BM Edinburgh volunteer Dr Maria Dokovova interviews Dr Lauren Hall-Lew from the University of Edinburgh about accents and trust.
As part of our #AccentPositivity series, I want to learn more about the everyday impact of speaking with an accent that others might notice. In this interview, I will be asking if people have less trust for those who speak with a different accent to them. I will be discussing this topic with an expert, Dr Lauren Hall-Lew from the University of Edinburgh.
Dr Hall-Lew is a sociophonetician and she studies how we change the way we sound over time and what that signals about our social status. She has also been interested in the economic impact and the trustworthiness of certain accents. Dr Hall-Lew has recently co-authored a book chapter together with Inês Paiva Couceiro, and Amie Fairs which asks why a broad Scottish accent can be trustworthy for tourists who can find it difficult to understand. The reference is available at the end of this post.
To start off, I was wondering if you could explain the difference between the terms "speaker intelligibility" and "speaker credibility"? Have people ever assumed that they overlap or that one can cause the other?
A speaker is intelligible if the person listening to them can understand what they’re saying, and a speaker is credible if the person listening to them believes what they’re saying. These are technically unrelated things, and I would guess that most people don’t think they overlap.
It’s certainly easy to imagine listening to two people, both of whom you understand equally well, but one you find credible and one you don’t. It’s also easy to imagine that if you can’t understand anyone at all then you won’t make any judgment one way or the other about if they’re credible, because you don’t even know what they’re talking about.
But when accents differ between the speaker and the listener, a grey area has been identified in social psychology where speakers with less intelligible accents are also rated as less credible, even when controlling for exactly what’s said in each accent. This correlation is most powerful in some courtroom contexts, where the statements from key witnesses have been dismissed by jury members (in the United States) simply because of that witness being harder for the jury to understand than other witnesses.
The book chapter focuses on how tour guides in Edinburgh feel about accents. Both the Scottish and the non-Scottish tour guides think that intelligibility and trustworthiness are related. Also, many of them assume that Scottish accents can be less intelligible to tourists. Yet in practice it seems that tour guides with Scottish accents are not particularly disadvantaged in finding work and tourists generally value their accents. Why do you think there is this discrepancy?
The tour guides we interviewed ran different kinds of tours with different kinds of tourists, and part of the answer comes from different kinds of tourists wanting different things. Certainly, many tourists just want a tour guide who they can understand: they want the information, and nothing else. But many tourists want more than information; they want a cultural experience.
North American tourists, and especially those with Scottish ancestry, were often described as being most interested in any markers of cultural authenticity, and accents are one such marker. It’s not the objective authenticity here that matters: someone born-and-raised in Scotland with a more standard accent may be perceived as less authentic than someone born-and-raised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with a less-standard accent, because it’s the accent’s distance from the standard (or the tourist’s own accent) that is taken as an indicator of authenticity.
This is where the contrast with intelligibility comes in, because if we assume that more-standard-like accents are generally more intelligible to tourists (since non-standard accents are more intelligible to members of that non-standard speech community), then we are left with a tourist who is actually more interested in a less-intelligible tour guide than a more-intelligible tour guide.
In contrast to the courtroom context I described earlier, here you have a social context where the listener actually finds the speaker more credible if they have a less intelligible accent. We heard about this from Scottish guides who revel in compliments from their clients about their accent, and also from non-Scottish guides, some of whom begin their tours immediately acknowledging the fact of their non-Scottish accent and attempting to bolster their credibility by mentioning have ancestral connections to Scotland or a degree in Scottish history.
Can context impact the credibility of people that the listeners perceive as less intelligible? For example, would there be a difference in the credibility of the speaker in an Edinburgh historical tour and a court room if the listeners are not used to their accent?
In our paper we argue that the link between intelligibility and credibility depends entirely on context. In previous work we asked tourists what accent they’d want to hear on a tour of the Royal Mile, versus when buying a train ticket at the station, versus when listening to a comedian at the Fringe. Tourists responded, overall, that they wanted to hear a heavy Scottish accent on the tour, a light Scottish accent at the train station, and that they didn’t care at all at the comedy show.
The first and last findings were expected, but we were a little surprised that they had a preference at the train station. That suggests that tourists still want to experience markers of a cultural place while traveling, even if they’re not explicitly engaged in a doing something ‘cultural’.
But, yeah, a court room in Edinburgh is a different context altogether. An accent communicates all sorts of social information about a speaker, and in a context where cultural authenticity is not at issue, then that information is not likely to matter. Unfortunately, we know that people with non-standard accents are unfairly associated with anti-social and criminal behaviour, and for all we know that kind of bias might show up in the Scottish courts just as much as it does in the American ones.
Is there any accent-related project you are working on right now?
At the moment, I’m working with a large interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh documenting how residents of Edinburgh and the Lothians have experienced the Covid-19 pandemic. The project asks folk to record themselves either in an audio or video format and then send us the file and fill out a survey.
In exchange, we pay each person £15 or donate up to £20 to a charity of their choice. We are currently asking any resident of Edinburgh and the Lothians to reflect on the past year and how it’s changed their lives. Anyone interested can take participate at https://lothianlockdown.org/. We’re especially interested in the contributions of men, over 65’s, children, and teens.
To conclude, what is one thing that is widely known in the field of sociophonetics that you would like everyone to know?
All sociophoneticians know that there are many pronunciations that people think are ‘errors’ that are not errors at all, but are actually grammatically correct features of a particular accent.
Dropping the ‘h’ off the beginnings of words spelled with a ‘h’ letter is one example; pronouncing the ‘t’ in the middle of a word with a glottal stop is another. The list goes on and on, actually!
Even if you don’t believe the speech scientists on this one, it’s worth just pausing and asking yourself what the benefit is in seeing these things as errors? And if there is a benefit, does that benefit extend to all contexts? And might there be a downside, too?
It turns out that when we make judgments about someone’s speech we’re most often also making a judgment about that person. Learning to notice when and how that happens is something that can benefit all of our social interactions with one another.