Table of contents
As an English teacher, I often get asked a simple question by my students: Which is easier to understand, British English or American English?
As an English teacher, I also know that this is not really a simple question. So, I put it back to my students. Which do YOU think is easier?
Some students say American English is easier, because we hear it all the time in Hollywood movies.
Some students say British English is easier because British people speak more slowly.
No, other students say, British people use longer words.
My students can never agree on the answer. But there is one thing that they agree on - nobody can understand people from Scotland, because nobody can understand their accent!
How many British regional accents are there?
Britain is a densely populated country with an urban population. People are often very proud of their city or region. They are proud of the way that they speak.
For all of these reasons, there are many, many accents that you may encounter in Britain.
In fact, even if two towns are only ten or twenty miles apart, the people living in each one may have different accents!
One website suggests that there are 43 distinct dialects in the UK. By comparison, they identify only six distinct dialects* in the United States.
However, to make things easier, we can look at accents by region.
It helps to examine the accents in the different countries that make up the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland). Since England is the largest country, we can further examine accents from northern England, southern England and London.
*A dialect is a form of English spoken in a particular place. Dialect refers to vocabulary and grammar as well as accent although accent may be the main feature.
Is there really a “British” accent?
We have seen that there are as many as 43 accents in the United Kingdom, but is there a “standard” accent?
It turns out that the answer is yes. The standard British accent is something called received pronunciation, or RP.
Geographically, people who speak with this accent live in the southeastern part of England. This is traditionally a “posh” part of England, so this accent is considered to be upper/middle class.
In the past, having an RP accent might have helped you to get a better job. Having a “working class” (non-RP) accent might have prevented you from getting a better job.
Today, discriminating by accent is not seen as politically correct. Some newspapers even claim that RP is a bad thing, because it separates people by class.
Since English teachers need a language model to work with, many British English books use the RP accent as a pronunciation guide.
You might recognise RP English by the lack of an R at the end of words like water (‘waw-tuh’) or by the long ‘a’ sound in bath (‘baath’).
You may have heard other names for the RP accent. When people talk about “the Queen’s English”, they are referring to RP.
People may also use the term “BBC English”. In the past, the BBC hired only presenters who spoke with an RP accent. However, this is no longer true. Thus, we can say there is no such thing as BBC English anymore.
You can hear examples of RP pronunciation , and English Learning for Curious Minds is spoken in RP.
What does a southern English accent sound like?
As we have seen, a southern English accent is what we think of as a “standard British accent”. In the south of England, most speakers have an accent which is not too different from RP.
What does a northern English accent sound like?
To a British person, a northern accent sounds less posh than a southern accent. It sounds a bit rougher, but also a bit friendlier.
One of the main features that jumps out is the use of ‘oo’ instead of ‘uh’. So, instead of catching a bus, a northerner might catch a ‘boose’. Instead of living up north, they live ‘oop’ north. (Note that they would still spell these words in the standard way!)
A great example of a northern accent is the Yorkshire accent which you can listen to below.
What does a Scottish accent sound like?
The Scottish accent is heavily influenced by another language, called Gaelic. In fact, Gaelic was the main language spoken in Scotland until 1616, when it was made illegal! However, even today you can find Scots who speak Gaelic.
The Scottish accent has a different rhythm from standard English. This gives it a distinct sound, which many people say sounds very nice!
You may also hear Scots use the ‘oo’ sound in place of ‘ow’. So, ‘about’ may sound like ‘aboot’ and ‘house’ may sound like ‘hoose’. Or you may hear the ‘ee’ sound for ‘eh’, so ‘head’ sounds like ‘heed’.
A great way to learn more about the Scottish accent is this video clip about the TV series Outlander, which is set in Scotland.
Is it true that the Scottish accent is the hardest one to understand?
As with the rest of the UK, there are actually many Scottish accents. Most of them are quite easy to understand.
I believe that when people say the Scottish accent is difficult, they are actually talking about the Glaswegian accent (Glaswegian = from Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland). You can hear some samples below and decide for yourself.
One famous Glaswegian is Alex Ferguson, the former manager of Manchester United. His star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, needed a translator to understand him, according to some media reports!
What does a Welsh accent sound like?
Just like Scotland, Wales has its own language, Welsh. This language continues to be used widely today. Again, this has an effect on the way Welsh speakers use English.
The Welsh accent also has its own rhythm and flow. To me, it sounds cute, and I love to hear the Welsh accent!
This actor describes it as a ‘sing-song’ accent and shows you what it sounds like. ‘Sing-song’ is a good way to describe it since Welsh people are also famous for their choirs!
What does a Northern Irish accent sound like?
My own students always get very confused about Ireland and the United Kingdom. The north-eastern area of Ireland is part of the UK and we refer to it as Northern Ireland.
As in Scotland and Wales, Ireland has its own language, Irish (sometimes also called Gaelic). It is still used widely today, especially in southern Ireland (which is not part of the UK).
There is quite a difference between the accents in the two parts of Ireland and each has a distinctive rhythm and flow.
It is very hard to copy a northern Irish accent, even for actors! However, one feature to look for is how the ‘ow’ sound is shortened to an ‘ay’ sound. So, ‘now’ sounds like ‘nigh’.
Well, in fact it doesn’t sound exactly like ‘nigh’... as I said, it is very difficult to copy or even describe. This guide will explain more.
What other accents should you look out for?
The East End of London was traditionally the working class part of the city. It is famous for its Cockney accent. Perhaps you know the much-loved movie, My Fair Lady, which is about a professor who tries to teach a Cockney flower-seller to ‘speak properly’!
We have names for other accents, too. A Liverpool accent is a ‘scouse’ accent. A Newcastle accent is a ‘geordie’ accent and a Birmingham accent is a ‘brummie’ accent (like in Peaky Blinders). Then, there’s the Mancunian accent (from Manchester).
What does all this mean for language learners?
Now that we’ve had an accent tour of the United Kingdom, are you feeling a bit worried? Does this mean that you need to learn all of these different accents?
No, of course not!
Let’s take the example of Jock MacLean, from Glasgow. Jock speaks in a strong Glaswegian accent and he is sent to Madrid for his job.
If his co-workers in Madrid have trouble understanding him, should they learn the Glaswegian accent? No, that would not seem fair! Instead, the responsibility is on Jock to ‘tone it down’ (lessen his accent). He needs to speak in a more standard way to be understood outside of Scotland.
I’m from Scotland, myself, and I moved to America at age seven, so I’m speaking from experience!
On the other hand, if you are sent to Glasgow for work, you will need to become familiar with the Glaswegian accent. Now the responsibility is on you!
However, being ‘immersed’ in the accent means that you should become familiar with it over days or weeks.
And if you travel around Britain as a tourist? Just relax and enjoy hearing all the wonderful accents you will hear. If someone speaks with an accent you don’t recognise, just ask them. British people tend to be very happy to tell you about where they come from.
Most accents will not be difficult to understand and many people will adjust the way they speak when they chat to someone who is not from the local area.
Remember, our differences are what makes life interesting. Variety is the spice of life!