British Accents

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The United Kingdom is probably the most dialect-obsessed nation in the world. With countless accents shaped by thousands of years of history, there are few English-speaking nations with as many varieties of language in such a small space.

(NOTE: This page uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For information about this notation, please visit my page of IPA Resources.)

Here is a list of the most important types of British English. While this is not a complete list by any means, it will give you an overview of the accents and dialects most often discussed on this site and elsewhere.

Received Pronunciation

Received Pronunciation is the closest to a “standard accent” that has ever existed in the UK.  Although it originally derives from London English, it is non-regional.  You’ve probably heard this accent countless times in Jane Austen adaptations, Merchant Ivory films, and Oscar Wilde plays. It emerged from the 18th- and 19th-Century aristocracy, and has remained the “gold standard” ever since.

Features:

  • Non-rhoticity, meaning the r at the ends of words isn’t prounounced (mother sounds like “muhthuh”).
  • Trap-bath split, meaning that certain a words, like bath, can’t, and dance are pronounced with the broad-a in father. (This differs from most American accents, in which these words are pronounced with the short-a in cat.
  • The vowels tend to be a bit more conservative than other accents in Southern England, which have undergone significant vowel shifting over the past century.

Speech Samples:

Cockney

Cockney is probably the second most famous British accent. It originated in the East End of London, but shares many features with and influences other dialects in that region.

Features:

  • Raised vowel in words like trap and cat so these sounds like “trep” and “cet.”
  • Non-rhoticity: see explanation above under Received Pronunciation, above.
  • Trap-bath split: see explanation above under Received Pronunciation.
  • London vowel shift: The vowel sounds are shifted around so that Cockney “day” sounds is pronounced IPA dæɪ (close to American “die”) and Cockney buy verges near IPA bɒɪ (close to American “boy”).
  • Glottal Stopping: the letter t is pronounced with the back of the throat (glottis) in between vowels; hence better becomes IPA be?ə (sounds to outsiders like “be’uh”).
  • L-vocalization: The l at the end of words often becomes a vowel sound Hence pal can seem to sound like “pow.” (I’ve seen this rendered in IPA as /w/, /o,/ and /ɰ/.)
  • Th-Fronting: The th in words like think or this is pronounced with a more forward consonant depending on the word: thing becomes “fing,” this becomes “dis,” and mother becomes “muhvah.”

Speech Samples:

Estuary English (Southeast British)

Estuary is an accent derived from London English which has achieved a status slightly similar to “General American”  in the US. Features of the accent can be heard around Southeast England, East Anglia, and perhaps further afield.  It is arguably creeping into the Midlands and North.

Features:

  • Similar to Cockney, but in general Estuary speakers do not front th words or raise the vowel in trap. There are few hard-and-fast rules, however.
  • Glottal stoppingof ‘t’ and l-vocalization (see above) are markers of this accent, but there is some debate about their frequency.

Speech Samples:

West Country (Southwest British)

West Country refers to a large swath of accents heard in the South of England, starting about fifty miles West of London and extending to the Welsh border.

Features:

  • Rhoticity, meaning that the letter r is pronounced after vowels. So, for example, whereas somebody from London would pronounce mother as “muthah,” somebody from Bristol would say “mutherrr“. (i.e. the way people pronounce the word in America or Ireland).
  • Otherwise, this is a huge dialect area, so there’s tons of variation.

Speech Samples:

Midlands English

Midlands English is one of the more stigmatized of Englishes. Technically, this can be divided into East Midlands and West Midlands, but I won’t get into the differences between the two just now.  The most famous of these dialects is Brummie (Birmingham English).

Features:

  • The foot-strut merger, meaning that the syllable in foot and could is pronounced with the same syllable as strut and fudge. (IPA ʊ).
  • A system of vowels otherwise vaguely reminiscent of Australian accents, with short i in kit sometimes verging toward IPA kit (“keet”) and extremely open “loose” dipthongs.
  • A variety of unusual vocabulary: some East Midlands dialects still feature a variant of the word “thou!”

Speech samples:

Northern England English

These are the accents and dialect spoken north of the midlands, in cities like Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool. Related accents also found in rural Yorkshire, although there are some unique dialect features there that I won’t get into now.

