If you ask people what they think British English sounds like, most would probably mention the Queen, or Harry Potter at the very least. However, across the British Isles there is a massive variety of accents and dialects; so, in actual fact, most Brits do not speak like the Queen. (Her accent, “Received Pronunciation”, is completely invented and its strange inception is another story.) More Brits speak Scouse, Geordie or even Wenglish than “the Queen’s English”. Each accent reflects the history of the area it comes from, along with a strong sense of pride. Learning a bit about the local accent is a great way to impress your neighbours and adds a bit of regional colour to your English – why say “good” when you can instead say “gert lush” (West Country) or “canny” (Geordie), for example?
It was in this spirit of worldly open-mindedness and deference to local traditions that we founded the British Society for the Preservation of Regional Accents in a London pub – well, for one day anyway. The video above shows how the society’s initiates, hailing from all over Europe, got on with seven different regional accents. If you’re wondering how so many distinct accents can coexist on one little island, consider these accents as members of one big family.
Scottish and Welsh – a Celtic Marriage
Scottish and Welsh English are both influenced by languages very different from Standard English: Welsh, Gaelic and Scots, which all derive from the languages of the Ancient Celts. Many phonological and lexical features of the Celtic languages still remain in the Welsh and Scottish accents. For example, the slight trill of the “r” sound – something Standard British English doesn’t have.
Lexically speaking, Welsh and Scottish have their differences, most notably in terms of vocabulary. This suggests that, even if Scottish and Welsh were once bonded in a happy marriage, something drove a wedge between them over the centuries – perhaps geography and constant influence from nearby accents.
Tidy darts, me’luvver…
(Welsh for “Great”, West County for “my lover”)
The West Country covers a large region adjacent to Wales, and it is home to another of the ancient Celtic languages, Cornish (though the number of Cornish speakers is dwindling and the language is in danger of dying out). There have also traditionally been strong trade links between Wales and the West Country, due to their geographic proximity to one another, which has led to the accents’ mutual influence. This can be heard in the rhythm of speech – in Welsh English, all syllables of a word are stressed equally, and this also applies to West Country English, though, to a lesser extent.
So, Welsh gets remarried to West Country, and, surprise! They have a child: Scouse! The Scouse accent comes from Liverpool, a famous industrial port in northwest England. Geographically, Wales and Liverpool aren’t so far apart, but how could the West Country influence the Scouse accent?! Consider this: In addition to strong linguistic influence from Welsh and Irish immigrants, Liverpool played host to a diverse array of European sailors throughout the 19th century – when the Scouse accent really started to form. Many of the sailors passing though Liverpool were from the West Country, which has a strong tradition of sailing and fishing. Think about how a pirate speaks, with the distinctive “arrrgh me’mateys” and all that. What you’ve got there is actually a (somewhat exaggerated) West Country accent.
So think of West Country as Scouse’s exotic, seafaring father – away for long stretches of time, but when he’s back in his home port with Mama Welsh he showers little Scouse in high seas tales of bravado and trinkets from faraway places.
Reet canny, wee lassie…
(Geordie for “very good”, Scottish for “young girl”)
Following their divorce (read: linguistic diversion), Welsh got remarried, but what about Scottish? Well, Scottish also got remarried – to Yorkshire! Like Scottish, the Yorkshire accent also traces its origins back to ancient times, to the Saxons and the Vikings. The modern-day Yorkshire dialect still contains words that could have almost been directly taken from Old English spoken many centuries ago; for example, in the words “owt” (“anything”, or “a wiht” in Old English) and “nowt” (“nothing”, or “ne wiht”).
The Scottish accent in English comes from linguistic contact between Scots and Standard English in the Lowlands near the Scottish-English border. Although there is quite some distance between Yorkshire and Scotland, there are some phonological similarities between the two resulting from this contact – take the vowel sound “a”, for example, pronounced shorter than in the South of England.
In our royal family of accents, Scottish and Yorkshire also have a child – the “wee bairn” (little child) Geordie! Geographically, Geordie is spoken in Newcastle in the Northeast of England, right between where the Yorkshire and Scottish accents are found. Scouse, compared to its parents Welsh and West Country, is a young accent, but Geordie is strongly influenced by the Angles – the ancient settlers from the Danish peninsula who put the Anglo in Anglo-Saxon. If we’re to keep this family metaphor intact, we’ll have to think of the Angles as Geordie’s grandparents. Thanks to the Angles, many Geordie words such as “bairn” (also common in Scottish English) can be traced to modern Danish words (“bairn” is Danish for “barn”). Even if the Angles give little Geordie an old soul, the word “Geordie” itself is relatively modern. Coal mining was traditionally the main industry in the Northeast, and Newcastle’s coal miners were renowned for their distinctive accent. “George” was by far the most popular boy’s name in the area, so “Geordie” was named after the men who spoke it.
Sat ‘ere on me Jack Jones…
(Cockney for “sitting here alone”)
So to recap, Welsh and Scottish were married but then divorced. Welsh then married West Country, and they had a child, Scouse. Scottish, not wanting to wallow over the divorce, married Yorkshire, and they also had a child, Geordie. Now we’re just missing one accent from the video above… Cockney!
In our royal family of British accents, Cockney would be the distant uncle who works as a travelling salesman, turns up every year at Christmas, is out of contact for the rest of the year and isn’t, in actual fact, a biological uncle at all, but rather just happens to be around and is therefore called “uncle” by the kids.
Cockney rhyming slang has ambiguous origins. It might be more accurate to describe it as a method of speaking, as some theories say that it came about in Victorian East London when salesmen on the streets started hawking their wares in rhyme with the intent of confusing, or perhaps charming, non-locals into spending a little more… Indeed, Cockney rhyming slang has become synonymous with the people of East London and is, in fact, a distinct symbol of their community. Because of this, it’s also somewhat disconnected from other accents, making it an honorary uncle in the linguistic family of Britain.
So now, when you think of British English, remember – the Queen’s English is just one type! Learn a bit of vocabulary from around the British Isles – maybe you’ll even convince someone that you’re from Scotland next time you’re visiting London.
We’ve delved into a whole host of accents from around the British Isles in order to give you a flavour of the incredible linguistic diversity of the British people. So it’s now time for you to learn about the stories behind some of the UK’s most distinguished accents and give them a go yourself!