One Woman, 17 British Accents

In April, we featured a tour of 14 British accents in 84 seconds. But as any commenter to that video will tell you, such a selection only scratches the surface of the variety of ways a given Briton could potentially speak English. “It’s important to state that there is no ‘British’ accent,” says the web site of BBC America’s Anglophenia. “There are so many regional dialects spread across tiny geographical areas that to arrive in, say, Swansea or Leicester (pronounced “lester” — you’re welcome), and launch into a stream of corblimey cockneyisms would go down extraordinarily badly.” This blog and video series, which brands itself “British Culture with an American Accent,” has spent more than a little energy helping its fans sort out the “infinite world of variety in the accents of the British Isles.” At the top of the post, Anglophenia host Siobhan Thompson demonstrates no fewer than seventeen British accents.

And not only can Thompson speak them, she can tell you who else speaks them. Other users of the middle-class, BBC-friendly “received pronunciation” include currently bankable film and television actors Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. And pretty much only on film and television do you hear the more refined-sounding “heightened received pronunciation,” and even then mainly from characters like Downton Abbey‘s Dowager Countess. She also does a truly Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels London accent, the flat East Anglian inflection that everyone loses when they move out of East Anglia, and thirteen more from across the rest of England as well as Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Once you learn to comprehend all these varieties of speech, though, you may still fail to grasp the meaning of what you hear. The Anglophenia episode above, “How to Speak British,” gives you a primer on a series of expressions — “Away with the fairies,” “Swings and roundabouts,” “Horses for courses” — you’ll only ever hear said in a British accent.

Related Content:

A Brief Tour of British Accents: 14 Ways to Speak English in 84 Seconds

Peter Sellers Gives a Quick Demonstration of British Accents

Peter Sellers Reads The Beatles’ “She Loves You” in Four Different Accents

Sir Patrick Stewart Demonstrates How Cows Moo in Different English Accents

What Shakespeare Sounded Like to Shakespeare: Reconstructing the Bard’s Original Pronunciation

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.

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Comments (5)
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  • Mike Grace says:

    Leicester is pronounced “Lestah” by the locals ;)

  • Mad Jock MacMad says:

    Robert Burns, the poet who wrote ‘To a Mouse’ quoted by Ms. Thompson above, was never knighted (I may be missing an element of irony here), but he was born in Ayrshire and is buried in Dumfries. He had nothing to do with Inverness. His poetry is written in the dialect of the Scottish central belt during the latter part of the 18th Century.

  • Alistair says:

    The southern english ones are not too bad but by the time she hits the north she is floundering. The Scots accents are especially not accurate save by happenstance and she missed most of them there are at least 20 distinct accents in Scotland – often geographically close but split between individual towns and city/shire boundaries. Very definably iso-glottaly diverse.

  • Helfy says:

    The Scottish accents were absolutely dreadful. That’s not an Edinburgh accent – it’s a specific sort of Edinburgh accent called a “Morningside accent”. The majority of people in Edinburgh speak very differently. The Glasgow accent is absolutely terrible and by the time she gets to Inverness I don’t think she’s even trying to get it right.

    Robert Burns was never a “Sir” and he was from Ayrshire (South-East of er… Glasgow”) not the Highlands and certainly nowhere near Inverness.

    Ironically the “Scots” that Burns wrote most of his poetry in wasn’t really spoken much around Inverness.

    Obviously the entirely distinct accents of Dundee, Fife, Aberdeen, Orkney, Shetland etc. etc. etc. were not even touched upon. Doric, probably the UK’s most distinct dialect, would’ve made a pretty good addition.

    As for the rest of the accents I can’t really comment, other than to say that the Lancashire one was awful.

    Why do so many people think they can do accents when they can’t? Wha’ kens; no me.

  • Kazzer from Lancashire says:

    OK I suppose, for an Aussie :)

    I know it’s tempting to pick holes in something like this, but as someone who is from north Lancashire, and who lived in Glasgow for eight years, I have to agree with the comment above from Alistair that the accuracy of the accents deteriorates the further one goes from London.

    I was going to use this for an end of term light-hearted thing with my students here in Kazakhstan, but I think I’ll get recordings from native speakers of the respective accents.

    Another point is that when people do accents, they should specify not regions, but individual towns. Where I am from, for example, the accent of Blackburn, with its rhotic “r”, is audibly different even to an untrained ear, from that of Preston, ten miles west.

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