Accents in Britain
A nation defined by the way it speaks
George Bernard Shaw famously wrote: “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. This quote is a testament to the power of accents to position us in the social world by communicating information about our background, our upbringing and the communities we belong to.
A history of diverse accents
The UK has some of the highest levels of accent diversity in the English-speaking world.
Spanning the range from “traditional” accents like Brummie, Cockney, Geordie or Scouse to newer accents like Estuary English, British Asian English and General Northern English, accents in the UK reflect differences in what region people come from, their family’s social class background, their age and their current professions.
Many of these differences are related to the historical development of English in the British Isles. When Germanic tribes from the northwest of the European continent first began settling in Britain in the 5th century, they brought with them distinct dialects of their native Germanic languages. The Angles settled mostly in the Midlands and the East; the Jutes in Kent and along the South Coast; and the Saxons in the area south and west of the Thames.
Over time, these different settlement patterns led to the emergence of distinct dialects of Old English (Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish and West Saxon), which in turn gave rise to different accents of British English (roughly Northern, Midlands, Southeastern and West Country).
Over the past 1500 years, the accents of Britain have continued to develop, affected by large-scale patterns of migration and social change, not to mention the promotion of “standard” accents since the 17th century.
British accents today
In the Accent Bias Britain project, we focus primarily on people’s reactions to 5 accents commonly spoken in England today, which differ in terms of region, class, and ethnicity: Received Pronunciation, Estuary English, Multicultural London English, General Northern English, and Urban West Yorkshire English.
We provide brief descriptions of each of these accents below. If you’re interested in learning more information on accents in the UK, you can consult the British Library’s Accents and Dialects Archive.
Received Pronunciation (RP)
“Received Pronunciation”, “Queen’s English”, “BBC English” or “Southern Standard British English” are all labels that refer to the accent of English in England that is associated with people from the upper- and upper-middle-classes.
There is a great deal of debate about where Received Pronunciation (RP) originated, though all agree that RP was widespread among students at fee-paying public schools and universities by the end of the 19th century. The prevalence of RP has declined since then, and it is currently said to be the native accent for only about 3% of the UK population.
Nevertheless, RP remains the national standard and has traditionally been considered by many to be the most prestigious accent of British English.
Versions of RP
While many think of RP as one accent, there are in fact different versions of RP that correspond to different social categories.
Conservative RP is generally associated with older generations and the aristocracy. Mainstream RP is the most common version heard today, and is used, for example, by many presenters on the BBC. Contemporary RP is used by younger upper-middle-class speakers, and shares certain similarities with Estuary English. And while it is often claimed that RP is not tied to any specific region of the UK, it is more heavily associated with the southeast of England as a result of its historical origins.
Listen to an example of contemporary Received Pronunciation (RP)
Characteristics of RP
You can hear an example of contemporary RP in the sound clip. There, you can hear that in RP the ‘r’ sound in words like worked, part-time or order is not pronounced, so the words sound more like “wuhked”, “paht-time” and “awdah”. This is a feature that RP shares with all accents in the southeast of England.
Likewise, the vowel in the word craft is the broad ‘ah’ sound (like in the word father) and not the short ‘a’ (like in the word cat). This is another feature that RP shares with accents throughout the southeast. Finally, the vowels in the words one and submit are different from the vowels in the words good and would. Again, this is a feature of accents throughout southeast England.
In many ways, contemporary RP can be defined as an accent that only contains features that are common to the entire southeast, and lacks the more distinctive elements of other local accents (like Estuary English and Multicultural London English).
Estuary English (EE)
Estuary English is the name given to an accent of English spoken in the Home Counties region in the southeast of England (named after the Thames estuary).
While its exact origins are unclear, EE is a relatively recent accent. The first mentions of EE are in the 1980s, when the accent was spoken mainly in the outer London boroughs and in the neighbouring counties of Kent and Essex. Since then it has spread, and is now heard in much of the southeast. Some linguists have suggested that EE will take over as the southern standard accent in England.
A modern, hybrid accent
EE is generally described as being somewhere between upper-class RP and Cockney, the traditional working-class accent in London. Linguists have claimed that EE may have arisen both from RP speakers trying to sound less “posh” and from Cockney speakers abandoning some of their more stigmatised accent features. The result is an accent that sits somewhere in the middle, and that sounds noticeably southeastern but without the more stigmatised class connotations.
Today, there is a continuum of accents that could all be labelled as EE, including speakers on the more RP-end (e.g., Russell Brand) and on the more Cockney-end (e.g., David Beckham).
Listen to an example of Estuary English (EE)
Characteristics of EE
In the audio clip, you can hear some characteristic EE features. The speaker pronounces the vowel in the words time and night so that it sounds close to the vowel in the word boy. This is a remnant of the traditional Cockney pronunciation. In the word while, the ‘l’ at the end of the word is pronounced like a ‘w’, a feature called l-vocalisation that is becoming increasingly common in London.
Another common EE feature is TH-fronting, as when the speaker pronounces the ‘th’ sound at the start of the word things with an ‘f’ sound (fings). You can also hear that the speaker glottals many of his ‘t’ sounds, so that the word started sounds something like “star’ed”.
