Can an accent spoil the Olympics?

The return of the Olympics could not have come soon enough. It offers a collective experience unlike any other I know in sport. A galvanising balm that can bring a country together as it did at London 2012. And it’s truly gargantuan. It takes a small army of presenters and pundits – all appearing in perfectly ordered sequence, contributing to the team effort that is live presenting.

This time around, we have many new faces. Alex Scott, herself a highly decorated and accomplished athlete, has joined the core team and co-hosts the highlights programme with Clare Balding. The two have great chemistry, and it’s been a delight to watch them in action and to see things unfold in realtime. Live broadcast is a tricky gig and they navigate it together with real enthusiasm and genuine care for the athletes (and their families, whom they regularly interview live on air).

And despite this obvious skill and care, there are clearly those who feel the presenting is lacking something. Saturday saw a small eruption following the comments of Digby Jones on Twitter. The former member of the House of Lords took it upon himself to publicly call out Scott for her pronunciation – specifically her “dropping of the g” in the ‘ing’ suffix appended to many of the sporting disciplines. My own feeling is that accents represent the wonderful diversity of language and identity in our country and that we need to recognise that everyone has one – even those that think theirs is somehow ‘neutral’.

And because of that, I wanted to explore Jones’ assertion that idea that the way someone sounds can negatively affect the experience of the listener. If you’re an IPA fan – that’s the international phonetic alphabet, not the popular beverage – you’ll recognise that difference between the sounds in examples below:

ˈrəʊɪŋ / ˈrəʊɪn – “rowing / rowin”

ˈweɪtlɪftɪŋ / ˈweɪtlɪftɪn – “weightlifting / weightliftin”

ˈkɑɪjækɪŋ / ˈkɑɪjækɪn – “kayaking / kayakin”

This ‘dropped g’ is simply the result of the sound ceasing when the tongue is in position to produce the ‘n’ rather than the ‘g’. You can see below that the ŋ sound is made further back in the mouth (velar) than the n (alveolar).

And the English language is full of these kinds of variances of pronunciation. Back at university, I remember two students locked in a vigorous debate about the merits of writing ‘a hilarious’ vs ‘an hilarious’. Why such verbal consternation about something written? Simple: pronunciation. It’s clear that one of the above is grammatically correct, but you see both written because people often write as they speak. This is a result of the respective pronunciation, or dropping, of the ‘h’ in hilarious.

In the previous example, both the ‘a’ and ‘an’ become a ə (schwa) sound in English.

This means that the vowel sound is condensed into a very small glottal ‘uh’ sound (see ʔ in the image above). And because of this, it is physically easier to move from the ə to the n, than it is to move from the ə to the h. Here’s the example in IPA:

ən ɪˈɫleərɪəs – “an ilarious”

ə hɪɫˈleərɪəs – “a hilarious”

This all happens because English is a language that has always thrived – as water – along the path of least resistance. And one the biggest culprits of this trend is the received pronunciation (RP) accent, that Jones supposedly lauds above all else. And I feel it’s worth noting that very few people truly have an RP accent these days – Jones himself was called out on Twitter by users that scoured his spoken record in the Lords and pointed to dozens of examples where he himself dropped ‘h’s and shortened vowels.

Over the years fashions have changed. Sounds that used to be pronounced have been dropped, homonyms are more common that ever, and yet the RP accent still carries with it a sense of entitlement and privilege. (Even by some of those who sport an ‘adapted’ version of it…)

Is it any wonder that Scott wants to stay true to her roots? Her accent connects her to her background and the journey she’s made through life. It is living proof that her talent, skill and drive are they factors that have mattered most in her stellar career. Not her accent.

So why do we people get so hung up about accent? Why do so many people – particularly people for whom English is a second language – want to ‘achieve’ an RP sound? Fear.

Fear of being called out as not belonging. Fear of being judged. Of feeling that you’re not good enough. Of being misunderstood when you express yourself to others.

Learning anything from a place of fear is sapping and counterproductive. You’re never going to enjoy an activity that you learnt because you felt compelled to by outside factors. And that’s why I am so pleased to see Scott rebut Jones with such positive and affirmative words. Because we need this, as a species. We need to remind one another to be proud of what we do and where we’ve come from. And to celebrate that together. That’s the legacy of the Olympics – the coming together of people from diverse and different backgrounds, in the pursuit of goal that means more than a medal for themselves. It galvanises the country, and not a moment too soon.

So can an accent really spoil the Olympics? For me, the answer is absolutely not. Presenting with confidence and prowess is what it’s all about, and this team bring that energy in droves. This team can only serve to make the coverage more accessible and encourage those that might have steered clear in the past. The IOC are already onboard with this mission as they add BMX and 3×3 into the mix, driving new audiences to connect with the games. Perhaps it’s time for the likes of Jones to examine their discomfort with accent, find out what it’s really hiding and open themselves up to the wonderful world as it exists today.

If this has got you thinking about the way that you speak, we think you’ll love our approach at Join The Dialogue. We nourish the power of everyone to speak with confidence, to say what they mean, and to be more compassionate to themselves and their audience. It’s great fun and it becomes a way of life.

You can learn more about our work and join us at Join The Dialogue.