Americans, coming from the enormous and relatively recently settled place we do, tend to have a hard time with accents, struggling to grasp the extent of the variety of regional ways of speech in smaller, older countries, let alone to use them ourselves. Studying the Korean language, I’ve found that understanding a native speaker from one city doesn’t mean I’ll understand anything said by another native speaker from a city fifty miles away. (Though that holds true even for Koreans themselves; hence the prevalence of subtitles on their television shows.) Visiting London a few months ago, easily as I could make sense of everybody speaking my native tongue, I pre-emptively gave up hope of picking up on the nuances of all the accents people had brought to the city from their hometowns — much less the numerous and subtle dialects native of London itself. Everyone I met insisted that a Briton’s accent says more about their origin, class, station in life, and degree of self-regard than any other quality, but not knowing Newcastle from Southampton when I first set foot on English soil, I had to take them at their word (however they happened to pronounce it).
The video above, in which professional dialect coach Andrew Jack demonstrates fourteen British accents in 84 seconds, might help sort things out for my fellow confused countrymen. “Received communication is the great communicator,” Jack says, using the accent I assume he grew up with. “As soon as you deviate from that and you go into London speech, for example, you lose a little bit of the communication.” By that point, Jack has seamlessly transitioned into Cockney, from which he then shifts into the accents of East Anglia, the West Country, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Liverpool, Northern Ireland, Dublin, the Scottish highlands, Glasgow, North Wales, and South Wales. The Youtube comment box below has, predictably, filled with complains about all the accents — the commenters’ own, dare I imagine? — that didn’t make it into this brief linguistic tour. Though far from comprehensive, the video does in any case put the lie to the notion so many non-Brits seem to have that they can “do a British accent.” If you encounter one of them, don’t ask them to demonstrate it; ask them which British accent they mean. Then you’ll really hear how poorly they fare.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.