What is an accent?
An accent is a specific way of speaking for a specific group of people who most often live in one region. The accent in English or another language should not be confused with word stress, that is, the emphasis of a given syllable in a word.
The accent appropriate to a certain region or country is often transferred to foreign languages. That is why, for example, native Britons are often able to hear that they are not talking to their compatriots, even if the foreigner speaks English at an advanced level. Of course, the accent can be learned, just like the language. At SuperMemo we have a course dedicated to polishing your English accent in two variants – the British and American Pronunciation course: Say It Better.
Accent versus dialect
When we talk about accent, at first we mean the pronunciation of different words that are common to a given language. English is the official language in 67 countries, in each of them it has its own accents – both official and regional ones. However, it should not be confused with a dialect, which relates not only to pronunciation but also to vocabulary. We speak of a dialect when we are dealing with a language enriched with new vocabulary. If the inhabitants of a particular region name some things differently, it is not an accent but a dialect.
12 English accents from the British Isles
Received Pronunciation – the language of the queen
When learning English, in most cases we are dealing with Received Pronunciation, also called RP (of course, if the teacher is from the UK). It’s an English accent you hear on the BBC News, and is attributed to the middle and upper classes in the UK. For this reason, it’s often called the Queen’s English. It’s often present in film adaptations of the British literary canon, such as “Pride and Prejudice”. It’s considered a standard English accent, although it’s been estimated that it’s spoken by only around 2% of the population in Great Britain today.
Unlike the standard American accent, for example, RP is non-rhotic, which means that the letter “r” is most often voiceless, unless it appears before a vowel. For example, in the word “neurotic” (nyuor · ro · tuhk) you will hear “r”, while “water” (waw · tuh) in the queen’s language will be devoid of it.
Interestingly, RP is not a homogeneous English accent. There are several varieties of it, associated with specific social groups:
- Conservative RP – this accent in England is used by the older part of society and the aristocracy.
- Mainstream RP – this is the most popular version heard on the BBC.
- Contemporary RP – used by the younger part of the upper-middle class.
This very young accent in English, identified in 1984 by the British linguist David Rosewarne, and it owes its name to the mouth of the Thames. EE was born in this region. Now, the accent has spread throughout the South East of England.
EE can be situated somewhere between RP and Cockney, as the accent of the English working class. (You can hear more about EE in Paul Meier’s podcast “In a Manner of Speaking”).
Cockney, an exceptionally characteristic English accent, is associated with, for example, stall owners in London’s East End. Cockney is traditionally recognised as a working-class accent. You can hear it very often in Guy Ritchie’s movies. A perfect example is the Cockney used by Jason Statham in “Break”.
The characteristics of this English accent are, for example:
- Changes in vowel sounds – In Cockney, the word “buy” sounds more like “boy.”
- The consonants “t” and “k” are often voiceless, spoken with the help of a glottal stop.
- “Th” sounds like “f”, which makes “think” sound like “fing”, for example.
MLE – the accent of contemporary London
One of the English accents that is a product of contemporary changes in society is Multicultural London English. It has its origins in East London. This accent in England is mainly associated with young people from ethnic minorities. It is also associated with the urban culture of London, for example with the popular music scene, such as Grime. MLE is used by Stormzy, an extremely popular artist from South London.
GNE – Northern England accent
General Northern Accent is considered the standard Northern English accent, mostly spoken by the middle class. It can be said that, for people living in the north, GNE plays a similar role to RP.
Listening to GNE, you may find that the words “book” and “buck” sound similar, which is because the northern English accents were not involved in the so-called FOOT-STRUT split, which introduced a distinction in the sounds of vowels.
This is considered by many to be one of the most “approachable” accents in England. Yorkshire has its roots in the Viking language. No wonder, you can hear it often in fantasy series. The Yorkshire accent is used, for example, by John Snow from the cult “Game of Thrones”.
How can you recognise this popular English accent?
- Words that usually end with “ee” are pronounced “eh”. So a word like “happy” sounds more like “happeh”.
- People using this accent often omit “the” and pronounce it shortened to “t” [tә].
Urban West Yorkshire
A new English accent has evolved from traditional Yorkshire – called Urban West Yorkshire (UWYE). It is used mainly by residents of West Yorkshire’s urban centres, which include Leeds and Bradford.
