The English language spoken and written in England encompasses a diverse range of accents and dialects. The dialect forms part of the broader British English, along with other varieties in the United Kingdom. Terms used to refer to the English language spoken and written in England include: English English,Anglo-English and British English in England.
There are many different accents and dialects throughout England and people are often very proud of their local accent or dialect. However, accents and dialects also highlight social class differences, rivalries or other associated prejudices—as illustrated by George Bernard Shaw's comment:
It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.
As well as pride in one's accent, there is also stigma placed on many traditional working class dialects. In his work on the dialect of Bolton, Graham Shorrocks wrote
I have personally known those who would avoid, or could never enjoy, a conversation with a stranger, because they were literally too ashamed to open their mouths. It has been drummed into people - often in school, and certainly in society at large - that dialect speech is incorrect, impure, vulgar, clumsy, ugly, careless, shoddy, ignorant, and altogether inferior. Furthermore, the particularly close link in recent English society between speech, especially accents, and social class and values has made local dialect a hindrance to upward social mobility."
The three largest recognisable dialect groups in England are Southern English dialects, Midlands English dialects and Northern English dialects. The most prominent isogloss is the foot–strut split, which runs roughly from mid-Shropshire (on the Welsh border) to south of Birmingham and then to the Wash. South of the Isogloss(A people), in the Midlands and Southern dialects, the Middle English phoneme /ʊ/ split into /ʌ/ (as in cut, strut) and /ʊ/ (put, foot); this change did not occur north of the Isogloss.
The accent of English English best known to people outside the United Kingdom is that of Received Pronunciation (RP), though it is used by only a small minority of speakers in England. Until recently, RP was widely considered to be more typical of educated speakers than other accents. It was referred to by some as the Queen's (or King's) English, or even "BBC English" (because for many years of broadcasting it was rare to hear any other accent on the BBC). These terms, however, do not refer only to accent features but also to grammar and vocabulary, as explained in Received Pronunciation. Since the 1960s regional accents have become increasingly accepted in mainstream media, and are frequently heard on radio and television. RP is also sometimes called an "Oxford accent"; the Oxford English Dictionary gives RP pronunciations for each word, as do most other English dictionaries published in Britain.
Most native English speakers can tell the general region in England that a speaker comes from, and experts or locals may be able to narrow this down to within a few miles. Historically, such differences could be a major impediment to understanding between people from different areas. There are also many cases where a large city has a very different accent from the rural area around it (e.g. Bristol and Avon, Hull and the East Riding, Liverpool and Lancashire). But modern communications and mass media have reduced these differences in some parts of the country. Speakers may also change their pronunciation and vocabulary, particularly towards Received Pronunciation and Standard English when in public.
British Isles varieties of English, including English English, are discussed in John C. Wells (1982). Some of the features of English English are that:
As noted above, Northern versions of the dialect lack the foot–strut split, so that there is no distinction between /ʊ/ and /ʌ/, making put and putt homophones as /pʊt/.
In the Southern varieties, words like bath, cast, dance, fast, after, castle, grass etc. are pronounced with the long vowel found in calm (that is, [ɑː] or a similar vowel) while in the Midlands and Northern varieties they are pronounced with the same vowel as trap or cat, usually [a]. For more details see Trap–bath split. There are some areas of the West Country that use [aː] in both the TRAP and BATH sets. The Bristol area, although in the south of England, uses the short [a] in BATH.
Many varieties undergo h-dropping, making harm and arm homophones. This is a feature of working-class accents across most of England, but was traditionally stigmatised (a fact the comedy musical My Fair Lady was quick to exploit) but less so now. This was geographically widespread, but the linguist A.C.Gimson stated that it did not extend to the far north, nor to East Anglia, Essex, Wiltshire or Somerset. In the past, working-class people were often unsure where an h ought to be pronounced, and, when attempting to speak "properly", would often preface any word that began with a vowel with an h (e.g. "henormous" instead of enormous, "hicicles" instead of icicles); this was referred to as the "hypercorrect h" in the Survey of English Dialects, and is also referenced in literature (e.g. the policeman in Danny the Champion of the World).
A glottal stop for intervocalic /t/ is now common amongst younger speakers across the country; it was originally confined to some areas of the south-east and East Anglia.