Features:

  • The foot-stut merger: (see the Midlands description above).
  • Non-rhoticity, except in some rural areas.
  • The dipthong in words like kite and ride is lengthened so that kite can become something like IPA ka:ɪt (i.e. it sounds a bit like “kaaaait”)
  • Unique vocab includes use of the word mam to mean mother, similar to Irish English.

Speech Samples:

Geordie

Geordie usually refers to both the people and dialect of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, in Northeast England. The word may also refer to accents and dialects in Northeast England in general. I would classify this as a separate region from the rest of Northern England because it’s so radically different from the language spoken in nearby cities.

Features

  • The foot-stut merger(see the Midlands description above).
  • Non-rhoticity (in the cities at least)
  • The /ai/ dipthong in kite is raised to IPA ɛɪ, so it sounds a bit more like American or Standard British “kate.”
  • The /au/ dipthong in “about” is pronounced IPA u: (that is, “oo”) in strong dialects. Hence bout can sound like “boot.”

Speech Samples:

Welsh English

This refers to the accents and dialects spoken in the country of Wales. The speech of this region is heavily influenced by the Welsh language, which remained more widely spoken in modern times than the other Celtic languages.

Features:

  • Usually non-rhotic.
  • English is generally modelled after Received Pronunciation or related accents, but with many holdovers from the Welsh language.
  • Syllables tend to be very evenly stressed, and the prosody of the accent is often very “musical”.
  • The letter r is often trilled or tapped.
  • Some dialect words imported from the Welsh language.

Speech Samples:

Scottish English

This is the broad definition used to describe English as it is spoken in the country of Scotland. Note that Scottish English is different than Scots, a language derived from Northumbrian Old English that is spoken in Scotland as well. That being said, Scots has a strong influence on how English in Scotland is spoken.

Features:

  • Rhotic, with trilled or tapped r’s.
  • Glottal stopping of the letter t when in between vowels (similar to Cockney and related accents).
  • Monopthongal pronounciations of the /ei/ and /ou/ dipthongs, so that that face becomes IPA fe:s and goat becomes IPA go:t.

Speech Samples:

Conclusion

This list is woefully incomplete. I can’t count the smaller dialect areas that aren’t covered here (East Anglia, Urban Cardiff, Cornish English, Northumberland, etc.) However, I’ve attempted to list the accents and dialects you’ll see referenced the most on this blog and elsewhere.

Copright (c) 2011 by Ben Trawick-Smith. All rights reserved

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32 Responses to British Accents

  1. English Bloke says:

    I’m really surprised you didn’t mention lack of a TRAP-BATH split as one of the features in the Midlands English, Northern England English and Geordie sections. This is one of the most important shibboleths of any Northern English accent (which includes the Midlands accents). It can be found high up the social scale as well.

    Also in my opinion John Oliver isn’t a good example of someone with a Midlands accent. His accent sounds more Contemporary RP to me. In addition to that, he wasn’t even raised in Birmingham. He was raised in Liverpool and other places. You can read about that here and here. He clearly doesn’t have a Scouse accent either though.

    • accent dude says:

      If you want someone else with a great Geordie accent I know someone who has one. It’s Brian Johnson, the lead singer of ACDC. Here’s an interview with him on a car show. In this video he’s driving around Sydney, Australia in a Rolls-Royce Phantom and talking. So both are car themed.

      Someone else who has (or had) a Brummie accent is of course Ozzy Osbourne. If you watch some early interviews with him, like this one, you can still hear his Brummie accent. You might not hear him talk like that today though. Here’s another early interview with him. I don’t know which one shows his accent better.

  2. English Bloke says:

    My comments aren’t being posted for some reason.

  3. English Bloke says:

    There we go. I just wanted to say that I’m really surprised you didn’t mention lack of a TRAP-BATH split in the Midlands English, Northern England English and Geordie English sections. This is one of the most important Northern shibboleths. Also it can be found high up the social scale.

    I also don’t think John Oliver is an example of someone with a Midlands accent. His accent sounds more Contemporary RP to me. Plus he wasn’t even raised in Birmingham. He was just born there. He was raised in Liverpool and other places. You can read about that here and here. He doesn’t have a Scouse accent either though, despite being raised in Liverpool for a while.

