Comment

Does Lord Digby Jones’ accent criticism merit new legislation?

By on
16

France may hold the answer, writes future magic circle trainee Will Holmes

Adriano Celentano’s 1972 single Prisencolinensinainciusol was written to remind us that words are just a small part of language. Celentano wanted to see if he could communicate American musical culture without using the English language. For this reason, the song Prisencolinensinainciusol is written in gibberish with the intention of sounding like an American song to an Italian audience.

Lord Digby Jones’ critique of the BBC presenter Alex Scott’s accent highlights the power of this communicative dimension to language. Lord Jones took to Twitter to express his frustration that Alex Scott was spoiling “a good presentational job on the BBC Olympics Team with her very noticeable inability to pronounce her ‘g’s at the end of a word”. He then went on to mockingly appeal to the English language for help. Scott fought back, highlighting the connection between her identity and the way she speaks.

Defending his position, Lord Jones then told LBC radio: “This has got nothing to do with her upbringing. This is not about accents.”

He continued: “It is about the fact that she is wrong. You do not pronounce the English language ending in a ‘g’ without the ‘g’ and I don’t want her as a role model — and she is one, and a good one — to influence [people] to think that it is very fashionable to go around dropping your ‘gs’.”

Similar fiery arguments have broken out in many different cultures over accents in recent times. In France, one such scandal ended up with the government passing an accent discrimination law. In 2018, Jean-Luc Mélenchon appeared to mock a reporter for her regional Occitan accent, quipping “has anyone got a question phrased in French?”.

France’s new law, that came into force in April, criminalises accent discrimination with guilty offenders facing sentences of up to three years imprisonment and a maximum fine of €45,000 (£38,400).

Importantly, this reaction has not sprung out of nowhere. France has a particularly fraught history with accents. In the aftermath of the French revolution in 1789, the priest Henri Grégoire set about producing a report on the French language. You might have expected Grégoire, a great egalitarian who strongly believed in racial equality, to be keen to protect France’s linguistic diversity.

Secure your place: The September 2021 UK Virtual Law Fair

Au contraire! In 1794, he presented his findings in a report entitled Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d’anéantir les patois et d’universaliser l’usage de la langue française (Report on the necessity and means for annihilating patois (non-standard language) and universalising the use of the French language). For him, ‘proper’ Parisian French had an important ideological weight. It was “the language of liberty” and “the language of a great nation” of which all the French were members.

Enforced by institutions like the Académie Française that have come to conjure up the image of ‘proper’ French, Parisian French has remained very dominant in French society. Since then, French academics have increasingly fought against this prevailing linguistic ideology. Pierre Bourdieu’s work Language and Symbolic Power coined the concept of linguistic capital, which analyses how language can affect one’s standing in society.

More recently, Philippe Blanchet’s book Discriminations: Combattre La Glottophobie coined the term ‘glottophobia’, which refers to accent discrimination. The concept of glottophobia has underpinned the new French law that criminalises accent discrimination. But is legislation the way forward?

As Blanchet himself admits, the use of law in this area provides more symbolic power than practical solutions. Critics rightly point out the difficulties of proving such a form of discrimination in court. Others fairly argue that such legislation is overkill, pointing out that pre-existing discrimination laws could be extended to protect groups suffering from accent discrimination. But accent discrimination laws certainly make interviewers and others in positions of influence more conscious of any cultural biases they may have.

So the question remains, is the French legislative reaction too kneejerk? Is passing a new anti-discrimination law too overblown for what should really be just an oh là là social media frenzy? Doesn’t social media already achieve the desired effects of symbolic condemnation? The UK’s linguist past is less fraught than the French. But it remains to be seen how long accents will be a laughing matter that grumbling Tweeters feel they can get away with.

Will Holmes is a future trainee solicitor at a magic circle law firm.

Sign up to the Legal Cheek Newsletter

16 Comments

Twitter is for Narcissists

Imagine being at a party and laughing at the way someone pronounces words because English is their second language. Someone who likely had the money and intelligence to study overseas, push their horizons or could very well be someone wealthy enough to instruct you as their solicitor.

You would be judged as a bit of a twat, not the person you are trying to mock. And the cringeworthy embarrassment won’t be quickly forgotten either.

(26)(44)

Anonymous

From now on, I’m going to refer to him as Lord Diby Jones; just on principle.

(15)(27)

Fowler

It is not about accents; it is about diction.

(41)(14)

Monocle-wearing toff

I think the use of semi colons as above is the smarmiest tactic employed by pretentious humanities graduates

(11)(39)

Cessle

Scott was ‘usin’ the silent g.

Grammarly agrees with Jones.

(11)(3)

Calm down dear

A lack of proper diction shows a lazy approach to language and doing things properly, nothing to do with how or where you grew up. Its hardly a surprise a BBC host went on to play the victim.

(45)(16)

Lol

By all means, criticise what a person says. It is, however, far more lazy to focus criticism on the form rather than the substance.

Did you not learn this when Mummy and Daddy cast you off to boarding school? You should complain! £30,000 a year in school fees. And for what? An education that got you into Durham by spoon-feeding exam answers. But an education that also failed to develop your ability to think for yourself.

But don’t worry, you’re entering a profession where your snobbery and lack of imagination will be disproportionately rewarded.

(16)(37)

Anon

You are very chippy and insecure. I would see a therapist to get over your issues.

(29)(7)

Let’s End The Stigma

Was your private school listed on the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website?

I’m so very sorry if you experienced abuse at school. It’s unacceptable and completely not your fault.

(8)(5)

Calm down dear

Dude, i’m from a council estate in Bilston… You have a go at me for focusing on form rather than substance then make completely off the mark assumptions about someone on the internet…

(3)(10)

SavetheKrill

Why do people from backgrounds such as the above proclaim the same without attributing their progress to the taxpayer and the voting community that bought into helping people of disadvantage? Alter all, they provide the funding and infrastructure to allow people from lower stratas of society to migrate to higher (and vice versa of course). Over here in Australia, the highest claim that can be made is to be of convict heritage, and then point to current professional status. This is the Eldorado. When all things are taken into account, people of low parental income are able to access resources and encouragement than the better off private parents can muster. Plus, they get that all important motivational chip on the shoulder to keep them going. Nothing is as it seems.

(0)(0)

Anon

LegalCheek is literally the only place in the world where a comment like this would get loads of upvotes

(0)(0)

Swampfiend

The regulatory bodies do not care about socioeconomic discrimination. They just obsesses and gender and ethnicity tick box issues.

(2)(1)

Leon

His Lordship probably is livid when he hears Andrew Marr’s Scottish accent. English arrogance has no bounds.

(0)(6)

Anon

No, because Andrew Marr’s diction is perfect. You are confusing accent with diction.

(2)(0)

World is going crazy

“France’s new law, that came into force in April, criminalises accent discrimination with guilty offenders facing sentences of up to three years imprisonment and a maximum fine of €45,000 (£38,400).”

Is this not simply loopy? Digby was being a cock but I’m not in favour of chucking people in prison for being a cock.

(2)(0)

Comments are closed.

Related Stories