Most varieties have the horse–hoarse merger. However some northern accents retain the distinction, pronouncing pairs of words like for/four, horse/hoarse and morning/mourning differently.
The consonant clusters /sj/, /zj/, and /lj/ in suit, Zeus, and lute are preserved by some.
Many Southern varieties have the bad–lad split, so that bad/bæːd/ and lad/læd/ do not rhyme.
In most of the eastern half of England, plurals and past participle endings which are pronounced /ɪz/ and /ɪd/ (with the vowel of kit) in RP may be pronounced with a schwa/ə/. This can be found as far north as Wakefield and as far south as Essex. This is unusual in being an east-west division in pronunciation when English dialects generally divide between north and south. Another east-west division involves the rhotic [r]; it can be heard in the speech of country folk (particularly the elder), more or less west of the course of the Roman era road known as Watling Street (the modern A5), which at one time divided King Alfred's Wessex and English Mercia from the Danish kingdoms in the east. The rhotic [r] is rarely found in the east.
Sporadically, miscellaneous items of generally obsolete vocabulary survive: come in the past tense rather than came; the use of thou and/or ye for you.
Change over time
There has been academic interest in dialects since the late 19th century. The main works are On Early English Pronunciation by A.J. Ellis, English Dialect Grammar by Joseph Wright, and the English Dialect Dictionary also by Joseph Wright. The Dialect Test was developed by Joseph Wright so he could hear the differences of the vowel sounds of a dialect by listening to different people reading the same short passage of text.
In the 1950s and 1960s the Survey of English Dialects was undertaken to preserve a record of the traditional spectrum of rural dialects that merged into each other. The traditional picture was that there would be a few changes in lexicon and pronunciation every couple of miles, but that there would be no sharp borders between completely different ways of speaking. Within a county, the accents of the different towns and villages would drift gradually so that residents of bordering areas sounded more similar to those in neighbouring counties.
Because of greater social mobility and the teaching of "Standard English" in secondary schools, this model is no longer very accurate. There are some English counties in which there is little change in accent/dialect, and people are more likely to categorise their accent by a region or county than by their town or village. As agriculture became less prominent, many rural dialects were lost. Some urban dialects have also declined; for example, traditional Bradford dialect is now quite rare in the city, and call centres have seen Bradford as a useful location for the very fact there is a lack of dialect in potential employees. Some call centres state that they were attracted to Bradford because it has a regional accent which is relatively easy to understand.
But working in the opposite direction concentrations of migration may cause a town or area to develop its own accent. The two most famous examples are Liverpool and Corby. Liverpool's dialect is influenced heavily by Irish and Welsh, and it sounds completely different from surrounding areas of Lancashire. Corby's dialect is influenced heavily by Scots, and it sounds completely different from the rest of Northamptonshire. The Voices 2006 survey found that the various ethnic minorities that have settled in large populations in parts of Britain develop their own specific dialects. For example, Asian may have an Oriental influence on their accent so sometimes urban dialects are now just as easily identifiable as rural dialects, even if they are not from South Asia. In the traditional view, urban speech was just seen as a watered-down version of that of the surrounding rural area. Historically, rural areas had much more stable demographics than urban areas, but there is now only a small difference. It has probably never been true since the Industrial Revolution caused an enormous influx to cities from rural areas.
Overview of regional accents
According to dialectologist Peter Trudgill, the major regional English accents of modern England can be divided on the basis on the following basic features; the word columns each represent the pronunciation of one italicised word in the sentence "Very few cars made it up the long hill". An additional feature—the absence or presence of a trap-bath split—is also represented under the "path" column (so that the sentence could be rendered "Very few cars made it up the path of the long hill").
In general, Southern English accents are distinguished from Northern English accents primarily by not using the short a in words such as "bath". In the south-east, the broad A is normally used before a /f/, /s/ or /θ/: words such as "cast" and "bath" are pronounced /kɑːst/, /bɑːθ/ rather than /kæst/, /bæθ/. This sometimes occurs before /nd/: it is used in "command" and "demand" but not in "brand" or "grand".
In the south-west, an /aː/ sound in used in these words but also in words that take /æ/ in RP; there is no trap–bath split but both are pronounced with an extended fronted vowel. Bristol is an exception to the bath-broadening rule: it uses /a/ in the trap and bath sets, just as is the case in the North and the Midlands.
