A Brief Guide to British Accents

The following is a guest post from Renana Harary – an Anglophile with a particular interest in Britain’s many accents. Thanks Renana!

Have you ever walked around, speaking in a fake British accent? Saying things like “Bloody hell,” or “May I have some more?” My best friend and I used to walk around speaking in our best British accents. Sure, we got some looks, but we chose to assume it was because we sounded so very authentic. We would go on for hours, staying in character wherever we went, but there was something we didn’t take into account. The reason we didn’t sound authentic was because we were mixing up a few (possibly more than a few) different dialects, using different accents for different words, which made us sound, well, stupid.

A dialect is a regionally, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language. In the U.K., and more specifically England, that is the Received Pronunciation.

Are you sitting there thinking, “Received Pronunciation – what the hell is that?” Basically, it is what most non-Brits are used to hearing as a British accent. It’s called the Queen’s English, or BBC English, and it’s accepted as the standard. It evokes the feeling of drinking tea in a sitting room looking out at the grounds, with a steely posture and one’s pinky raised. It’s considered the clearest and most understandable of accents.
Now that I have imparted that particular tidbit of info, here’s what I was aiming to show: there is no such regional dialect. Sure, it’s clear, and sounds oh so posh, but it isn’t from any one part of Britain. There are, in fact, so many different dialects and accents throughout England and the rest of the United Kingdom that it almost seems like every city – maybe even every neighborhood – in the U.K. has its own particular accent.

The difference in the accents stems from the difference in pronunciation of, well, every letter in the alphabet, frankly. Most English accents do not pronounce the “R” unless it followed by a vowel (and only if you’re lucky), while Scottish and Irish accents do. Each different area pronounces letters and words differently, and the difference between them creates a most beautiful mosaic of accents.

There are too many to list, but here are a few ‘famous” ones.

The Cockney accent – It isn’t exactly a regional accent as much as that of the working class, but I think it may be one of the more recognized ones after the RP. We’ve all heard Eliza Doolittle and Michael Caine speak, and lest we forget, they brought us rhyming slang!

The “Brummie” – Another oft heard accent is the “Brummie,” or Birmingham. Ozzie Osbourn’s accent is probably heavier than most, but still recognizable.

Estuary English – A third, and quite recognizable, is Estuary English. A London accent, it is becoming one of the most popular forms of pronunciation in the 21st century. Katie Price (Jordan) speaks this dialect. And for those who don’t know or refuse to acknowledge her, the tenth incarnation of the Doctor spoke in Estuary English. Not David Tennant – he is, in fact Scottish.

Liverpool – And, of course, there is the Liverpudlian accent. Ah, John Lennon and Paul McCartney…

These are only a few of the many, many different accents and dialects spoken throughout the United Kingdom. Each area differs in vowel pronunciation, emphases of parts of the word and spacing of words within a sentence. More than that, the language itself has been molded differently. There is different vocabulary and different slang, colloquialisms and idioms, each distinctive to specific areas or communities, innit?

There are more than 37 separate regional dialects, and even those break down further within their area. There are so many different accents that there really isn’t one “real” British accent. While there used to be a class distinction made based on one’s accent, this is no longer the case. The Queen herself has changed the way she speaks, less RP-ish. If you listen carefully, you can catch all the lovely diversity, and after a while, maybe even place the speaker. Now when I watch BBC America or even speak to someone from the U.K., I try to see if I can spot where they come from. Nine times out of ten, I can! (OK, maybe more like four out of ten)

Comments

  1. avatar says

    I often visit southwest England. I love the way they speak there. My sweetheart’s accent is beautiful, I love the way he says my name and refers to me as “Darling”. To me his accent is very proper and he speaks eloquently. When he imitates an American accent, he sounds like John Wayne… very funny!

  2. avatarJon melling says

    Nice article. You are correct there are many accents – I come from Lancashire and just about each town has a different accent although the dialect is common. To you point about Cockney being the working class accent. To be cockney strictly means you were born within the sound of Bow Bells in London and therefore Cockney is associated with an East London Accent – not to be confused with Estuary which stretches further East and includes Essex and Kent. To define it as the working class accent suggests that there are no working class in other parts of the country. Indeed in other areas the accent is almost a badge of honour that indicates “working class”. Although this is a gross simplification, there has been, historically, a connection with accent and dialect with levels of education.

  3. avatarRenana says

    Thanks all.
    @ Jon, I would have loved to delve further, but, I had a word limit. I had to simplify, but what I was trying to say was that some of the heavier accents do seem to be connected to working class areas ( historically,at least). Unfortunately, i just couldn’t list all the areas, so I used Cockney b/c its the most well known of ‘em.
    @Kimberly- as an American, the accents sound lovely to me as well.
    @Jean-The Penrith dialect known as seems to be a variation of the Cumbrian dialect s0- here’s and a start to your research:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cumbrian_dialect:
    This should help you find more references if you care to research farther.

  4. avatarAlex says

    If you’re interested in hearing some of the many, many different UK accents, the British Library website has an interactive map thingy that lets you click on different parts of the country to hear sound clips of the different regional accents.

    http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/

    I’m not 100% sure whether it will work outside of the UK though…

  5. avatar says

    Lovely post, Renana! I went to an English Tea Room with a cousin of mine (who is from Louisiana) and she broke out into an English accent. The owner of the tea room actually asked if she was English! We were a bit bowled over.

    I have some friends with that “Liverpudlian” or “Scouse” accent. It is rather hard to understand what they’re saying sometimes! Almost like a different language.

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