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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