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.
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.