Relatively recently, the first two have increasingly influenced southern accents outside London via social class mobility and the expansion of London. From some time during the 19th century, middle and upper middle classes began to adopt affectations, including the RP accent, associated with the upper class. In the late 20th and 21st century other social changes, such as middle class RP-speakers forming an increasing component of rural communities, have accentuated the spread of RP. The South East coast accents traditionally have several features in common with the West country; for example, rhoticity and the a: sound in words such as bath, cast, etc. However, the younger generation in the area is more likely to be non-rhotic and use the London/East Anglian A: sound in bath.
After the Second World War, about one million Londoners were relocated to new and expanded towns throughout the south east, bringing with them their distinctive London accent.
During the 19th century distinct dialects of English were recorded in Sussex, Surrey and Kent. These dialects are now extinct or nearly extinct due to improved communications and population movements.
In the nearby counties of Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, it was possible to encounter comparable accents and, indeed, distinct local dialects until perhaps the 1960s. There is now limited use of such dialects amongst older people in local areas. Although natives of such locations, especially in western parts, can still have West Country influences in their speech, the increased mobility and urbanisation of the population have meant that local Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Isle of Wight dialects (as opposed to accents) are today essentially extinct.
Academically the regional variations are considered to be dialectal forms. The Survey of English Dialects captured manners of speech across the West Country that were just as different from Standard English as anything from the far North. Close proximity has completely different languages such as Cornish, which is a Celtic language related to Welsh, and more closely to Breton.
The Norfolk dialect is spoken in the traditional county of Norfolk and areas of north Suffolk. Famous speakers include Keith Skipper.
The group FOND (Friends of Norfolk Dialect) was formed to record the county's dialect and to provide advice for TV companies using the dialect in productions.
East Anglian dialect is also spoken in areas of Cambridgeshire. It is characterised by the use of [ei] for /iː/ in FLEECE words.
As in the North, Midlands accents generally do not use a broad A, so that cast is pronounced [kast] rather than the [kɑːst] pronunciation of most southern accents. The northern limit of the [ɑː] in many words crosses England from mid-Shropshire to The Wash, passing just south of Birmingham.
The West Midlands accent is often described as having a pronounced nasal quality, the East Midlands accent much less so.
Old and cold may be pronounced as "owd" and "cowd" (rhyming with "loud" in the West Midlands and "ode" in the East Midlands), and in the northern Midlands home can become "wom".
Whether Derbyshire should be classed as the West or East Midlands in terms of dialect is debatable. Stanley Ellis, a dialect expert, said in 1985 that it was more like the West Midlands, but it is often grouped with the East and is part of the regionEast Midlands.
Cheshire, although part of the North-West region, is usually grouped the Midlands for the purpose of accent and dialect.
There is no Ng-coalescence. Cases of the spelling -ing are pronounced as [ɪŋɡ] rather than [ɪŋ]. Wells noted that there were no exceptions to this rule in Stoke-on-Trent, whereas there were for other areas with the [ɪŋɡ] pronunciation, such as Liverpool.
Dialect verbs are used, for example am for are, ay for is not (related to ain't), bay for are not, bin for am or, emphatically, for are. Hence the following joke dialogue about bay windows: "What sort of windas am them?" "They'm bay windas." "Well if they bay windas wot bin them?". There is also humour to be derived from the shop-owner's sign of Mr. "E. A. Wright" (that is, "He ay [isn't] right," a phrase implying someone is saft [soft] in the jed [head]). Saft also may mean silly as in, "Stop bein' so saft".
The Birmingham and Coventry accents are distinct, even though the cities are only 19 miles/30 km apart. Coventry being closer to an East Midlands accent.
Around Stoke-on-Trent, the short i can sometimes sound rather like ee, as very obvious when hearing a local say it, however this is not always the case as most other words such as "miss" or "tip" are still pronounced as normal. The Potteries accent is perhaps the most distinctly 'northern' of the West Midlands accents, given that the urban area around Stoke-on-Trent is close to the Cheshire border.
The PRICE vowel has a very far back starting-point, and can be realised as [ɑɪ].
Yod-dropping, as in East Anglia, can be found in some areas[where?], for example new as /nuː/, sounding like "noo".
