If you’ve ever met a bunch of Brits or consumed any British media, you’ve probably noticed that the inhabitants of these islands communicate in an array of weird, wonderful, and sometimes incomprehensible accents. The differences in pronunciation, regional vocabulary and phrasing are so vast that even Brits can have trouble understanding one another! So how did such a small place end up in such a linguistic stew? A Scot might say Ah dinnae ken! (I don’t know!) but, luckily for you, we do!
In the interests of intercultural communication and fewer bar brawls, we took on the task of enlightening the world about the eccentricities of British pronunciation. The British Society for the Preservation of Regional Accents was born, and seven non-native guinea pigs were cajoled into learning seven of our accents — with varying levels of success. Watch the video above to see how it went.
To top this, our in-house language experts have put together some fascinating articles explaining the obscure origins of said British accents. Here’s a quick overview of the highlights.
1. Wey aye! (‘I agree heartily’ in Geordie)
That’s right, first prize goes to Geordie as the most popular of British accents. But how did this delightful cacophony come to rule the streets of Newcastle? If you have a few Danish friends, you might have an inkling…
When the Angles came over from the German coastal region of Schleswig-Holstein and the Danish Peninsula to settle in the east of England, they brought their Old English tongue with them. On top of this, the Vikings later joined the party and contributed Old Norse to the mix, which is why Geordie is littered with Danish-sounding words! And although various theories abound, it’s likely that the name for this accent comes from the prevalence of the name George among the working-class population of this region.
2. Tidy darts! (‘Brilliant!’ in Welsh English)
Wenglish. Yes, Wenglish. That is, English spoken with a Welsh accent. How and why, do you ask? Well, at the time the English were going around colonizing their neighbors, they tried their best to linguistically subjugate the Welsh, who had (and still have) their own thriving Celtic language, Cymraeg (a.k.a. Welsh). And despite being forced to adopt English, a good bit of the Welsh lexicon and pronunciation spilled over, lending us charming terms such as cwtch, meaning a “little cuddle” and daps for “shoes.”
Many phonological and lexical features of the Celtic languages remain in the Welsh accent. For example, the slight trill of the R-sound — something Standard British English doesn’t have. Also, the way Wenglish syllables are stressed falls, unsurprisingly, somewhere between English and Welsh — a result of bilingualism.
The influence of the Scouse, Merseyside and West Country dialects, which creep in where they border Wales, further muddies the waters. Perhaps this explains the proliferation of Wenglish words for “unpleasant”: buzzing, hanging, bogging, scrunting, manking, buling and muling!
3. Yer aff yer heid! (‘You’re quite mad’ in Scottish)
Moving north, we find ourselves in the land of the Gaels. You could (and I imagine some brave scholar has) write volumes about the diversity of Scottish English dialects, but for now, we’ll focus on Standard Scottish English, or SSE.
SSE is similar to Welsh in the fact that it’s heavily influenced by its Celtic roots. The most striking feature of Scottish English pronunciation is the disappearance of the letter T in many words. “I can’t do it!” therefore becomes I cannae do i’! Likewise, “out” sounds like oo’, with a glottal stop at the end. Not convinced? Well, a skeptical Scot might say Yer bum’s oo’ tha windae! (literally “Your bottom is out of the window!”, meaning “You’re quite mistaken!”).
4. You alright lid? (‘Are you alright, child?’ in Scouse)
Lid? What the …? Well, it’s a Scouse shortening of bin lid — rhyming slang for “kid.” The Scouse dialect, otherwise known as Liverpudlian, is mostly confined to the city of Liverpool and is an especially rich source of delightful terminology. Liverpudlians call people from the areas surrounding Liverpool wools or woolly backs, for example. “Don’t listen to them plazzy wools la” is, then, a warning not to trust people from these areas — plazzy meaning “fake” (presumably from plastic).
So how did Scouse come into being? The name Liverpool comes from the Old English liver, meaning thick or muddy, and pol, meaning a pool or creek. What started as a small fishing village came to be a thriving imperial center for intercontinental trade and shipbuilding. “The New York of Europe,” as it came to be known, was especially popular with Irish immigrants, and this influx of accents from all over the world is responsible for the distinctive dialect we hear today.
5. Me ole china (‘My old friend’ in Cockney)
Imagine: You’re walking through one of London’s many leafy parks, watching governesses pushing baby carriages when you’re accosted by a Cockney chimney sweep. The problem is, he seems to be trying to communicate in some weird code. “Alright me ole china?” he enquires. “Got a farthing for me skin and blister, she’s Moby Dick!”
