Was it something I said? – Accents and dialects of the world and Great Britain

Over the weekend it was a revealed in a Time Magazine survey that we British apparently have the most sexy accent in the world.  Whilst not sure how many from Tanzania or Mongolia were surveyed, we sure are grateful to all our English speaking and European friends.

I must say though that I find it a little puzzling.  Perhaps in the same way that no-one finds their sister or brother to be attractive no matter how good they look, it works similarly with our voices and all us Brits are going about our lives genetically inhibited from seeing just how amazing our voices are?

Graphic from Metro Newspaper

Graphic from Metro Newspaper

The thing is, there are hundreds if not thousands of accents in Britain.  Apparently we have the most unique and distinct accents in the world and more than the entire continent of North America and Carribean islands put together.  It is said that police have specialists that can identify where a suspect lives within around 2 streets just by their accent alone.  How can this be?  Well we were invaded plenty of times by Romans, Norwegians, Danes, Germans, Normans and Irish and in the millennia since all that finished most of our ancestors didn’t ever leave their village.  It was rare indeed to go more than one days walk away from home and one of the main reasons people would go on pilgrimages to Rome or Jerusalem was because it offered them a rare chance of travel.

So much like how an animal species trapped on an isolated island begins to evolve its own unique features, so the people in our villages had their languages develop in splendid isolation.  I can certainly remember visiting my Grandparents village and having them tell me time and again how no-one could understand the people at the next village, no more than 2 or 3 miles away.

Accents and Dialects of the UK  (clickable map of UK accents with sound clips)

In more recent centuries we were the destination for many from the Low Countries, East Europe and in the last 50 years from Asia, Africa and the West Indies.  So much so that many of the youth of London speak in an accent with distinctly Indian and Jamaican characteristics.

So when we are told that we British have the sexiest accents we can only presume it isn’t the residents of Broughton Moor who make the world go weak at the knees.  We’d guess that people are swooning over accents from the London area.  Broadly speaking these fall into cockney, the working class stereotypical accents of cheeky chappy Londoners in movies from the 60’s or Oliver Twist type stories.  This accent itself is dying out to be replaced not just by Jafiacan (Black British / London Jamaican / Creole / working class white), by Estuary English which is a blend of Cockney and Essex whilst lots of other parts of London have their own take on things.  This can be typified by the great Ray Winstone in one of his many great London gangster film roles.  Many others in London speak much posher and no doubt includes the typical British accent at least to foreign ears.  It’s called Received Pronunciation or RP for short.  RP is spoken by the Queen, the Prime Minister David Cameron, most people who attend Oxford, Cambridge or on the BBC news or TV shows such as Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock.  They also tend to become Hollywood villains in big movies as the fact that they can speak so precisely and cleverly obviously means we can’t just accept that they are better educated than us, they must actually also be evil.  Alan Rickman in Die Hard is one of countless examples. Speakers of RP number perhaps 4-5% of the population.

Despite this being the 21st century, many people admit to changing their accents depending on their job or social situation. Some people with perfectly good working class accents try to appear more well-spoken to get on in life whilst others with RP accents sometimes modify their speaking patterns to appear less rich and less educated than they really are with former Prime Minister Tony Blair doing this coming across with an increasingly Mockney accent from the London area despite being Scottish born and spending all his time in the NorthEast of England where generally people would never dream of speaking that way.

Geordie Accent

The Newcastle – Geordie Accent is the sexiest. You blog for 2.5 years and never have a photo of Cheryl Cole and then it’s two in one post.

It’s interesting how much people take note of voices and how much of our appreciation for accents is media-led.  Most British people if they have to pick an attractive foreign voice will go for French or Italian and there is something in the idea that the voices we find attractive are similar to our own but just different enough to be a little exotic.  Is it the French life-style and culture we adore that makes us like their voices in comparison to German or Russian voices which isn’t very fair as there are plenty of attractive people from those countries.

I was lucky enough to go to Uni in a very multicultural college where I was often the only English person present and from time to time accents came up in conversation.  Some French people didn’t actually like strong French accents and thought they made the speakers sound slow or stupid so maybe it is true that we can’t find our own voices attractive.  Guy De Maupassant wrote a short story of a character who met an English lady and it was her accent that made him love her the most but interestingly it was also her accent that he tired of first when things took a turn for the worst.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8mzWkuOxz8  (Video of different accents)

Most British people if they hear an American or indeed Canadian accent, will if they don’t see that persons face assume they are highly attractive but this is largely due to Hollywood films feature actors with model looks from California or New York.  If they hear an accent from elsewhere in North America, less positive stereotypes might lead them to think less glamorous ideas of what that person may look like.