Multicultural London English (MLE)
Multicultural London English is a label for a new accent of English that originated in East London (especially Tower Hamlets and Hackney) and is now spreading throughout the London region. The accent is generally associated with young, working-class people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Linguists believe that MLE developed over the past 30 years as a result of close contact between speakers from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds in multiethnic parts of London. In many respects, MLE has replaced Cockney as the local accent in the East End of London, especially among young people.
An accent born and bred in London
While MLE is stereotypically associated with ethnic minority individuals, it is spoken by people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The key determinant appears to be people who have multiethnic friendship groups, and so come into contact with many different languages and ethnic varieties of English. MLE is also associated with elements of local London urban culture, especially including the Grime music scene.
While there has been some debate over how exactly MLE emerged, some of the linguistic features found in MLE are associated with different groups (e.g. Afro-Caribbean, white working-class, British Asian), which further supports the idea that MLE emerged as a result of language and dialect contact.
Listen to an example of contemporary Multicultural London English (MLE)
Characteristics of MLE
You can hear a number of MLE features in the audio clip. The speaker pronounces the ‘th’ sound in the words the and that with a ‘d’, which is called DH-stopping, whereas in the word things, he pronounces it like an ‘f’.
You can also hear that the vowel in the words noticed and lower are pronounced closer to the vowel in the word thought than in other varieties of London English. We also hear l-vocalisation in the word while (like we heard in EE) and t-glottaling in the word noticed.
Finally, you can hear that the vowel in the word ‘night’ is pronounced almost like a long-ah (“naht”). This is a distinctive feature of the MLE accent.
General Northern English (GNE)
General Northern English (GNE) functions as a ‘regional standard’ accent in the North of England, and is used there mainly by middle-class speakers. While it is still recognisably northern, speakers of GNE can be very hard to locate geographically more precisely than this.
A new Northern accent
Compared to some of the longer-established accents in the UK, such as RP and UWYE, GNE seems to be a relatively recent variety of English. While it’s not completely clear what the origins of GNE are, it seems to be related to a general levelling of urban and rural accents across the north towards a less localisable form. This process is not unique to the north of England. There is evidence that it is occurring all over the UK.
GNE actually sounds fairly similar to southern standard accents, but includes some features which are found in other northern accents of English. It might be said that for northern English speakers, GNE fulfils a role similar to that of RP.
Listen to an example of General Northern English (GNE)
Characteristics of GNE
Listen to this short audio clip to hear an example of the GNE accent. As you can hear in the clip, the speaker pronounces the vowel in the words one and submit similar to the vowel in good and book. This is because, unlike southern varieties, northern English accents did not participate in the so-called ‘FOOT-STRUT split’, which made pairs of words like book and buck sound different in the south, but not in the north.
Another feature is the GNE vowel in the word craft, which is pronounced with the same vowel as in man. This is the result of another historical vowel split, which made the ‘BATH’ class of words (bath, grass, graph, etc.) distinct from the ‘TRAP’ set in southern England. Hence, gas and glass rhyme in the north, but not in the south.
Urban West Yorkshire English (UWYE)
As the name suggests, Urban West Yorkshire English is an accent that can be heard in urban centres of the county of West Yorkshire, in particular Leeds and Bradford. UWYE has its origins in traditional forms of Yorkshire English, but has developed features which distinguish it from the speech patterns of people from other parts of the Yorkshire region.
An urban accent with increasing influence
As people moved from the countryside into the cities to take up jobs in industry following the Industrial Revolution, the numbers of UWYE speakers grew significantly. Today it is still generally associated with working-class speakers.
Owing to the influence of the cities on the areas surrounding them, the accent has spread outward to some of the smaller towns and rural districts that are close to the large urban centres. High levels of contact between these locations often also result from the fact that urban people move out of the cities in search of affordable housing or a more relaxed lifestyle.
Listen to an example of Urban West Yorkshire English (UWYE)
Characteristics of UWYE
Listen to this short clip to hear an example of the UWYE accent. As you can hear, the speaker pronounces the vowel in the words noticed and lower using a pronunciation that is closer to the vowel in thought, and without making the vowel quality change by moving his tongue midway through it.
This feature is called GOAT monophthonging, and it is one of the features that sometimes makes listeners say that Yorkshire vowels sound ‘flat’ (though it’s not just a northern habit; a similar thing can be heard in our MLE audio clip). You can hear a similar ‘flattening’ of the ‘a’ sound in the word able (FACE monophthonging). The ‘l’ in able sounds ‘dark’ or ‘muddy’, which is typical at the ends of words for most speakers of British English. However, in UWYE we also get dark ‘l’ at the beginnings of words, which you can hear in the word lower. The ‘dark’ quality is produced by raising the back of the tongue towards the soft palate, giving it a slightly more /w/-like quality.
The speaker in the clip also demonstrates his lack of a TRAP-BATH distinction in his pronunciation of craft, which has the same vowel that he would use in crash. Like the GNE speaker, he also uses the same vowel in the words one and submit as he would use in good or book (i.e. he has no FOOT-STRUT split).