Stop policing the way I speak

“Um, hi… so, like, I’m Maddi, and um, I, like…” I trip and mumble over my sentences, trying desperately to think of what I’m going to say next whilst simultaneously smiling, trying to look interested, and making sure I cross my legs so the ladder in my tights doesn’t show. I can hear my Mum’s voice in my head. Stop mumbling. Sit up straight. Stop saying ‘like’. It’s frustrating (and kinda agonising), constantly hearing critiques of your words bubbling up in your own head. I give up and stay silent. Feeling a little bit dumb. My ‘erms’ and ‘likes’ have become too much. I’m in a job interview and I’m passionate (I really want it), and yet my brain can’t monitor my words fast enough before they leave my mouth. My words are hot and excited and (probably) not always, technically, 100% proper English. So now I’ve been left to think about why I felt like this. How much of this is me? Should I just get a grip and learn how to teach myself to speak “properly”? Or (the approach I, like, totally, prefer), does the incessant policing of speech tell us something problematic about our society?

Part of me thinks it's about taking language seriously. The English language is super serious business. We add new words to our dictionaries every year. We are constantly refining and redefining how our language is conceptualised and, importantly, how we should speak it. It is important because it means something to speak properly. And perhaps more worrying/interesting is the way we decide what ‘speaking properly’ even means in the first place. Who decides what proper English is? Who decides that me speaking, in all my like-ing and umm-ing glory, isn’t the right way to speak?

We forget that speech, language, and intelligence aren’t synonymous terms. In the same way that we are now acutely aware of how we may wrongly police people’s appearance, I think it’s time we turned our attention to voice and speech. I say ‘voice’ and ‘speech’ separately because they are fundamentally different in this argument. I know of people who feel silenced in certain scenarios because of their accent. The broadness of their ‘ah’s and ‘ooh’s leave them feeling like they don’t fit the template of how you’re supposed to sound. In academia, this problem is rife. I was recently at a conference, chatting away to my new pal in the lunch break. She had so much to say about a talk we were just in and had a brain (like mine) swimming with questions. But, she didn’t want to raise her hand to ask a question in the lecture theatre. She was the only one with a thick accent in the room and it silenced her. This belief that speech indicates something fundamental and important about you must come from somewhere. Is it a simple case of ‘you can’t aspire to be what you can’t see’ (or at least, what you can’t hear)? Do we just think our voices don’t belong because we don’t hear other people talking in the way we do? A vicious cycle starts to emerge its ugly head.

When I tell people I’m from Yorkshire they’re usually surprised and then partly delighted. “Where’s your accent?!” they ask, confused by my lack of a thick Yorkshire twang. If I’m honest, I envy those with a strong accent. It creates identity. It allows you to locate yourself within a county, a country, a continent. It allows you to align yourself with a heritage and a culture. Being Northern is embedded into me. It makes up so much of who I am. Gravy runs through my veins, I spent most of my childhood in Leeds city centre, and the Yorkshire Dales is one place that really feels like home. And yet I don’t have the accent to connect me there. I don’t have the ‘linguistic ID’ (if you will) that shows that I am truly, born and bred in God’s own country. I miss my lack of a Yarrk-shuh accent, and yet I know (deep down) that it may benefit me to not speak with a northern twang in some circumstances. It all just feels a bit messed up.

I think the belief that there is one way to speak is really damaging. I’m also left wondering what all the linguistic fuss is about. Does my ability to string a sentence together align perfectly with my ability to be good at a job? For every ‘erm’ and every ‘like’, am I deemed to be less competent? Less intelligent? This idea of policing speech is so saturated in classist norms. It also allows us to differentiate between those in the social hierarchy, which perpetuates classism, division, and halts social mobility.

This kind of problem will only ever really be fixed if we just quit policing each other’s speech. Or at least start thinking critically about what it means to judge someone for the way they speak. From now on, I pledge to wear my ‘um’s and ‘uuhhhs’ with pride. Sometimes you just need a little time to think about what you want to say next, amiright? We have grown so used policing each other, and I’m worried that speech doesn’t seem to have found its way onto our agenda yet.

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