Friday, 2 September 2011

accents of English - an evaluation study of 2007

Nikolas Coupland
credit: Cardiff University
Nikolas Coupland and Hywel Bishop wrote an article in 2007 on "Ideologised values for British accents", which was published in the Journal of Sociolinguistics 11.1: 74-93. Thirty-four different accents of English were evaluated by 5010 UK persons in terms of adjudged levels of social attractiveness and prestige.

The study to be commented on here is of the overt1 questioning type,
i.e. in this study people are directly and openly questioned about their beliefs as regards language varieties. Informants give scaled responses to such varieties. In the study at hand, data were collected on people's evaluations of 34 accents of English including non-native accents. Unlike in some of the studies by Giles and collaborators in the 1970s, the 5010 informants of this web-based study were not presented with spoken guises of accents but with labels such as 'Birmingham accent', 'Queen's English', 'English with a German accent' etc. The main focus was on these two questions (i.e. semantic dimensions):
  1. How much prestige do you think is associated with this accent?
  2. How pleasant do you think this accent sounds?
The informants had to evaluate the 34 accents on a seven-point scale with 7 being the maximum value and 1 the minimum. Mean ratings were calculated as well as rank orderings (1 being the highest and 34 the lowest rank) for each of the two semantic dimensions. It is the overall rank orderings that I will concentrate on.

As regards prestige Queen's English ranks highest (= 1) followed by Standard English (= 2), the accent identical to the one of the informant (= 3), Edinburgh (= 4) and Scottish (= 5). The accent with the lowest rank in prestige is Birmingham (= 34); less low in prestige are Asian (= 33), Black Country (= 32), Liverpool (= 31) and Afro-Caribbean (= 30). To have a German accent in English puts you on rank position 23 on a par with Newcastle.

Standard English gets the highest rank for social attractiveness, followed by the accent identical to the informant's own accent; next come Southern Irish, Scottish and Edinburgh. Bad luck, on the other hand, for Birmingham (= 34 again), Black Country, German, Asian and Liverpool (= 30).

The upshot of my report is:
ʧøːmən ʔiŋliʃ ʔis soːʃəli ʔinʔɛtrɛktif
Dear German university students of English: Take these results to heart, will you?

1The opposite is a covert study in which the researcher tries to reveal tacit opinions and preferences held by the informants.


  1. Any comments on English with a Spanish or Italian accent?

  2. Nothing on Italian, I'm afraid, but the authors have figures for English with a Spanish accent:
    * rank 17 for social attractiveness and
    * rank 18 for prestige

  3. A small but important addition to your final statement - the idea of German pronunciation is socially unattractive.

    If I remember correctly, the authors concluded that this type of presentation of accents (labels) is inclined to tap into deep-seated stereotypes and perhaps overlook more subtle aspects of accent evaluation.

    Really how familiar are Brits with German accents, I wonder? Brits seem to doubt the whether the German comedian Henning Wehn is actually German. They way he explains it is that we 'island monkeys' only know German pronunciation from 'Allo 'Allo. See here:

    I wonder what the results would be with real speech samples and not just the idea of a caricature of a German accent.