The United Kingdom is perhaps the most dialect-obsessed country in the world. With near-countless regional Englishes shaped by millennia of history, few nations boast as many varieties of language in such a compact geography.
(NOTE: This page uses the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For information about this notation, please visit my page of IPA Resources.)
The below lists several important types of British English. While not a complete account by any means, this page provides an overview of the accents and dialects most often discussed on this site and elsewhere.
Received Pronunciation (a term by 19th Century linguist A.J. Ellis1) is the probably the closest the United Kingdom has ever had to a “standard accent.” Although originally related to the upper-classes in London and other areas of Southeast England, it is largely non-regional. You’ve likely heard the accent countless times in Jane Austen adaptations, Merchant Ivory films, and Oscar Wilde plays. It emerged from the 18th- and 19th-Century upper classes, and has remained the “gold standard” ever since.
- 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.
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.
- 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.”
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- Comedian Stephen Merchant
- Archaeologist Phil Harding (from Wiltshire)
- Comedian Justin Lee Collins (Another Bristol Accent) (also from Bristol)
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).
- 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!”
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.”
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.