The u vowel of words like strut is often [ʊ], with no distinction between putt and put. In Lincolnshire, such sounds are even shorter than in the North.
In Leicester, words with short vowels such as up and last have a northern pronunciation, whereas words with vowels such as down and road sound rather more like a south-eastern accent. The vowel sound at the end of words like border (and the name of the city) is also a distinctive feature.
Lincolnshire also has a marked north–south split in terms of accent. The north shares many features with Yorkshire, such as the open a sound in "car" and "park" or the replacement of take and make with tek and mek. The south of Lincolnshire is close to Received Pronunciation, although it still has a short Northern a in words such as bath.
Mixing of the words was and were when the other is used in Standard English.
The town of Corby in northern Northamptonshire has an accent with some originally Scottish features, apparently due to immigration of Scottish steelworkers. It is common in Corby for the GOAT set of words to be pronounced with /oː/. This pronunciation is used across Scotland and most of Northern England, but Corby is alone in the Midlands in using it.
There are several accent features which are common to most of the accents of northern England (Wells 1982, section 4.4).
Northern English tends not to have /ʌ/ (strut, but, etc.) as a separate vowel. Most words that have this vowel in RP are pronounced with /ʊ/ in Northern accents, so that put and putt are homophonous as [pʊt]. But some words with /ʊ/ in RP can have [uː] in the more conservative Northern accents, so that a pair like luck and look may be distinguished as /lʊk/ and /luːk/.
The accents of Northern England generally do not use a /ɑː/. so cast is pronounced [kast] rather than the [kɑːst] pronunciation of most southern accents. This pronunciation is found in the words that were affected by the trap–bath split.
For many speakers, the remaining instances of RP /ɑː/ instead becomes [aː]: for example, in the words palm, cart, start, tomato.
The vowel in dress, test, pet, etc. is slightly more open, transcribed by Wells as [ɛ] rather than [e].
The "short a" vowel of cat, trap is normally pronounced [a] rather than the [æ] found in traditional Received Pronunciation and in many forms of American English.
In most areas, the letter y on the end of words as in happy or city is pronounced [ɪ], like the i in bit, and not [i]. This was considered RP until the 1990s. The longer [i] is found in the far north and in the Merseyside area.
The phonemes /eɪ/ (as in face) and /oʊ/ (as in goat) are often pronounced as monophthongs (such as [eː] and [oː]). However, the quality of these vowels varies considerably across the region, and this is considered a greater indicator of a speaker's social class than the less stigmatised aspects listed above.
Some dialect words used across the North are listed in extended editions of the Oxford Dictionary with a marker "North England": for example, the words ginnell and snicket for specific types of alleyway, the word fettle for to organise, or the use of while to mean until. The best-known Northern words are nowt, owt and summat, which are included in most dictionaries. For more localised features, see the following sections.
The "present historical" is named after the speech of the region, but it is often used in many working class dialects in the south of England too. Instead of saying "I said to him", users of the rule would say, "I says to him". Instead of saying, "I went up there", they would say, "I goes up there."
In the far north of England, the local speech is indistinguishable from Scots. Wells said that northernmost Northumberland "though politically English is linguistically Scottish".
The Liverpool accent, known as Scouse colloquially, is quite different from the accent of surrounding Lancashire. This is because Liverpool has had many immigrants in recent centuries, particularly of Irish people. Irish influences on Scouse speech include the pronunciation of unstressed 'my' as 'me', and the pronunciation of 'th' sounds like 't' or 'd' (although they remain distinct as dental /t̪//d̪/). Other features include the pronunciation of non-initial /k/ as [x], and the pronunciation of 'r' as a tap /ɾ/.
Wuthering Heights is one of the few classic works of English literature to contain a substantial amount of dialect. Set in Haworth, the servant Joseph speaks in the traditional dialect of the area, which many modern readers struggle to understand. This dialect was still spoken around Haworth until the late 1970s, but there is now only a minority of it still in everyday use.
To hear this old dialect spoken it is necessary to attend a cattle market at Skipton, Otley, Settle or similar places where older farmers from deep in the dales can be heard speaking in what can be baffling dialect to many southerners.