If then we have preconceptions based on foreign voices then it is re-assuring to know that in this island of so many accents, we do at least make judgements of other accents on these shores.  Happily coming from the city of Newcastle in N.E. England, I can proudly say that this city is most frequently thought to have the speakers with the most attractive, honest and happy-sounding voice.  Speakers from Edinburgh, Northern Ireland, parts of Wales and the West Country also continually rate highly.    However West Country voices also rate badly amongst some for making their speakers come over as slow and backwards as do those in parts of East Anglia.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyyT2jmVPAk  (Funny video of different accents giving examples of media personalities)

Personally I like the voices of those from Liverpool but apparently they too get perceived badly, their voices somehow reflecting the negative image of crime and poverty the city endured in recent decades.    Nearby Manchester rates more positively, I wonder if because the city now has a trendy and booming reputation.  If you really can judge people by their accents then I think the Yorkshire accents are hard to beat.  A little bit blunt, tough but friendly and exactly what most people would say about Yorkshire inhabitants themselves.

Graphic from Metro Newspaper

Graphic from Metro Newspaper

Towards the bottom are the Essex/Mockney/ Estuary accents which seemingly everyone else who doesn’t speak that way, hates.  Pity though the poor people of Birmingham in the West Midlands, they and their near neighbours with Black Country accents are almost always derided for the way they speak.  I don’t mind it myself but I know what people mean about it.  I always remember Nigel Mansell who won the Formula 1 World Championship on more than occasion and when ever he was interviewed on television he came over as very, very bored and unexcited by his achievements.  However it’s worth bearing in mind that William Shakespeare would have had a broad Black Country accent so remember that when you next hear Sir Patrick Stewart or Sir Ian Mckellen spouting their RP accents.

As for me well I just don’t know.  I never had a strong Newcastle accent and I always made sure that I never ended up with a cockney or Mockney accent. Moving as a child when I was 8, I spent much of my childhood getting bullied for my accent but I made absolutely no effort to conceal it.  These day often people can’t really place it at all which suits me fine. Very middle of the road I guess and as someone who never uses slang and takes care to pronounce properly, probably a slight mix of North Eastern Geordie, Middle-England and the preciseness of RP. I totally hate my voice which I guess is normal but often get told by foreign visitors how great it is.

My wife who is foreign born like many others expects everyone in England to speak something like Cary Grant or Benedict Cumberbatch and was rather surprised or even disappointed to find this is just the style of a few people.  However, she has often told me that one of the things she likes best is my old fashioned way of speaking so if the only thing I share with Benedict Cumberbatch is a vocal style well then I will happily take that!

One thing that did happen to me more than once last year when I was giving tours in London and waiting for my group to come off the London Eye, groups of passing tourists told me that I was the only person they had encountered in their week in London that had what they thought to be the perfect English accent.  One group of Chinese female students even asked to have their photo taken with me but I’m not sure how that helped with the whole accent thing.

Certainly I love hearing voices from all round the world and all around my country.  Nothing beats a nice Geordie voice  but I really do like Edinburgh, Welsh, Manchester and West Country accents.  Whilst I love Ray Winstone I’m afraid I’m not a fan generally of others who speak like him.  My wife and I often do impressions at home and amongst others I like to think I do a great Australian, Texan and South African impression as well as various European accents with nowhere in the UK safe whilst my wife does the best Russian gangster voice this side of the Urals.

Graphic from Metro newspaper

Graphic from Metro newspaper

Accents are always changing and some local accents are becoming extinct as television encourages the adoption of Estuary English to many within the London area but all it needs is one celebrity with a nice voice from elsewhere to totally change pre-conceptions such as Cheryl Cole, Ant and Dec from Newcastle who have almost single-handedly taken the Geordie accent to prominence.  Of course it is far from the sexy British voice that foreigners imagine, Cheryl Cole recently appeared on an American reality music show and left after just a few shows as the audience weren’t able to understand her!

There isn’t anyone really who I like just because of their voice but I suppose there are worse than Lady Mary on Downton Abbey who I think has wonderful diction and Received Pronunciation. I really don’t mind any accent so long as the actors speak clearly but these days with background music and the idea that the actors have to sound ordinary means she really stands out these days.

A vaguely accurate map of the main British accents.

A vaguely accurate map of the main British accents.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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22 Responses to Was it something I said? – Accents and dialects of the world and Great Britain

  1. Beachbums1 says:

    Great post. As we traveled around the UK (we lived in London for a year), it was fun to hear the regional accents. My favorite is the Glasgow accent. My daughter got very good at identifying where people came from just from hearing them speak. Me not so much. Once WE started speaking, there were people who wanted to guess where in the States we came from ~ always a good conversation starter.


    • I’m glad that you enjoyed it. Yes the Glasgow accent is great, so passionate! Generally I can guess the right city people are from or within 20-30 miles if they live in a village. Guessing where people come is a lot of fun. For the USA I can usually differentiate between California, Texas, Georgia, New York, Boston, New England and Great Lakes/Mid West. It still leaves plenty of states though where I am guessing a little.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating post! Just as in the U.K., many of the especially regional accents are fading because television voices, especially on the news, tends to set a standard for a smoother speech pattern. The other element is that Americans move around. A lot. Are people in Great Britain more likely to stay put in the area where they were born?


