I’ve been watching more TV than usual. We recently moved and it’s taking forever for internet access to get set up in our new place, so, in the meantime, we watch TV. (Books, schmooks.) I completely justify doing this, academically, because watching TV is a great way to learn about the ambient culture. I’ll never forget the first day of John Rickford’s field methods course when he asked us all who the local sports teams were and none of us had any idea (and thus we were not at all ready for fieldwork). Anyway, while I do still watch a fair number of American shows, I’ve become a fan of several of the British ones as well. Particularly the game shows. Most game shows, I’d wager (pun intended), tell you a ton about a culture. At a macro level (which is true for any show), you can first see what people find entertaining and valuable. For example, there are far more trivia-based game shows in the UK than in the US. But it’s the micro level of game shows that I love, when you see contestants talking off the cuff. Of course this is also true for reality shows, but with game shows, particularly the trivia-based ones, you also get immediate evidence for what kind of knowledge people value and cultivate. And even more interesting is the immediate data you get about what attitudinal and ideological associations are most salient.
My favo(u)rite example of this was one of the first times I watched All Star Family Fortunes, which, for you Americans, is a show that’s exactly like Family Feud except that each family is the family of a British celebrity (and all the winnings go to charity, which rocks). The concept of the show is pretty simple: they “surveyed 100 people” on a particular question and then the contestants must guess the top few answers given by those 100 people. One time I was watching a round where the question was “What do you associate with builders?” First off, builders are what Americans call construction workers. If it’d been me, I would’ve said that I associate them with, oh I dunno, building materials. If I had to be specific, I’d say cement, or wood, or some other material or tool. What do they say in Britain? Well one of the top answers on that particular round was: “tea.” As in builder’s tea (or even the brand, Builders Tea). Because, you know, builders take a lot of tea breaks, and they drink strong, cheap tea. Duh.
Now that I’ve totally confirmed every British stereotype held by every American reading this, let me get to my point.
Last night I was watching a particularly trashy game show. It’s not even worthy of being called a “game show” — it’s just a dating show with many contestants and flashing lights and an obnoxious host and a live audience. The show is called “Take Me Out” and it’s filmed in Manchester, in Northern England. The premise is that single bachelors are strutted out onto the stage one at a time and a panel of a couple dozen single women decide whether or not they’d date him, and then he chooses from among the remaining subset of women who would, and then they go on a date. As I say, it’s trashy. Anyway, something interesting happened last night, related to language attitudes in Britain. It left me mystified, and so now I turn to you.
There were two bachelors in the second half of the show. The first one was a guy from Edinburgh, the second a guy from Dublin. The first guy had no one interested in him at all and left without a date. The second guy garnered tons of interest and had his pick of women. Here’s what gets me: both men gave an introduction when they came out onto the stage, something short along the lines of “I’m John, and I’m from X.” After the Edinburgh guy spoke, several of the women backed out. The host asked one of them why, and she said to the contestant “I’m sorry, I’m sure you’re nice and all, but I just can’t understand what you’re saying.” However, after the Dublin guy spoke, most of the women did not back out, and two of the women specifically swooned over his accent. One woman remarked that she’d gone to Ireland in hopes of finding herself a leprechaun, and was glad for the second chance (“leprechaun” was said very nudge nudge, wink wink). The woman who actually got the date with the Dubliner stated that her “biggest turn-on is a man with a strong accent.”
But not an Edinburgh one, apparently.
Let’s clarify a few things: as far as Scottish accents are concerned, the Edinburgh accent is not considered particularly strong. What’s more, most of the women on this show seem to be from Northern England, where accents are generally more marked than Southern England (where ‘near-RP’ and such things reside). In fact, the woman who said she “couldn’t understand” the Edinburgh man was (if I remember correctly) from Newcastle upon Tyne, which is relatively close to the Scottish border (and famous for its own very marked accent, Geordie). Even though sociolinguistic research has explored the ways in which the Scottish-English border is indeed an important psychological and ideological divide, Ireland is across a body of water and is not even part of the UK! So the idea that it would have any more comprehensible or intelligible of an accent seems like a real stretch.
So what’s going on here? Is a Dublin accent considered more sexy than an Edinburgh accent? In Coupland and Bishop’s 2007 analysis of “5010 U.K. informants’ reactions to 34 different accents of English,” Edinburgh scored an average of 4.49 (on a 5-point scale) on Social Attractiveness measures, and Southern Irish scored 4.68. These are very similar values, when compared to the other 32 accents, though with Southern Irish slightly higher than Edinburgh it is leaning in the direction expected. In terms of Prestige, Edinburgh scored 4.04, Southern Irish 3.63, which is not particularly helpful here. If we look at the results for Social Attractiveness by gender, women rate both accents higher than men do (which is true for most of the accents), but not drastically differently between the two (Edinburgh = 4.59, Southern Irish = 4.83). For Prestige, there’s no gender difference for Edinburgh, while women rate Southern Irish as slightly more prestigious than men do (3.69 vs. men’s 3.58). In short, I think there’s something interesting about the value of these accents that was reflected in last night’s “Take Me Out” but which I don’t think has been fully captured in the language attitudes literature, yet.
Granted, the Dublin contestant was more conventionally attractive than the Edinburgh lad, so maybe all that incomprehensible-accent stuff was just an way to save face.