not to be well-read.” If there is a push for narrators to speak in an RP accent, does this mean that all audiobooks must be narrated by those who lack a strong accent? That would be extremely unfair and discriminatory, raising the question of whether this is something that the publishing industry should allow.
“When reading a book, I personally have no preference regarding how the narrator sounds. If anything, I enjoy characters who are supposed to have accents and are narrated accurately. One might refer to the Harry Potter audiobooks here. There are countless characters with accents throughout this series, including Rubeus Hagrid, Seamus Finnegan, and Fleur Delacour. Representing accents enhances the experience of an audiobook. It’s odd to have an RP voice narrating an Irish boy or a West Country man! Having a variety of accents in audiobooks is not something that should be an issue, especially because they make it easier to immerse yourself in what you’re listening to and add to the experience of reading.”