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English

Accents – they say so much about who we are and where we come from, but how much do you know about them?

This article will explain what an accent is and explain why there are different accents. It will then provide examples of different accents, including the wide variety found in the UK. Finally, it will discuss the prejudices people face because of their accents.

What is an accent?

In linguistics and sociolinguistics, accent refers to the way people or specific groups of people sound when they speak. Accents are usually defined and recognised by geographical location. For example, English speakers from the UK have a different accent from English speakers in the USA. However, it doesn’t stop there. Within the UK, there are multiple accents, meaning someone from the South of England will likely have a different accent than someone from the North.

People in the southeast of England often speak with the Received Pronunciation (RP) accent, whereas people from Newcastle often speak with a Geordie accent.

Accents usually differ in terms of the pronunciation of words, vowels and consonants, and prosodic features (the way speech sounds, including tone, pitch, and stress).

The RP accent pronounces the word down as /daʊn/, i.e. the middle vowel is an ‘ow’ sound.

The Geordie accent pronounces the word down as /duːn/, i.e. the central vowel makes a longer ‘oo’ sound.

Why are there different accents?

Traditionally, accents developed amongst groups of language users who lived in relative isolation from other communities. People within a community typically sound similar because they pick up each other’s slight language changes and adopt each other’s speech characteristics. These characteristics eventually define the accent.

Language changes will naturally develop over time in each individual.

We usually see the most prominent accent differences when there is a significant environmental barrier between communities of people, such as a river or mountain range. These would have stopped people from communicating and prevented a certain amount of accent levelling.

Accent levelling = a form of standardisation where people lose their distinctive accents and start to sound similar.

Accents were then further developed when people started moving around the world due to trade, immigration, and colonisation. As people moved around, they bought their languages and accents, which were adopted by locals and integrated into their language use. For example, in the 1930s, many Scottish steelworkers were sent to Northampton to work. We can still hear the influence of the Scottish accent in the Northampton accent today.

Accents reflect the sociocultural history of people or places. For example, the standard Australian accent reflects the London accent as this is where many settlers were sent to Australia from.

How accents develop

We are not born with our accents. Instead, they develop based on social influences. As we learn to speak, we naturally imitate the people around us, such as our caregivers, picking up on their speech patterns, including pronunciation, stress, and intonation.

Children pick up accents far quicker than adults, just like how they pick up language much faster. This is because children’s brains have more plasticity than adults and can learn and adapt much quicker. This could explain why some parents have stated that their American children have begun speaking in a British accent after watching episodes of Peppa Pig!

Scientists believe that after the ‘critical period’ (the time frame in which children can quickly learn new things – usually around puberty), our accents become ‘cemented’ and less likely to change. However, like everything to do with language, nothing is completely fixed. Accents can continue to change slightly for the rest of our lives due to factors like moving country, travelling, occupation, and who we spend our time with.

Examples of different English accents

As you’re probably aware, English is a truly global language, and there are many different English accents. Keep in mind that there are variations of accents within each country, and there is no ‘standardised’ accent for any country. Let's first look at the general American English accent compared to the general British English accent.

General American English accent vs general British accent

When you think of differences in English accents, you’ll likely think of the British accent compared to the American accent.

The main difference between the two accents is the pronunciation of the letter R. The general British accent is considered non-rhotic, meaning the /r/ sound at the end of words isn’t pronounced.

The word water is pronounced with an ‘uh’ sound at the end rather than an 'er' sound.

On the other hand, the general American accent is considered a rhotic accent, meaning the /r/ sound is pronounced.

There is also a slight difference in the pronunciation of vowel sounds. For example, the British accent uses the /ɒ/ (short ‘o’ sound) in words like shop and drop, whereas the American accent uses the /ɑ/ sound, creating more of an ‘a’ sound.

As we mentioned, there is no one accent for a country. So, let’s look at some variations of the English accent within the UK.

Accents in the UK

There are many different accents in the UK despite it being so small! Many linguists suggest this is the case because many communities were separated by ‘borders’, either natural or political.

Here is a list of some of the accents in the UK and their different features.

Received Pronunciation (RP)

RP is often considered the ‘standard’ way British people speak, and people who deviate from this are considered to speak with an ‘accent’. However, this isn’t the case, and it’s important to remember that RP is an accent itself. We all speak with an accent that is unique to us!

Many people consider RP to be ‘posh’ as it’s associated with official settings, such as private education and news reporting. RP is the accent you’re most likely to hear on the TV and in films.

Estuary English

This is the accent used by those who live near the Thames estuary (river) in London. It is similar to RP but is considered less ‘posh’ and more the ‘everyday’ accent of Londoners and people living in the South East of England. Many linguists believe Estuary English to be a mix of RP and Cockney (a London-based accent associated with the working class).

Cornish

The Cornish accent is used in Cornwall and the Southwest of England. It’s often considered a ‘country’ accent despite the fact there are several large cities and towns in the area! One of the most notable factors of the Cornish accent is that it’s a rhotic accent compared to most other UK accents, which are non-rhotic. Rhotic accents pronounce the /r/ sound at the end of words like water and tractor.

Scouse

This is the name given to the prominent accent used in Liverpool. The Liverpudlian accent is quite nasal compared to other accents. Like other accents in the north of England, the /ʊ/ sound found in words like book and put is pronounced as /u:/ (longer oo sound). You can hear examples of a Scouse accent by listening to the Beatles!