    • Here you can still meet older people just 40 miles from London and they have subtle accents but the younger people sound more similar. Generally though people do move around quiet a lot. It wasn’t really the case until the 1970s and 80s. You still get a certain percentage though that never want to move but its quite rare to find someone living in the same area as where their Grandparents were born.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for commenting as always.


  3. Ugh. A few words didn’t make it from my head to my keyboard there. My comment should have said, “many of the especially regional accents IN THE U.S. are fading because…”


  4. Being from a town that has something of a mild rivalry with Newcastle, it is by far my least favourite UK accent. And obviously, I think my Yorkshire one is the best. Can’t beat Yorkshire, really, can you?

    I love the Irish, Scottish and Welsh accents (Welsh is really sexy), but the English accent I most like is the West Country accent. It’s quite charming. It’s somewhat comical but lovely at the same time. However, southern accents in general grate on me (typical northerner). They really can’t seem to understand us. When I’ve been in London, I often have to repeat myself.

    The thing about Londoners that really grinds on me is they think everyone in the north is a Geordie, which, obviously, I’m offended by. When I retort with ‘all Londoners are Cockney’s’ they get offended but can’t see the irony. Always amused me…

    You are right that foreign-born people expect a posh British accent from all those British films with people speaking posh British accents, but most of those actors did have an accent at some point in their lives but were taught to get rid of it. Patrick Stewart was born I think about 40 miles away from me here in Yorkshire, for example.

    I do think he’s sounding more ‘Yorkshire’ the older he gets, mind.

    It would make for a very interesting Star Trek reunion…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh your comment did make me laugh, thank-you! I can understand that. Yes Londoners and Southerners in general seem to have a bit of a hearing problem for northern or Scottish/Welsh accents.

      As long ago re-located Geordie to London, it annoys me too in reverse as obviously I don’t want to particularly associate myself with rival towns and cities. It’s all down to their ignorance… which is one of the things that Northerners can unite about 🙂

      I think Yorkshire accents are great. I think Patrick was born in Huddersfield, I know he supports them in football (nice to see he sticks to his routes instead of becoming a glory supporter). Just once or twice in Star Trek when he shouts or gets angry you can pick up his Yorkshire accent but maybe that is just for people who are aware of it and to everyone else it is just English.

      I think a Yorkshireman speaking Klingon would be a sight to see but then the first time I took my wife to Newcastle we went in a market and there were some big broad butchers carrying half a cow on one shoulder and she said so many men there are like Klingons! I’ll take that as a compliment about their build and hard drinking antics rather than something bad!!

      There needs to be more Yorkshire and Tyneside/Northumbria on TV, it seems to be all Manchester these days. I can’t think of much in Yorkshire at all these days apart from Emmerdale and Northumbria just seems to be murders like Inspector Gently and Vera.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ooh, love George Gently. Some of that was filmed in my hometown. The bits about the houses being pulled down. Which is ironic, because in real life, the council is trying to evict the residents to pull their houses down. Talk about art imitating life…

        I would’ve loved an episode of Star Trek where there was a red alert, Stewart came out onto the bridge in a flat cap and pipe, and proudly said in a thick Yorkshire twang:

        “E’ by ‘eck as like, it’s the Romulans! I tell ya, that lot couldn’t organise a pee up in a brewery! Well, I’ll go to’t foot of’t stairs – I’m well ratty ‘bout this bunch of rum’ns! Oi, Riker, love, got any ideas about what to do with these numpties?”

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Ankur Mithal says:

    Interesting and informative, as always. We now have a fairly regular exposure to British accents thanks to the EPL my kids watch regularly. It is quite interesting to see accents of commentators set-off against one another.


    • Yes there is quite a wide variety of accents on the football commentary, in the UK that is probably where you can hear the greatest range as most television shows have quite a narrow range or accents unfortunately.


  6. fascinating! I have to come back to this to linger. It is an oddity. I personally love some Scottish accents (not all) , Newcastle, and hate the Essex twang, but why???

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed it and you like the same accents that I do. I’m not sure why so many people hate the Essex accent. It just doesn’t sound nice, maybe it sounds lazy too. I wonder if it is also due to so many people on television speaking a variety of it that everyone else feels its being imposed on us.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Amy Reese says:

    This is fascinating, Stephen. I had no idea there were so many accents. We have our share here, but not as many. At least, I don’t think so. I’ve always enjoyed British accents. I think Americans are terribly boring!


    • It’s funny how we all like foreign accents. You probably only here London or RP accents on TV there with maybe the odd Scottish voice too. We only ever hear California or New York voice with just the odd Texan. Apparently the USA accents are becoming more apparent and regions are getting stronger accents so maybe in another 1 or 2 hundred years you will have lots more too.

      Liked by 1 person

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