What on earth does the fellow mean? In short, he’s using rhyming slang to ask how you are (china plate meaning “mate”), and follows this up by asking for some loose change for his “sister,” who’s “sick” (and not a fictitious whale).
Cockney gained celebrity status through films such as My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins, and is still occasionally heard in nuclear subs (pubs) and markets in South East London. The Cockney accent is synonymous with working-class Londoners, who tend to pronounce the Th-sound in words like an F. Likewise, the H-sound in words such as “hospital” or “holiday” is dropped entirely so that they sound like ‘ospital or ‘oliday.
Cockney rhyming slang’s origins are debatable, but one theory is that working-class scallywags came up with a bunch of rhymes to prevent the police from listening in on their conversations. Others believe that market traders in the mid-19th century began using it to catch shoppers’ attention, or worse yet to confuse their buyers and wrangle more cash out of them! Whatever its origins, the beloved Cockney accent is still alive today, although you’d be hard pressed to find anyone regularly communicating in rhyming slang.
6. Proper job! (‘That’s a job well done!’ in West Country)
If you’ve ever been to the annual Sidmouth Folk Festival, you’ll be aware that a pint o’ rough is West Country dialect for a pint of cloudy cider poured from an unlabeled plastic bottle (that probably came out of a barrel with at least one dead rat in it). The West Country, which comprises the counties Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Dorset and Bristol, is famous for its apple orchards and strong cider. In fact, the growing conditions are so favorable that when a Brit wants do “farmer,” they’ll often imitate this accent.
The other association is, of course, the swashbuckling pirate. In days of yore, the hidden coves of Cornwall were awash with smugglers bringing contraband goods into the country, a tradition the Cornish recall with pride!
But what does West Country sound like? Well, to an English speaker’s ear, it’s a warm, melodic accent with all its “ooohs” and “arrrrghs.” If you pay a visit, prepare to be charmed by Alright me’ansum? (How are you, handsome person?) and to respond with “Oh I be pert viddy, me boody” (Oh I’m very well, my friend). West Country grew out of various West-Saxon dialects, and the region’s relatively isolated position means that it’s retained many traits from its Germanic roots.
7. Tha’ meks a better door than window (‘You’re blocking the view’ in Yorkshire)
What do you get when you cross a Saxon with a Viking? A pitchfork-wielding brute? Well, not quite. You actually get a Yorkshire squire. Back up north, on the border of bonny Scotland, we find one of the most beautiful regions in Britain, famed for its rolling hills, the earthy dialect of its folk and a dazzling array of idioms!
Here, “young men” are overwhelmingly lads and “young women” are indisputably lasses, “right” is reet (in this case meaning “very”) and owt (something) is always better than nowt (nothing). Laden with remnants of Old English, you’ll find the definite article “the” in short supply here. And if you’re happy about this fact, you can say either That’s proper champion, that (That’s truly wonderful) or I’m chuffed t’bits wi’ that (I’m so pleased).
The Yorkshire dialect has a famously short A-sound, often imitated by people in other parts of England. Full of wit and wisdom, our Yorkshire friends might well respond to taunts with the famous phrase: There’s nowt s’queer as folk (People are awfully strange).
8. Ra, jolly hockey sticks! (‘Fabulous!’ in Received Pronunciation)
Ever wondered what the difference is between the Queen’s English, BBC English, Oxford English, Standard English and British Received Pronunciation? Well, the answer is: There isn’t one — they’re all what we colloquially call “posh” English.
BRP appeared in the late 18th century among the upper classes and spread across the establishment and far reaches of the British Empire. The accent was a sign of “superior” social status, as the underlying intention was to eradicate “inferior” regional accents. It’s still common among those who went to public (confusingly, actually private) schools, and universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Until recently, it was common practice for university students, public figures, TV and radio presenters to adjust their accents to get ahead — a trend that is largely no longer the case.
Three phonetic indicators of BRP are 1) the clear pronunciation of the letter H at the beginning of words such as “hat” and “hamper,” 2) the inaudible R in words such as “car” and “heart,” and 3) the long vowels, which require an incredibly high palate (try saying “darling” and “oh” with your mouth wide open like you’re at the dentist).
If you’re keen to bone up on your Oxford English, you can either watch reruns of the Queen’s annual Christmas address or — more entertainingly — read the classic Jeeves and Wooster novels by P.G. Wodehouse. So, as the eponymous Bertie Wooster would say: Spiffing, eh what?! (Great, isn’t it?!)