    • trawicks says:

      Great point about John Oliver–I took him out of the list. I’ve actually found it remarkably hard to find accent samples of Birmingham celebrities that actually sound like Brummies. It’s such a stigmatized accent that any actor or television host from there seems to adopt a vaguely near-RP accent the second they leave the Midlands.

      As to the Trap-Bath split, I’ll admit that my American bias comes through there. Here in the States, we tend to see the presence of the split as the unusual feature, rather than the other way around. I’m constantly revising this page, though, so I’ll add it in future drafts.

  4. English Bloke says:

    Also I forgot to mention that he graduated from Cambridge University.

  5. English Bloke says:

    I didn’t mean to post my comment twice. Sorry about that.

  6. accent dude says:

    Ozzy Osbourne has a Brummie accent. You can hear it if you watch early interviews. Brian Johnson, the lead singer of ACDC, has a nice Geordie accent. This is just in case you wanted more examples.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks! I’ve considered Osbourne for awhile, although my one slight hesitation is that he has some vocal ticks that aren’t accent related! I will definitely check out Johnson, though.

      • accent dude says:

        “I’ve considered Osbourne for awhile, although my one slight hesitation is that he has some vocal ticks that aren’t accent related!”

        Haha. Yes, I think they might be drug related. But that’s a different story. But if you check out earlier interviews with him, like this one and this one, you can hear the accent better I think. I definitely hear a Brummie intonation in those videos.

        “I will definitely check out Johnson, though.”

        Yeah, he has a really cool voice and a really cool Geordie accent. In fact he’s just a really cool guy in general. Here he is on the car show Top Gear. Here’s him driving around Sydney, Australia in his Rolls-Royce Phantom.

  7. Aidan says:

    “there are few nations with as many radically different varieties of language in such a small space”
    I appreciate that your blog is focused on the English language but I just wanted to point out that the United Kingdom is not exceptional at all in its accent variation and the number of dialects. In fact this is what you find with most languages for exactly the same reasons.
    Most languages have dialect forms and a standard form (e.g. Germans, Austrians and Swiss learn Hochdeutsch at school but the majority speak dialect at home and in their locality). In fact English is unusual in that it neither has an official standard nor do native speakers have to make any effort to understand somebody from another place. I have never met an English speaker with whom I could not speak normally without either of us having to change our speech.
    I speak Dutch every day but I do not understand many dialects and people from those places have to speak standard Dutch or I cannot converse with them. People from Belgium and many parts of Holland are sub-titled on Dutch television. I have never seen an English speaker sub-titled on a regular English language channel. Of the languages I know well Dutch, German, French, Irish and Spanish all have more variations in dialect and accent than English does.
    The exception is Polish which is the most uniform language I have ever come across. A Polish person cannot tell where somebody is from based on their accent; in fact they can derive nothing of class or background either without account for other factors. The reason normally given for this is the population movements after World War 2 combined with a centralizing Polish state with limited media channels.
    Although it might sometime seem that English is a language of infinite variety it is actually quite homogeneous compared to many other languages which just goes to show what a fascinating source of study and inspiration human expression speech is.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for pointing that out … I meant English-speaking countries, but omitted that point from some reason. Obviously the UK isn’t going to compete with Italy or Belgium in terms of linguistic division!

    • Ewan says:

      Actually, there are a FEW examples of subtitled English shows in the UK – noteably ‘Trawlermen’ about the fishermen of the North East of Scotland. I have to concentrate when I come back to NE Scotland to ‘tune in’ to the accent again because it can be quite strong.

      Having said all that, your point is a good one. A question though: is the difference you are highlighting one of vocabulary or accent? Generally in the UK people are using the same words but pronouncing them differently. Is that what is happening in your examples, or are these people actually using words that would be spelled differently (even if they share the same linguistic roots)?

  8. I love your blog! And I am admire your attention to detail. Thank you for supplying me with an interesting read every other day. You are a great source for procrastination!
    I am currently working on my MA on Older Scots, focusing on dialectal variation, and I just have add a small remark on your comment on Scottish English. You say Scots derive from Middle English, which is not quite true. Scots derive from the same Northumbrian Old English variety as Northern Middle English. The Anglian variety was introduced to Scotland in the 7th century and developed more or less independently from then on. So, by the Middle English period, which is said to start in the 11th century, Older Scots had already had already developed independently from Northern Middle English for a few centuries. (Don’t mean to be picky, but Older Scots is currently what my life is all about…)

  9. Ed says:

    What were you going to say about rural Yorkshire? Having lived in various urban parts of Yorkshire, I’m intrigued.

