IN Friday’s National you mentioned the furore caused by the SCIS’ promise to overseas parents thinking of sending their children to private schools in Scotland that the children would not pick up Scottish accents. I was very grateful that you did not print the out-of-context comments attributed to me by The Times which seemed to be supporting that organisation’s viewpoint. Since they do not appear to be willing to print my letter protesting about this, I thought I would set the record by saying that I dislike the idea of private education in general (I am the product of what was, essentially, an inner-city comprehensive) and believe strongly that Scotland’s accents and languages should be given full respect and coverage in all schools in this country.

Here is my full email to the Times journalist:

There are a number of ways to look at this.

First: accent prejudice is a reality. Most people – me included – probably find some accents more attractive than others. If you ask around a little, you will find that many Scottish people dislike Glaswegian accents, English people Brummie, Germans Saxon, and so on. All these varieties are urban and associated with “King Mob”, the much feared proletariat of the 19th and 20th centuries. Favoured accents tend to be rural or derive from the upper echelons of society.

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Second: in some societies, accents can be feared as the other. I lived in London in the late 1980s. I did suffer some anti-Scottish prejudice, but mostly I found that many people found my accent “funny” or “strong”, while they didn’t have “an accent”. My answer was always that they also had “very strong” accents: they didn’t sound like the aliens off the Smash adverts. It is quite natural for people to think that their accent is “normal”. The issue stems from who holds political, economic and social power: their accent(s) will be the norm.

Third: in countries where English is not often the first language, most people are taught one of two pronunciations: RP (“Received Pronunciation”, the accent of the English upper and upper middle classes, originating from the prestige speech in London from the 18th century on) and GenAm (“General American”, essentially an idealised representation of Midwest middle-class speech). Stepping away from those norms may be felt to be letting learners down. People who come from prestigious backgrounds (and can afford to send their children to fee-paying schools) will not want their children to be looked down on. These schools will attempt to cater for these views.

Two vignettes: I worked at Helsinki University in the early 1990s. One of my colleagues, an English woman in her late fifties, informed me that I couldn’t teach “British” pronunciation because my “voice was horrible”.

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I gave guest lectures at a number of universities in China in April 2019. Among other things, I taught about accent use across the English-speaking world for learners of English. I was actively (although very politely) challenged by some colleagues that I was “confusing” students. My answer was that the difficulties caused to students when they first arrive in an English-speaking country and discover that most people don’t speak the way the students have been taught would be even more confusing.

The funny thing is that, from a linguistic point of view, Scottish accents may actually be easier to learn than other ones: we pronounce our /r/s in all positions, our vowels largely do not diphthongise (compare “wait” in Scottish vs RP or GenAm), we have fewer of them, and so on. When I taught in Norway for three years in the 1990s, I found myself in the odd position of telling student in language labs: “don’t say boat [Norwegian and Scottish monophthongal pronunciation] for ‘boat’ [Norwegian and Scottish monophthongal pronunciation]: say boat [RP diphthongal pronunciation]’.

In any event, keep up the good work.

Professor Robert McColl Millar
Chair in Linguistics and Scottish Language, University of Aberdeen