France legally protects accents
Most countries have regional accents. They are particularly noticeable in the USA and the UK, for instance, thanks largely to the movies and TV. While we may think of them as charming or lyrical, they can determine everything from getting a job to being found guilty in a court of law. That might be about to change, at least in France, where a new law has been passed that protects the diversity of accents.
France has numerous historical and cultural influences — from the 10th century Norse Viking invaders in the north to the vibrant post-colonial diaspora communities from West Africa, the Maghreb and beyond — and has considerable linguistic variety as a result.
To protect that diversity, the French government passed a bill outlawing “glottophobia”, or accent discrimination, in the National Assembly 98-3 last November. It took two years to make its way through the parliament. The legislation, officially known as the Law to Promote the France of Accents, is inscribed as an offence under France’s labour and penal codes. It carries penalties of up to three years’ jail and a fine of up to €45,000 (AU$70,000), reports Reasons To Be Cheerful.
Campaigners hope the law will help combat accent bias, which has blocked careers in academia, broadcasting and politics. It has also affected access to housing, healthcare, education and jobs, says Philippe Blanchet, a linguist at the University of Rennes, who coined glottophobia. Blanchet was born in Marseille but has lived in Brittany for 30 years — both areas with strong accents that have influenced his unique tone.
In recent times, glottophobia has been gaining awareness throughout France and has led a number of public figures to speak out about how they’ve been shamed for their accents.
TV host Diane Ducret, who grew up between Belgium and a town in France’s Basque region, says when she first began hosting programs, her director sent her to a speech therapist. The actor and comedian Patrick Bosso says since he decided to keep his Marseillais accent he only receives stereotypical roles. Jean-Michel Aphatie, a veteran broadcaster, revealed that when he first spoke on radio, he received letters from listeners saying, “How dare you talk about politics with your accent!” During the French parliament’s debates over the bill, Patricia Mirallès, a lawmaker whose parents emigrated from North Africa, spoke of the “mockery” she used to face.
“In the Paris region, where the centres of power are concentrated, places of political and administrative power, politicians and parliamentarians and journalists have the tendency to reproduce a way of speaking that is relatively homogeneous,” says Franck Neveu, a leading professor of linguistics at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He says regional variations across France have long been the target of disdain from the Parisian elite, to the point where, since the French revolution, the national school system has been used to attempt to eradicate them.
And yet, some 30 million French people say they have an accent — nearly half the population, according to a survey carried out last year for the book I Have An Accent, And So? Of that, 17 million say they’ve been mocked and 11 million discriminated against because of it.
“There’s almost nobody with a regional accent who leads a prestigious program on radio or television,” says Michel Feltin-Palas, the book’s author and editor-in-chief of L’Express; his father is Parisian but his mother is from the southern Béarnais region. “No actor at the Comédie Française speaks with a regional accent. You don’t have famous intellectuals who speak with a regional accent, nor famous lawyers.”
Accent discrimination and bias exists in every country — often along regional lines. In the UK, Liverpool’s Scouse, Birmingham’s Brummy and Newcastle’s Geordie accents are often looked down upon. The Andalusians of southern Spain are mocked by those in Madrid for their loose, “lazy” way of speech. In China, those who stray from the gold standard Beijing Mandarin are frowned upon. The Australian strine accent is often mocked or parodied and is never heard on radio or TV news programs. In the US, the accents of the east and west coasts rule over the variety of accents in between — from New Orleans’s Yat to Boston’s drawl and the Southern twang.
These biases can take root very early on. A 2012 study analysing the attitudes of children in Illinois and Tennessee towards accents found five and six-year-olds “did not demonstrate knowledge of any stereotypes”, but for nine and ten-year-olds in the same states the Northern accent sounded more “in charge” and the Southern accent sounded “nicer”. The study identified the film industry and the media, particularly national news anchors, as partly responsible.
But while in some countries, including the US and Canada, there are forms of protection against accent discrimination, none are as significant as France’s new law, according to Erez Levon, one of the world’s leading experts on accent bias and a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Bern. “It’s the first I know of to protect native accents from discrimination,” Levon says, explaining that other countries’ laws have focused on foreign accents as opposed to differences due to region and/or social class.
But beyond the more obvious links between accent and geographical region, experts say a number of factors are at play — class, race, gender, nationality and sexuality among them. US research has found the way African Americans speak affects the way jurors view them — audio recordings of people speaking African American Vernacular English compared to General American English “predicted more negative overall evaluations of the speaker, and these negative evaluations were associated with an increase in guilty verdicts.”
“You’ll always get more noticeably different accents the lower down the social scale you go,” says Rob Drummond, a sociologist who co-runs Manchester Metropolitan University’s Accentism Project, which records victims’ testimonies. “Women face more criticism over the way they speak than men. And people will be criticised for differences that people perceive to do with sexuality.”
“[The law] is a very good thing,” says Christophe Euzet, the French parliamentarian from the southern Hérault region who led the efforts behind the bill. “It banalises accents. It normalises them.”
For Euzet, that shift in attitudes can be seen with the appointment of France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, in summer 2020. The former mayor of the Pyrenean town of Prades became France’s first post-war head of government to have a strong local accent. “We’ve been listening to the accent of Prime Minister Castex for some months, and now we listen to Castex for what he says,” adds Euzet.
Journalist Feltin-Palas even argues the law protects the accent as a human right. “Accents are a fundamental part of an individual,” he says.
Furthermore, properly recognising the fundamental role and value of accents is timely. Surveys show 44 percent of French speakers live in sub-Saharan Africa — double the number in France itself — and by 2050, estimates project that number to rise to 85 percent.
Maina Sage, an MP from French Polynesia, argues the law is a starting point for a conversation about the state of French society. “I think we’re asking ourselves a good question in France,” she says. “What is the France of today? What do we want to build together? Outside of appearances and correct pronunciations and correct accents, what do we want to build together?”