In 2020, Durham graduate Lauren White wrote a report about the treatment of northern students at Durham University; over 20 past and present Durham students from the North of England, described feeling isolated and hearing their northern accents described as “feral,” “dirty” and “vulgar”.
Despite the North-East location, Durham’s student population is predominately southern and disproportionately privately educated: less than half of admissions come from non-grammar state schools with 12% of the student body coming from grammar schools. In the most recent HESA figures, only 8.8% of Durham’s 2021/2022 intake came from the local area: encompassing Tyne and Wear, County Durham, Northumberland and Darlington.
Northern students at Durham, whom Palatinate spoke to, described developing a more southern accent while at the University. Some said that the transition was sub-conscious, while others said it was to “fit in” with the rest of the student population.
Amy, a Durham graduate, told Palatinate, “My whole experience was really strange. Some of my friends went down south for uni, but then when we met up over the holidays, somehow, it was my accent that had weakened the most.”
“My accent isn’t even that strong, but I was constantly asked to repeat myself in seminars. In my second year, one boy told me that he couldn’t understand a single thing I said. He didn’t mean to upset me, and it sounds silly, but I just wanted to cry. I only went 30 minutes away for university, but I was constantly made to feel that I was the weird one. Some of my peers seemed to have never met anyone who didn’t speak like them before.”
Palatinate interviewed Erez Levon, Professor of Sociolinguistics at the University of Bern and investigator for Accent Bias Britain, a project which looked into unconscious accent biases. He said, “It’s completely normal for people to have stereotypes regarding accents.”
“And it’s part of just the way in which we navigate the world. The problem is when people use these shortcuts to make these important decisions about [things like] whether I’m going to offer you a job.”
“Received pronunciation is a prestige accent in the UK. It emerged in the 18th century, it emerged in public schools, primarily in the southeast. It was the language that was associated with landed Gentry and the ruling classes at the time.
“At the same time the Industrial Revolution [was coming into being], with the rise of large industrial centres across the UK.The accents associated with those places: Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, came to be seen as accents of the working classes.”
One student, who comes from Durham, said “I tend not to speak in lectures and have only recently begun to speak in seminars with a conscious effort to adapt my accent. I have even considered elocution lessons to fit in.”
They told Palatinate that they try to pronounce things “more clearly” and they have become “very conscious” of their accent. When returning home, the student said that rather than changing their accent, they have slightly changed the way they say certain phrases, “adopting [a] more middle-class language.”
In a survey conducted by The Sutton Trust in November 2022, 56% of Northern students reported having experienced their accent being mocked, criticised or singled out in a social setting. 51% of students from the Midlands, and 42% of students from Scotland reported the same. 42% of students from South England also said that they had experienced this.
“I never realised I had an accent to be honest until I came to university. I knew Durham had a reputation for being overly private school, but I didn’t ever think that I would be sitting in seminars worrying about what my peers thought of me because of how I spoke,” a Durham graduate from Essex told Palatinate.
“Away from Durham, I noticed that my natural accent, which is Southern but not RP, came back. I felt really self-conscious about it. It sounds awful, but after coming back to Durham after a year out and my accent ‘poshing up’ a bit, I felt way more comfortable about how I spoke.”
Professor Erez Levon explained to Palatinate how the psychological importance of accents can lead to students experiencing “distance” from their “home community”. He said, “We don’t realize how much we rely on it. [Accents are] such an important signal for who we are and where we’re from.”
According to Levon, the way we speak is critical for forming identity, so students “could feel threatened at university because they feel like they don’t fully fit in there. But then also when they go home, they could feel threatened because now they’re labelled as sounding like an outsider.”
Not all students felt that their accents had changed significantly since University. One student from Crewe said she notices her “accent more and it makes me seem more northern just by contrast. I don’t think it’s actually changing.”
“The time I notice my accent most is in seminars, when almost everyone has the same one, and I tend to stick out a bit there.”
Another student from Northern Ireland explained that their “parents and friends pointed out how posh” their accent had become when they went home for Christmas in their first year.
A different student from Northern Ireland said they felt that their accent had become “far weaker” since studying at Durham.
“It’s strange, I never felt like I spoke ‘wrong’ before I got to Durham, but after one day of freshers and my accent being mocked countless times by complete strangers, I was made to feel out of place.”
Professor Erez Levon claimed that, after surveying university students across the UK, among “people who were going to Russell Group universities at places like Durham, Oxford, or Cambridge, there is a lot of feeling that there’s a particular way of behaving and of speaking that’s associated with fitting in in those spaces and that if you come from a non-traditional background, and you’re coming into that space, you have to learn that way of being in order to fit in with [the student body] that has traditionally been in places like Durham.
“[The student body] has changed over the past, you know, 10, 20, 30 years. I think that the attitudes haven’t really caught up to that change.”
Another Durham University student from Yorkshire, Ellie, said: “I’m a proud Yorkshire lass, but sometimes it’s better to be understood and have people pay attention to what I say rather than how I say it.”
“I do try to preserve my accent because I feel like it’s tricky to find other Northerners in Durham sometimes.”
One student from Doncaster said that they changed their accent to become “weaker” and sound “more posh/southern,” especially in academic situations.
“The lack of northern representation in Durham is saddening.” They also claimed that “the way northern people are treated is vile. On my first night in Durham, a girl in the Jimmies queue from Hatfield told me that I was ‘lucky to be here.’ It wasn’t hard to understand what she meant by that.”
In response to this article, a spokesperson for Durham University said: “We do not accept any form of prejudice or discrimination. We would strongly urge any staff or students affected by any such incidents to report them to us via our Report + Support tool, so that they can be investigated.
“We are working to build a respectful and inclusive environment where people feel comfortable to be themselves and flourish no matter what their race, background, gender or sexual orientation.”
A Hild Bede student from Scarborough told Palatinate that: “My brother mocks me if I accidentally speak the way I do at Durham at home (…) mainly in ‘o’ sounds” as their accent becomes slower and clearer.”
“I love Yorkshire and would hate to see my accent fade away when I’m at uni, it’s a shame that I do have to change my accent so others can understand.
“I see why one must change accent for the sake of being understood, but I used to be proud of my accent and sometimes now, with certain groups, I may feel slightly embarrassed or like I shouldn’t be in the situation if my accent differs too strongly from theirs.”
When asked about students purposefully changing their accents, Levron said that, “It is a pressure that I think a lot of people feel. In these surveys that we did with university students, a lot of people did feel like they had to sort of smooth out their accent or reduce their accent somewhat to fit this sort of middle class standard.
However, subconscious accent changing, according to Levron, is “something that we all do”
“There are these either fully automatic changes that happen below the level of conscious awareness, accommodations that we all make, that are perfectly normal. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. (….) But it’s more people feeling like they have to do this that there’s a pressure to conform to a particular standard. That is when things start to become difficult and frankly sort of unfair.”
Image: Thomas Tomlinson