Dialect Profile: The Brummie Accent

Birmingham, England

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In this series, we discuss different dialects using actual video or audio samples. NOTE: This page uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For information about this notation, please visit my page of IPA Resources.

In case you didn’t know, “Brummie” refers to the people and accent of Birmingham, England. Brits have formed an opinion about the Brummie accent over the years that is, to put it delicately, less than charitable. Adjectives along the lines of “loutish,” “thuggish,” “thievish” and a number of other pejorative “ish”es are often applied.

As an American, this attitude puzzles me. What is it about this particular dialect that irks so much of the UK? Listening to the accent myself, it sounds like one of England’s many unusual dialect pockets, with nothing more or less offensive than any other type of regional speech. It even has a pleasant lilt to it, at least in my uncouth Yankee ears.

So let’s take a look at a sample Brummie dialect, and see if there is anything intrinsically grating about it. And who better to use as a dialect sample than Geezer Butler, bassist for Birmingham’s own Black Sabbath. Take a listen:

Here are some observations about Mr. Butler’s accent:

1.) He pronounces words like “realize” and “tried” with something like IPA ɒi (so that these words sound a bit like American “realoyze” and “troyed”). This is vaguely reminiscent of how some contemporary Australian English speakers say these words.

2.) As in Northern English accents, the vowel in “puppies” and “blood” is pronounced higher in the mouth than in Southern English accents, ranging from IPA ʊ to ɔ (i.e. “puppies” sounds a bit like “pooppies” or “pawppies”).

3.) The diphthong in “about” and “house” is raised, with a prononunciation ranging from IPA æʊ to ɛʉ (“heh-oose”). This is similar to how the diphthong is pronounced in some middle-class Dublin accents.

4.) Words like “most” and “homes” are pronounced with a very low-starting diphthong, typically IPA ʌʊ although it can start even lower, making “goat” sound like “gout” to outside ears. This pronunciation sounds a bit like exaggerated Cockney.

You may notice that I’ve referenced four other dialects here. That is because Brummie tends to sound like it has been patched together from different bits and pieces of other accents. To put it crudely, it sounds a bit like somebody put Cockney, Australian, Northern English and Irish accents through a linguistic blender.

And that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why this accent is stigmatized in the UK. In some ways it can seem a bit “muddled” to outside listeners. In some sense, Birmingham isn’t just in the “Midlands” geographically, but linguistically as well.

But I’m an American. So it all sounds pretty charming to me.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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10 Responses to Dialect Profile: The Brummie Accent

  1. dw says:

    I’m originally from Birmingham myself, although I’ve never had more than hints of a Brummie accent (way too middle-class, I’m afraid :))

    It’s not obvious why the Brummie accent is so despised in England, but one theory I’ve heard is related to the long-running TV soap opera called Crossroads, which was set near Birmingham and was, as Wikipedia puts it “critically derided for low production values and far-fetched scripts”.

    Since Birmingham is notably lacking in high-profile media personalities (a look at the membership on the Birmingham Walk of Stats is rather depressing), it’s possible that many British conceptions of Birmingham people derive from this show.

    Personally, I rather like the Brummie accent: it has a nice lilt and a pleasingly drawly rhythm to it. Give me it over Estuary English any day!

    • Leo says:

      Do you have the same vowel in the TRAP and BATH classes? Do you pronounce STRUT words with an [ə]-like quality (or at least a quality that’s different from a typical London quality)? I’m just curious. Those seem to be the few features that people like yourself have. I like Brummie accents too!

      • dw says:

        Hi Leo,

        As I said, I don’t have a Brummie accent myself (I grew up speaking something much closer to RP and a decade of living in California has influenced my accent too).

        Brummies generally have the conservative Northern vowel identities of TRAP = BATH and STRUT = FOOT. This is combined with some London influences in the diphthongs, as is noted in the main post.

        • Leo says:

          Okay, but I wouldn’t consider the things I mentioned to be a “Brummie accent”. I’ve read that many educated northerners (the linguistic “North” including the Midlands, of course) have those features. I did read the main post, but thank you anyway :)

        • Leo says:

          I didn’t mean that last part in a rude way, though now I see how it might come off that way. You don’t have to tell me anything about your accent obviously. I was just curious.

        • dw says:

          @Leo:

          OK: now I’m confused. Do you want me to tell you about my accent, or about a Brummie accent?

          I personally have STRUT != FOOT and TRAP != BATH: my accent is much closer to RP.

  2. Leo says:

    Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter. Good night :)

  3. AUDIO NOIR says:

    i’m born and raised in l.a. (we native-borns are in the minority in this town) but i have been to the u.k. 3 times (i have english friends i stay with and stuff) and i, like many people on this site, have a fascination for accents (even non-english speaking) and a pretty good ear for it (and perdy dang good at imitating i must say). i, too, have never understood why this accent is so despised in the u.k. this accent sounds to me like a perfect 50/50 between northern and southern english. a cockney/mancunian hybrid in a sense. the other 2 most hated accents seem to be cockney and scouse, which i also quite enjoy. one thing about the ‘brummie’ accent, though, is i hear alot of it in australian accents although not as much as cockney.

  4. Julia says:

    Comments are interesting but as a born and bred Brummie I would like to make one or two additional observations:

    Firstly I don’t think Mr Butler’s accent is a very strong Brummie accent. I think the slight trailing off sound at the end of sentences is just right, but otherwise it is a little too flat and a little too polished – which is fine, not a personal criticism, but I would simply suggest that we beware of assuming it is the only type of sample available. For example I noticed that when Mr Butler said like and tried the ‘I’ sound rhymed more-or-less anyway with ‘eye’ as in standard English. Many born and bred Brummies would say would say ‘Loike’ and ‘troied’. Also all of Mr Butler’s aches are there and in the ‘right’, i.e. standard English, places: so ‘Our house’ not Our ‘owse’ – where I think the ‘ow’ at the beginning of ‘house’ tends to become more emphasised.

    Brummies vary in accent quite a lot. I have often been asked where I come from because many people often think I don’t have a Brummie accent at all. (Three out of four grandparents born here, one born in Ireland which makes me a pretty typical Brummie I think.) I think I can hear the accent at the back of my voice sometimes though – especially when I get enthusiastic about something, and especially the sing-song quality; I would agree about that. One or two more discerning others have said the same.

  5. Pingback: John Oliver and Contemporary Brumminess | Dialect Blog

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