I propose to open up a new field of philosophy: accent philosophy—the philosophy of accents. This may sound like a dull subject, but in fact it sets the pulses racing: for accents penetrate to the heart of what we are as human beings–as living, breathing, speaking people. It is actually a deeply political subject, and hence controversial. Because I mean to raise a normative question: are some accents better than others? Yes, you read right: I intend to enter the territory of prescriptive pronunciation. Surely to condemn it! you expostulate. Actually, no, I intend to argue that accents are subject to normative assessment: some are better than others, objectively, absolutely, non-relatively. Orthodoxy denies this: accents can be described but not prescribed (or proscribed). Prescriptive grammar is bad, and so is prescriptive phonology (how the voice sounds when speaking). That is the politically correct non-elitist non-snobbish and obviously enlightened thing to say. But is it true? Tradition supposes otherwise: it used to be thought that some accents sound more intelligent, refined, mellifluous, and pleasant than others—which are variously characterized as coarse, crude, unintelligent, ugly, grating, annoying, unpleasant, and other such epithets. Surely, I am not proposing to go back to that! Well, not quite, but not so far distant from it: I do think that there are good and bad ways to speak accent-wise, so we can reasonably criticize a speaker for speaking one way rather than another. Moreover, whole regions—whole countries—can be criticized for how they pronounce words. So, as I say, accent philosophy, as I conceive it, is likely (certain) to raise hackles: it seems to go against everything we have been taught to believe about democracy, equality, tolerance, liberalism, and basic human decency. Am I really going to argue that Cockneys don’t speak proper and Geordies need elocution lessons and royals set the standard for correct pronunciation? Am I saying there is something wrong with people who don’t pronounce words in a certain way? Let’s wait and see. First, we need to establish some terminology in which to frame our accent philosophy; I have already introduced some of it. Thus, we have accent prescriptivism and accent descriptivism, and these can be more or less global: it might be thought that a particular accent is defective in one respect but not in others, so that it is only partially defective; or it may be riddled with bad sounds. We also have accent-quality relativism and absolutism: relativism says that accent evaluation may be acceptable within the group using it but there is no absolute standard of accent goodness; absolutism insists that there are objective community-independent criteria of accent evaluation, so that a whole community can be condemned for speaking badly. It may be that some individuals or groups rank lowest on a scale of accent goodness; and this may even be measurable. Accent subjectivism holds that accent quality can consist in nothing but subjective reaction—how it sounds to a particular hearer—while accent objectivism holds that accent quality is a matter of objective fact and may fly in the face of people’s subjective reactions. It might even turn out that Queen Elizabeth II had the worst accent of all! (Don’t worry, royalists, that isn’t going to happen.) In other words, the familiar philosophical categories can be carried over to accent philosophy. I will be defending a limited absolutist objectivist prescriptivist position—but you will be relieved to hear that I do not advocate corporal punishment for children who can’t talk right. No punishment for vowel deviance or consonant delinquency; this is a kind and gentle prescriptivism. Before I embark on this quixotic task, let me dispose of a common error about accents—the idea that there is nothing to the evaluation of accents than class distinctions. We call an accent good when an upper-class person uses it and we call an accent bad when a lower-class person uses it. Now I don’t want to say there is nothing to this point, but I don’t think it goes deep enough. Consider this thought experiment: a rich respected person speaks like a drunken sailor from Ipswich (I pick that town at random) while a lowly kitchen maid speaks like her majesty the Queen—do we really want to say that we would judge the former accent superior and the latter inferior? If not, why not? Isn’t there something internal to the speech of these two individuals that signals vocal merit or the lack thereof? Soon I will venture some suggestions about what this might be, but just intuitively doesn’t that sound wrong? Isn’t Lawrence Olivier’s accent intrinsically superior to that of the bloke in the pub mumbling and mewling and mangling his words? One reason for this is that certain features of speech impede communication: slurring words, omitting syllables, speaking too softly, or too quickly. Since the main purpose of speech is communication, these features will detract from the purpose of speech and therefore count as defects. So, there is an objective measure of vocal quality, viz. ease of communication. If an accent has features that impede communication, it is to that extent defective; those features ought to be removed or remedied. What might these be? I will start with some imaginary cases. What if someone developed the habit of pronouncing every vowel the same way? He might say, “I pied the piper to piper the rime” meaning to say “I paid the piper to paper the room”. Obviously, this would impede communication, since many distinct words would be pronounced in the same way, confusing the hearer. It would be necessary to appeal to context to