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Birmingham English and the attribution of guilt

Although most of my research is on Glaswegian and Scottish English, I’m starting to move my focus towards Birmingham English, if only by virtue of the fact that I live here now. What was really surprising to me was just how negatively evaluated Birmingham English actually is (it was rated last in the recent BBC Voices survey). I mean, I know that it’s often put forward as a bit of an ‘uneducated’ accent, but it seems that I underestimated just how deeply rooted these stereotypes are. For example, there was a bit of a media uproar in Birmingham about the Colman’s baked potatoes advert where the pig in it spoke in a Birmingham accent, and more recently, some research from Bath Spa university found that when judges had to evaluate a speaker’s level of intelligence by listening to short extracts of speech and looking at random pictures of models they were led to believe matched the voice. The accents varied from RP to Scottish to Cockney to Birmingham and so on. The experiment also included one speaker who said nothing at all. Bizarrely, the picture of a speaker + no voice was rated as more intelligent that the picture of a speaker + Birmingham English. So people who didn’t say anything were viewed as more intelligent than people from Birmingham. It kind  of reminds me of the quote – “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”.

While this is all kind of ‘quirky’ research and could be seen as a bit of a laugh. At least, until I read this article (thanks to Lesley Gabriel for putting me onto it!). The premise of the article is ‘how far does your accent affect people’s perception of your guilt?’ and it tests it by adopting what’s known as a ‘matched guise test’ technique. The idea of a MGT is that you get a bi-dialectal speaker and record them in both guises – guise A (which might be a non-regional variety of English) and guise B (which might be a regional variety). For example, I can speak both Glaswegian Vernacular (guise A) and Scottish Standard English (guise B). You then play each of these guises to a set of judges (not actual judge judges, just people who listen to the stimuli and rate it), but the judges don’t know that each of the voices they hear are from the same speaker. Because the speaker is the same in each case (and thus, things like their honesty, intelligence, trustworthiness etc don’t change), we can get evidence about how far a speaker’s accent can influence how people view them.

This was the basic approach of Dixon et al’s research, but they went a bit further and wanted to see whether someone’s accent influenced whether a listener would think a speaker was more or less guilty of a crime they had been accused of. In particular, they hypothesised that ‘a Brummie-accented suspect would elicit stronger attributions of guilt than a standard-accented suspect’ (Dixon et al. 2002: 164). They also complicated things by having the suspect accused of different types of crime which could be roughly characterised as ‘blue collar’ (armed robbery) or ‘white collar’ (cheque fraud), and included a description of the suspect which was then matched across the different experimental contexts.

Of all the factors that Dixon et al. built into the experiment, the only significant predictive factor which emerged was speaker accent, and unsurprisingly, the ‘Brummie’ speaker was rated as more guilty than the speakers in standard guises. The effect size wasn’t a small one either, but a reasonably moderate one, and the significant three way effect between speaker accent, speaker ethnicity and speaker crime suggests that these factors are all strongly correlated. Indeed, the Brummie accent/Black suspect/blue collar crime cell had significantly higher guilt ratings than the other five cells (e.g. Brummie accent/White suspect/white collar crime etc). Of course, it’s impossible to know from the experiment exactly which ‘Brummie’ features the judges were responding to and whether there were patterns of higher guilt ratings when the stimulus covered the physical description of the suspect, but the overall findings are persuasive.

All of this research taken together underlines some quite serious issues regarding the social prestige of Birmingham English, but it also highlights the real-world ramifications speaking a particular accent might have. What’s more concerning is what do we actually do with this research? I have no idea whether Dixon and his colleagues went to, for example, West Midlands police and told them about this research, or whether steps were taken to train police officers up on the implications of the findings, but it seems like a pretty obvious step.

The Social Linguist

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