The “English” accent is a tricky beast. It doesn’t just change from country to country, but from person to person, with qualities as unique as the voice that carries it. Any traveler will know there is something truly comforting about hearing the accent of your home country after an extended time away. It would seem that accents have an endless supply of emotional power, political power and physical power (if you find one especially sexy).
This guide doesn’t seek to explain why accents are so powerful, but why and how they’re different. Let’s get going — or g’arn, as the Broad Australian accent would say.
The (General) American Accent
Let’s start with one of the most iconic and arguably influential accents: the American. The American accent is often divided into two classifications: the general accent (yes, that’s really what it’s called) and the regional accents.
The general American accent is known for how rhotic it is — that is, how strongly the R sound appears in spoken words. Think of any American friend or celebrity, and then think about how they pronounce words like pearl, car or court. (You might not notice it if you’re an American, but people from other countries sure notice your strong R pronunciation). Americans with the general accent will also often pronounce the letter T in the middle of a word more like a D. For instance, water becomes wadder, flatter sounds like fladder, and so on.
What differentiates the American accent the most from other English accents is how the short A vowel (like in cat) is pronounced. This unusual sound is called an “ash” and is distinctive to their accent.
The (Regional) American Accents
The United States is the biggest (native) English-speaking country in the world, so it should be no surprise that there are many American regional accents with lots of variance between them. For instance, Americans from New England or New York generally speak with a less pronounced R than the rest of America. Sometimes they’ll drop the R altogether, which is why “New York” often sounds like New Yoahk, or “car” sounds like cah.
Similarly, individuals who grew up in the South will also drop the R frequently, so “here” sounds like heeyuh. But it probably goes without saying that Southern Americans are most famous for their “Southern Drawl” — a way of speaking that sounds slower and with prolonged vowel sounds. For example, words like “cry” or “high’” sound more like crah and hah.
Another famous American accent is the California accent, which is distinct from other accents with its marked vowel shift. This shift, which is most pronounced in young people, makes words like “back” sound like bock, and “lit” like let. For a deeper dive into the whole spectrum of American accents, keep reading here.
The Canadian Accent
The Canadian accent, eh? It’s a bit of a mystery, eh? Not so much. The Canadian accent is most closely related to General American English with similar rules for pronunciation and accent.
The main difference is how Canadians will speak some diphthongs (a sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable) higher than their American neighbors. The phenomenon is known as “Canadian raising” and it’s why the famous pronunciation of “out” and “about” sounds like oot and aboot to foreign ears.
And the Canadian “eh”? Linguists aren’t 100% sure where it comes from, but it likely has roots in immigrants from the British Isles. Interestingly, Americans with a Northern Midwestern accent often use “eh” as well.
The British Accent (Received Pronunciation)
If American English is at one end of the English accent spectrum, British English would be at the other. But contrary to what foreigners might believe, there isn’t one type of British accent. The two primary accents are Received Pronunciation and General, but there’s actually a whole family of British regional accents. What most of the world thinks of a “British accent” is actually Received Pronunciation, or as it’s colloquially known, the Queen’s English, and it’s generally considered a signifier of the upper class.
In contrast to General American English, Received Pronunciation is strongly non-rhotic, so an R is generally not pronounced unless it precedes a vowel. For instance, a received speaker would not pronounce the R in words such as “heart” or “farm” but would pronounce it in the case of “brick” and “scratch.” Meanwhile, T-sounds in this accent are almost always spoken clearly and A-sounds are elongated, so “water” will sound like wattah.
The (General) British Accent
The General British accent is as recognizable as its queenly cousin but for different reasons. Instead of the sharp pronounced sounds of Received Pronunciation, the general accent is much more forgiving.
Features of this accent include dropping the -ing at the end of words and replacing it with -en. For example, “fishing” and “eating” becomes fishen and eaten. The General British accent also often substitutes Ts for glottal stops, which are little soundless breaks in words, like the small pause in “uh-oh.” Generally viewed as a low-class accent feature, this is becoming more popular with younger generations.
The Irish Accent
Like the American accent, the Irish accent is surprisingly rhotic (you might have noticed that this is a reoccurring dispute in English), so “there” remains there and so on. Another key feature is how the th-sound often is pronounced more like a T or a D, likely because there isn’t a th-sound in Irish Gaelic.
Another key characteristic of an Irish accent is how a ch-sound is often added to words that begin with T. For example, the phrase “choose me on Tuesday” may sound more like ‘”choose me on Chooseday” — which can be very confusing (and cute) to a non-Irish speaker.
The Scottish Accent
The Scottish accent is one that is notoriously difficult for non-Scots to understand. For one, there’s some debate about whether Scots is an accent, a dialect, or a language in its own right. Looking past any vocabulary differences, the pronunciation itself can give foreigners a headache.
To start, the Scottish accent is even more rhotic than the General American accent — the Scottish R is often rolled or trilled! And more confusing yet, Scots will often change the O-sound to an “ae” sound, so “cannot” sounds more like cannae.
You might’ve noticed that the T-sound of “cannot” is missing. That’s because, in the Scottish accent, the T is often glottalized, meaning words like “glottal” sound like glo’al. Finally, there is often little distinction between long and short vowel sounds, so “pull” sounds like pool, and “shops” sounds like shoaps.
The Australian Accent
Crikey, we finally made it to the best accent in the world (and that’s definitely not because I’m an Aussie!). The Australian accent, like the American and British accents, varies quite a bit. This depends more so on who you’re talking to (and their upbringing) rather than where they’re from.
The Australian accent is known for pronouncing the -ing at the end of words with an -en, like the General British accent, meaning words like “meaning” can sound more like meanen. Also like British English, the Australian accent is non-rhotic, so the R at the end of words is rarely pronounced.
The final distinguishing characteristic of the Aussie accent is the unique vowel pronunciations, most notably with diphthongs. (Diphthongs are sounds in words with two vowels in a single syllable.) Words like “mountain” can sound more like maountain, or “town” like taown. Aside from the pronunciation differences, foreigners often have a hard time grappling with funny Aussie vocabulary.
The New Zealand Accent
The New Zealand accent — or the Kiwi accent, as it’s affectionately referred to — is similar to the Australian accent but with a few key differences. The first recognizable difference is how New Zealanders will sometimes pronounce words with a “short I” — that is, pronouncing an I as though it were a U. For example, “fish and chips” comes out sounding more like fush and chups in the New Zealand accent.
Another great feature is how this accent places a “short E” sound in words like “pen” and “dead,” causing them to sound more like pin and did. Arguably the best feature of this accent is that New Zealanders, like those with a General British accent, have a rising tone at the end of their sentences. This means that foreigners often interpret statements as questions.
The South African Accent
In a land known for its biltong and wildlife, the South African accent is as distinctive as the landscape that surrounds it. This accent is non-rhotic and grammatically similar to British English due to the long periods of colonialism, but the accent itself is remarkably different.
This is most likely due to how the A-sound often comes out sounding closer to an “eh,” meaning that “South Africa” sounds like South Efrica when talking to the locals. Additionally, like New Zealanders, South Africans will also shorten the I in words like “sit” so that they sound more like set!