Geordie

This is the name of the accent (and dialect) used in Newcastle. One of the most prominent features of the Geordie accent is the glottal stop ⟨ʔ⟩ and glottalisation of /p, t, k/. A glottal stop happens when the throat closes, creating a pause in sound. For example, paper is pronounced /peəpʔɐ/ and local as /loːkʔə/.

Scottish

As you may know, Scotland does have its own languages, but the most common language spoken now is Scottish English. This section is about the accents of Scottish English. The basics of the Scottish accent have been influenced by Gaelic (the first language used in Scotland and predominantly used in the Highlands), Scots phonology (a language that developed in the Lowlands with its unique pronunciation), and English lexicon (vocabulary that travelled across the border).

The main features of a Scottish accent include a slight trill (roll) of the /r/ sound and a glottal stop on /t/ sounds.

Accents and identity

Accents can play a huge role in a person’s sense of identity, including their self-perception as well as how others perceive them. Accents can reveal a lot about a person, such as their place of birth, where they live, their socioeconomic status (class), and whether they’re a native or non-native speaker of a language.

Some people are very proud of their accents and the sense of identity it gives them. In contrast, others try to change their accents to conceal parts of their identity.

Accents and prejudice

Some accents are considered more ‘prestigious’ than others, and some are considered ‘low-prestige’. This perception of different accents is usually linked to class, but ethnicity and race can also play a role.

Received pronunciation (RP) is often considered the most prestigious accent as it is associated with private education, news reporting, and the Queen. However, linguists state that accents are just accents and don’t necessarily have anything to do with education level – these are just the meanings and values society places on certain accents.

People with certain accents, such as non-native English speakers, often face prejudice and discrimination because of their accents. They state that they are usually deemed less intelligent, less educated, and as having poor language skills. In reality, someone who has learned a second language isn’t unintelligent! This prejudice can lead to harmful stereotyping, mass discrimination of whole groups of people, and internalised discrimination (i.e. someone believing they’re not capable of something or aren’t as intelligent as others because of their accent).

Non-native accents

Pronunciation and accent are often the most difficult parts of learning a new language. Most people who learn a second language, especially in adult life, speak with an accent that differs from the native speakers. This accent can usually be identifiable with the speaker’s native tongue, e.g. a French person speaking English would be recognisable as French. Often non-native English speakers face discrimination for their accent and will decide to work hard to try and sound more like a native. On the other hand, others feel proud of their accent and identity as a second language speaker.

Many linguists, such as Andy Kirkpatrick1 and Jennifer Jenkins2, state that accent isn’t an essential part of learning a language, only intelligibility (the ability to be understood).

Accent - Key takeaways

  • The term accent refers to the way people or specific groups of people sound when they speak.
  • Accents are usually defined by geographical location. Other factors such as socioeconomic status can also affect accents.
  • There is a vast variety of English accents, including across the world and within a country.
  • Accents initially developed amongst groups of language users who lived in relative isolation from other communities. They then further developed when people started moving around the world due to trade, immigration, and colonialism.
  • Some well-known accents in the UK include Received Pronunciation (RP), Geordie, Scouse, and Cornish.
  • People often face prejudice and discrimination because of their accents.

1. A. Kirkpatrick. World Englishes. 2007.

2. J. Jenkins. pleasant?(In) correct?(Un) intelligible? ELF speakers' perceptions of their accents. 2009.

Accent

Accent refers to the way speech sounds, usually specific to a geographical location. 

Some examples of English accents include, Cornish, Scouse, Scottish, and Geordie.

We naturally adopt the speech and sound patterns of those around us as we are growing up, which helps create our 'accent'. Accents typically developed in communities of language speakers who were isolated from other communities. They continued to develop when people started moving around the world, due to trade, immigration, and colonialism.

Accents have developed throughout history. They were established when people lived in more isolated environments, as there were fewer connections between cities, so the number of people that people interacted with was limited. We aren't born with accents but develop them as we learn to speak.

There are many accents in the UK and it's not possible to place an exact number on them. Some linguists estimate there are more than 37 dialects in the UK, each with its own accent. 

Final Accent Quiz

Question

True or false, we're born with our accents?

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Answer

False. Our accents develop as we learn to speak based on the people around us.

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Question

How many different accents are there in the UK?

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Answer

It's impossible to say! 

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Question

Accents are usually defined and recognised based on _____.

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Answer

Geographical location.

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Question

What is Received Pronunciation (RP)?

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Answer

An accent used in Southeast England and in official settings, such as reading the news.

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Question

What is Geordie?

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Answer

The accent (and dialect) used by people in Newcastle and the surrounding areas.

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Question

What is a rhotic accent?

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Answer

An accent that pronounces the /r/ sound at the end of words.

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Question

What is a non-rhotic accent?

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Answer

An accent that doesn't pronounce the /r/ sound at the end of words.

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Question

Is the general British accent rhotic or non-rhotic?

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Answer

Non-rhotic. 

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Question

Greater differences in accent are found amongst communities that____?

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Answer

are isolated from other communities. 

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Question

Why do children pick up accents quicker than adults?

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Answer

Because their brains have more plasticity and are able to adapt to new things quicker.

Show question

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