disambiguate what is said. Call this “vowel merging”: then we can say that vowel merging is an accent defect because it makes communication more difficult. Or consider consonant-dropping: a speaker has the habit of dropping terminal t’s and d’s from words, saying things like “I apprecia- the suppor- from the crow- and the ban-” intending to say “I appreciate the support from the crowd and the band”. This is likely to cause confusion in hearers who don’t have this habit, especially when the word uttered sounds like a word which actually lacks a terminal t or d (“high” and height”, “cry” and “cried”). It is an accent that will impede communication. Now a real example: words like “fit” are pronounced like “feet”—the i-sound turning into an ee-sound. Clearly, this will lead to much confusion in hearers, because there are many pairs of distinct words in English that will end up being pronounced the same way (“it” and “eat”, “sit” and “seat”, etc.). This is an accent that speakers should strive to correct; it is a defective way to pronounce words—according to an objective criterion. It is also extremely common among people who speak English as a second language (especially native speakers of Spanish, Italian, and French). But it isn’t just foreigners who have bad accents that interfere with communication: native English speakers have much the same problem. In fact, I chose my imaginary examples to illustrate defective actual accents of the same general type: vowel-merging and consonant-dropping are common features of spoken English. To avoid tedium, I will be brief. Everyone knows the tendency among certain groups to pronounce “rain” as like “Rhine” and “line” as like “loin”, but recent British pronunciation has introduced an ee-sound into the oo-sound, so that “roof” sounds like “reef”. We also have the tendency in some regions (Essex?) to pronounce “know” like “Neigh”. It is very common in England to drop terminal t’s, so that “port” becomes “pour”. Put these together and you get “noy” for “night” and “toy” for “tight”, or something close to that. In some dialects the word “know” gets perilously close to “gnaw” (Geordie). In American English “hot” becomes “hat” (pronounced the English way) and “hat” becomes “het” (i.e., the e-sound is introduced into it); and t’s get transformed into d’s (“wetting” sounds like “wedding”). There is no o-sound, so that “ontology” sounds like “untulugy”. The result of all this is that there are fewer phonetic resources in American English than in British English, which makes reliance on context more imperative. This is not ideal, though in practice comprehension is not much affected, at least among native speakers. No doubt the reason these kinds of deviation from the ideal are not more extreme and frequent is that this would impede communication much more seriously, as in my imaginary cases. You can’t go around pronouncing all vowels the same way or making do with only two consonant sounds! All workable accents have to respect the needs of communication, which are that semantically distinct words generally have distinct pronunciations; ambiguity can only be tolerated so far. As a matter of principle, then, accents must abide by these rules and are defective to the extent that they don’t—objectively, absolutely, and prescriptively. There is such a thing as mispronunciation. And the larger your audience the more you have to obey these basic rules: you can’t expect your hearers to be fluent in the accent you grew up with. By all means stick with the accent you were inducted into, but bear in mind that vowel-merging and consonant-dropping are not good ways to proceed. You don’t have the right to speak in whatever way appeals to you. Expect to modify your accent as you move around the world (Geordies take note). I suggest developing accent virtue, obeying accent rules, and attending to accent consequences: it is virtuous to pronounce distinct vowels distinctly (Italians always do); you should obey the rule that proscribes consonant-dropping; and it is morally responsible to weigh up the communicative consequences of patterns of speech. In other words, cultivate good speech habits and avoid bad ones. This is an area of the normative, and prescription is sometimes advisable. A sound accent philosophy will be based around a principle of objective rightness in how we speak. So: keep your vowels pure and your consonants clear; and don’t think the accent you grew up with is sacrosanct.
 The OED defines “accent” as “a particular way of pronouncing a language, associated with a country, area, or social class”. This covers a lot of ground; I will only deal with a limited aspect of the general phenomenon here. I leave aside purely aesthetic questions and focus on questions of efficiency. It is an interesting fact that most speakers of a given language deplore the way certain others speak it, though not usually the way they speak it. Is this just stupidity? Maybe they are right to be thus censorious. Accent philosophy (part of the philosophy of language) will address such questions.
 I myself first spoke Geordie (up to age 3), then I spoke Kentish, then there was an infusion of Lancashire; now I speak in the way I think best (not a trace of American). I often see British correspondents, on American news shows, with excruciating British accents that Americans apparently don’t notice; I think, “Come on, surely you can do better than that!”. As for Queen Elizabeth’s accent, it strikes me as hilarious, though I don’t hate it (or love it)—at least it sounds like she is trying. Nice vowel purity and meticulous terminal t’s. Bit prissy, though—can she hear what she sounds like? Probably not.