The accents for Teesside are sometimes grouped with Yorkshire and sometimes grouped with the North-East of England, for they share characteristics with both. As this urban area grew in the early 20th century, there are fewer dialect words that date back to older forms of English; Teesside speak is the sort of modern dialect that Peter Trudgill identified in his "The Dialects of England". There is a Lower Tees Dialect group. A recent study found that most people from Middlesbrough do not consider their accent to be "Yorkshire", but that they are less hostile to being grouped with Yorkshire than to being grouped with the Geordie accent.
Intriguingly, speakers from Middlesbrough are occasionally mistaken for speakers from Liverpool as they share many of the same characteristics. It is thought the occasional similarities between the Middlesbrough and Liverpool accent may be due to the high number of Irish migration to both areas during the late 1900s in fact the 1871 census showed Middlesbrough had the second highest proportion of people from Ireland after Liverpool.
Some examples of traits that are shared with [most parts of] Yorkshire include:
An /aː/ sound in words such as start, car, park, etc.
In common with the east coast of Yorkshire, words such as bird, first, nurse, etc. have an [ɛː] sound. It can be written as, baird, fairst, nairse'. [This vowel sound also occurs in Liverpool and Birkenhead].
Examples of traits shared with the North-East include:
People from the Furness peninsula in south Cumbria tend to have a more Lancashire-orientated accent, whilst the dialect of Barrow-in-Furness itself is a result of migration from the likes of Strathclyde and Tyneside. Barrow grew on the shipbuilding industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, and many families moved from these already well established shipbuilding towns to seek employment in Barrow.
Dialects in this region are often known as Geordie (for speakers from the Newcastle upon Tyne area) or Mackem (for speakers from the Sunderland area). The dialects across the region are broadly similar however some differences do exist. For example, with words ending -re/-er, such as culture and father, the end syllable is pronounced by a Newcastle native as a short 'a', such as in 'fat' and 'back', therefore producing "cultcha" and "fatha" for "culture" and "father" respectively. The Sunderland area would pronounce the syllable much more closely to that of other accents. Similarly, Geordies pronounce "make" in line with standard English: to rhyme with take. However, a Mackem would pronounce "make" to rhyme with "mack" or "tack" (hence the origin of the term Mackem). For other differences, see the respective articles. For an explanation of the traditional dialects of the mining areas of County Durham and Northumberland see Pitmatic.
A feature of the North East accent, shared with Scots and Irish English, is the pronunciation of the consonant cluster -lm in coda position. As an example, "film" is pronounced as "fillum". Another of these features which are shared with Scots is the use of the word 'Aye', pronounced like 'I', its meaning is yes.
^Shorrocks, Graham (1998). A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area. Pt. 1: Introduction; phonology. Bamberger Beiträge zur englischen Sprachwissenschaft; Bd. 41. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. p. 90. ISBN3-631-33066-9.
^Liverpool Journal; Baffling Scouse Is Spoken Here, So Bring a Sensa YumaInternational Herald Tribune, 15 March 2005. "While most regional accents in England are growing a touch less pronounced in this age of high-speed travel and 600-channel satellite systems, it seems that the Liverpool accent is boldly growing thicker. ... migrating London accents are blamed for the slight changes in regional accents over the past few decades. ... That said, the curator of English accents and dialects at the British Library said the Northeast accents, from places like Northumberland and Tyneside, were also going stronger."
^Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). The Atlas of North American English. chpt. 17.
^Ihalainen, Ossi (1992). "The Dialects of England since 1776". In The Cambridge History of the English language. Vol. 5, English in Britain and Overseas: Origins and Development, ed. Robert Burchfield, p. 255-258. Cambridge University Press.
^This traditional feature of rhoticity in Lancashire is increasingly giving way to non-rhoticity: Beal, Joan (2004). "English dialects in the North of England: phonology". A Handbook of Varieties of English (pp. 113-133). Berlin, Boston: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 127.
^[ɪ] defines the Central Midlands (centred on Nottingham and Derby).
^[uː] defines the East Midlands (centred on Leicester and Rutland) and partly defines the South Midlands (centred on Northampton and Bedford).
^[eː] defines South Humberside or North Lincolnshire (centred on Scunthorpe).
^[ɪo] defines the South Midlands (centred on Northampton and Bedford).
^[eː] defines the Lower Southwest (Cornwall and Devon).