    There have been so many retired people from other areas of the country settling in rural North Yorkshire that it must affect the dialect of the area.

  10. Kevin says:

    To anyone from GB, Ricky Gervais is most definitely southwestern and not southeastern (Estuary) . I’m not sure exactly where in the Thames Valley the “phonetic frontier” falls, but Reading English (as spoken by Ricky) sounds far, far more like Bristol than London.

    Incidentally, Ricky Gervais is (in)famous for having only one accent whatever he is in, and readily admits it — a bit like Sean Connery, who has been called “the only man in the world who can play a Mexican, Russian, Lithuanian, Swedish, Italian, African, French Canadian, Indian, or Irish person and still maintain a Scottish accent” .

  11. dw says:

    Reading English (as spoken by Ricky) sounds far, far more like Bristol than London.

    “Sounds like” is inherently subjective. If you’re from London and divide accents into “from London” and “from outside the M25″ then I guess any non-London accent will sound “far more like Bristol than London”.

    From an objective, phonetic point of view, Ricky’s accent is far closer to London than Bristol. To take just one (huge) difference, Bristol accents are rhotic (pronouncing all “r”s in a word), while Ricky’s accent, like those of most Londoners and indeed most Englishmen, isn’t.

  12. Kevin says:

    >> “Sounds like” is inherently subjective <<

    It was intended to be! I was writing about the subjective impression Gervais's accent makes on the English ear.

    And I would contradict you: Gervais's accent IS rhotic. It's that very fact — as much as, probably more than, his western vowels — that marks him out as coming from Wessex (which certainly has started by the time you reach Reading from Paddington).

    Just listen to him speaking here — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUH1H-b-N5o — and notice the way he says "that's what we're looking for" and "a great scholar". Yes, his speech is full of typically Estuarine glottal stops, and his -Rs are not of "talk-like-a-pirate" strength, but in almost every case where an Estuary-speaker would drop them they're present in Ricky's speech. There's a clear difference [using ? to represent the glottal stop] between Ricky's "ar?" and an Estuary-speaker's "a-?" for the word "art".

    • Andy says:

      I completely agree with you Kevin as to anyone from the “estuary accent” area (where I myself come from) Ricky Gervais would be undeniably looked on as speaking with a West Country accent – I should imagine Reading is probably the start of that accent’s dominance.

      Finally the clincher ought to be the fact that he uses the expression “summat” which is widespread in the West Country (and parts of Northern England) but never used in the South East.

      I love the site but was gobsmacked by Ricky Gervaise of all people being used to represent the Estuary Accent -he is so obviously NOT estuary.

  13. Danny Ryan says:

    Foot-strut isn’t a merger, but a split. /U/ in these two word is the original and the split into /U/ and /V/ is the innovation.

  14. Dylan says:

    Nice selection of Bernard Sumner as an example of the Manc accent. You obviously have impeccable music taste :)

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  18. Charles Everest says:

    I am a cockney (Born in Liverpool Road Hospital in Islington London) by birth, but public (known as private school to Americans) school educated so speak in either RP or Cockney. I didn’t really learn RP until I was in my early teens and was sent to boarding school. So I can slip back into cockney at the “drop of an ‘at” (drop of a hat). Everything written in you description of the cockney accent is correct, accept “Raised vowel in words like trap and cat so these sounds like “trep” and “cet.” I have seen this written elsewhere, but it is not correct, believe me. Listen for it you will not hear it. Hat, for example does not become het it becomes ha’ (with a glottal stop T). The A in cockney does sound a little different to the A in RP, but it is most certainly not an E sound. If anything it is a sharper A sound than in RP. Listen for it, watch Eastenders. There are characters called Kat Slater, Cathy Beal. It is always pronounced as an A. another good example would be the way a Cockney would say “Nachos” or Pasta, Taco, Picasso, Mazda, they are pronounced. http://www.videojug.com/film/how-to-do-a-cockney-accent

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