Both in the classic Yorkshire accent and in UWYE, monophthongisation is audible, which is a phonetic process involving the transformation of diphthongs into vowels (monophthongs), which results, for example, in the fact that the diphthong / ɑɪ / in the monophthongisation process produces / e /. This process makes the vowels sound flatter. Additionally, in Urban West Yorkshire, we hear a slight muffling of the “l” at the beginning of some words. The phenomenon is present, for example, in the word “lower”. This attenuation is achieved by moving the back of the tongue towards the soft palate, and this is a feature unique to UWYE.
An accent that was once infamous, today triumphs with the popular series “Peaky Blinders”. Brummie comes from Birmingham and has also spread to areas adjacent to the city.
The characteristics of this English accent include:
- Falling intonation at the end of sentences.
- Different vowel sounds, such as “i”, sounds more like “oy”, so the phrase “I like it” will be something like “Oy loik it”.
- H-dropping, which is the removal of the voiceless fricative, or “h” sound, at the beginning of sentences.
The assumption that there is one Scottish accent is quite a simplification. A native speaker from Edinburgh with a soft pronunciation will sound one way, whereas the accent of people from Glasgow, where words are often cut off, will be much harder. Scottish from the Highland area, where you can hear strong Scandinavian influences, will also sound different.
If you want to listen to a strong Scottish accent, it is worth reaching for the excellent crime series “Broadchurch”. Listening to Detective Alec Hardy, we will hear all the characteristic elements of a Scottish accent, namely:
- A hard and sonorous “r” is pronounced before vowels and at the end of words.
- A silent “t” between vowels, e.g. “water” is pronounced “wa’er”.
- The difference in the pronunciation of ‘w’ and ‘wh’. In English the words “where” and “were” are pronounced the same, in the Scottish “where” it will be “hwer” (h is pronounced before w).
- Shortening of double vowels, which are extended in English, for example in the words “spoon” or “soon”.
Welsh is an autonomous language. However, it is spoken by only about 30% of the population of Wales. It does not change the fact that it has a huge influence on the accent of English in the east. How does it sound? Like Scottish, it is not homogeneous. In the North of Wales, we will hear a harder form of the accent, and South Wales people speak more melodically, often abbreviating words.
Welsh, like Scottish, has a lot in common with the language of the Ancient Celts. Both of the accents are connected, for example, by a voiced “r”. A distinctive feature of Welsh is that the syllables are emphasized evenly, which makes them sound very melodious.
The Northern Irish also have their accent. Northern Irish is rhotic and the pronunciation of ‘r’ is very close to Scottish (unlike the rest of Ireland). At the end of sentences, the “r” is pronounced very clearly, like “rrr”. Another characteristic feature is rising intonation, even if the sentence is not a question.
A good example of Northern Irish in use is the Derry Girls series, available on Netflix.
Finally, one of the most distinctive accents, that is hard to confuse with any other accent in England. You just need to hear it – a good example of Derbyshire usage is the way Kelly speaks on the TV series “Misfits”.
This accent is often stereotypically assigned to “chavs”. However, such a generalisation should be considered unfair.
British and American accents
Of course, the American and the British are not homogeneous. To show the differences between the British and American accents, we will compare the accents considered as standard, i.e. RP and Standard American English.
How do we recognise them?
In American, we pronounce the “r” at the end of the syllables. Unlike in English, where, for example, in the word “tsar”, “r” is voiceless and we hear “zaa”.
Americans tend to make their lives easier. In the English accent, 12 vowels are heard, while overseas, they get rid of the awkward ones.
- The sound / ɒ /, which can be found in words like “what” or “box”, is replaced by Americans with the open “o” or the long “a”.
- Diphthongs ending in “schwa” do not exist in the American accent. The diphthong / ɪə / in the word “bier” is pronounced / bɪr /.
Pronunciation of “t”
Americans usually pronounce it as a fast / d / when / t / appears before a vowel. In the standard English accent, it is spoken quite normally, like / t /.
One of the more audible differences between the English and American accents is intonation. The British put emphasis on the most important words in a sentence. Their intonation rises and then falls. On the other hand, across the Atlantic, the intonation always suppresses the word on which the main stress in the sentence is placed.
As you can see, the English language is extremely diverse, which does not change the fact that we are able to communicate in English all over the world without knowing individual dialects and accents. However, nothing stands in the way of perfecting your pronunciation and gaining new skills while learning. So check out our “Say It Better” pronunciation course.