Marketing accents and accent-based identity: PGR Hannah Leach on BBC Radio Stoke


One of the fun things about studying dialectology (the development, variation and impact of accents and dialects) is that everybody has an opinion on it. Fling together a bunch of strangers and one of the topics that’s bound to come up is how people sound and where they come from – that certainly happened for me in Freshers’ Week!

Accents are also a reliable source of discussion and debate for any kind of media outlet, and news articles about which accents we like the least, the rise of elocution lessons, or even how animals speak in different dialects will pepper the papers (and are particular useful on a slow news day!). While national media might report on general surveys and trends like the above, local media can often foster impassioned discussion and defence of local accents and dialects – local people inevitably have strong opinions about their own variety, and love to share them!

This bodes particularly well for my research, which is on the accent of Stoke-on-Trent, and the pottery industry specifically. I’ve spoken on local radio before about the accent, and a couple of weeks ago I was invited back on to talk specifically about some comments made by Alastair Campbell.

Alastair Campbell: After three days in Stoke-on-Trent @staffsuni I think you need to market yourselves as a Northern town not Mids. Gateway to the North

Having spent a few days in Stoke, Alastair Campbell tweeted that he thinks Stoke should market itself as a Northern town, rather than Midlands. The next day I got a call from BBC Radio Stoke to have a chat with their breakfast show presenters about his comments and Stoke’s place in the country – a pretty contentious issue!

A few years ago, Dr Chris Montgomery and I did a survey of 160 Stoke residents about their feelings and opinions on the accent and region. 20 people described the accent as Northern (even “quintessentially Northern”) while only three said it was Midlands, and several people called it a hybrid – one even said he’d heard “Scummy – half Scouser half Brummie”! Its status is difficult, because administratively the city is in the Midlands (and has many ties with Midlands cities, Birmingham in particular), but it shares a historical trajectory and many cultural attitudes with post-industrial Northern cities such as Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield.

The people at BBC Radio Stoke were kind enough to send me some prep questions the night before, and arranged for my transport down to the BBC Sheffield studio at 6.30am (!), which meant I got to take stupid selfies like this one with the fancy radio setup.

Woman sat at radio mic with headphones raising hand palm up
Does this pose make me sound scholarly?

Slightly unfortunately, the presenters didn’t ask me the questions they sent over, which meant my diligent preparatory notes were rendered rather pointless! I think the interview still went well, and you can decide for yourselves – at the time of writing there’s five days left to listen to the interview here, from about 8 minutes in.

A few days after this, I got a call from the producers of the Mark Forrest show, a programme broadcast every evening to all 39 local BBC Radio stations simultaneously, which highlights the most interesting local stories from the previous few days. They decided to follow up the same story and asked me to chat to them too.

I was a bit more nervous this time, considering the wider audience and primetime slot, but this interview did stick to the prep questions, which was comforting. I did find that, possibly because of the more general audience, the questions were less about the Stoke accent and more about Stoke’s cultural history, its socio-spatial place in the country, and its economic prospects, which isn’t specifically my research focus, or indeed my discipline! I’d like to think I’ve done enough reading over the last two years to hold my own (judge for yourself here, 1hr34 in, 9 days left to listen!) but I definitely feel more comfortable contextualising my thoughts in linguistic fact!

Three things I learned:

  • If you’re ever going to be on the radio talking about your PhD, be prepared to summarise your research in approximately 23 seconds. Inevitably I was asked “So, what is a Stoke accent?”, which is a tricky one to answer speedily when I’m writing 80,000 words on just two features!
  • Apparently I sound extra Northern on the radio.
  • Exciting as it was to be featured on the Mark Forrest show, I’m particularly grateful to BBC Radio Stoke for inviting me to come on and chat so often, and it’s particularly lovely to know that my research is appreciated in Stoke itself!

Written by Hannah Leach on 16 December 2015

More about Hannah’s research on her website.

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