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Looking for a British Accent? Turns Out, There’s No Such Thing

Year after year, the demand for voice over actors who speak with unique accents and dialects continues to increase. In 2017 alone, on Voices.com, the demand for ‘British English’ voices grew by 12%.

However, before you describe the sounds of the UK, or even England for that matter, as a British accent, think again!

Chances are, what you’re thinking of is actually called ‘RP’ or Received Pronunciation. In truth though, the names of the different accents of the United Kingdom are as diverse as the populations and regions of this culturally-rich group of countries.

The Myth of the British Accent

Although many people sum up the sounds of England as a ‘British accent,’ no such thing exists. However, because so many people use this term when they’re searching for a UK sound, Voices.com has set up a page where you can explore voice actors with British accents.

Ultimately though, you need to know that there are a number of distinct, and unique accents and dialects that have origins within the UK, each of which have their own name. And just in case you’re wondering, an accent relates to how you sound when you speak, whereas a dialect refers to the words you use. With a dialect,  there can be variations in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

Note: This article explores UK accents – including their characteristic sounds and origins, but does not address dialects.

Different Types of UK Accents and the Countries they Belong to

Many people are surprised to learn that the UK is more than Great Britain – and in fact, consists of four countries, which are listed below. Here are some of the accents you’ll find in each UK country.

  1. Northern Ireland
    • Accent example:
      • Northern Irish accent
  2. Britain
    • Accent examples:
      • Newcastle/Geordie
      • Lancashire
      • Liverpool
      • Birmingham
      • Estuary – sounds almost Australian
      • Cockney
      • RP
      • Welsh
      • Somerset
      • Cornish
  3. Scotland
    • Accent examples:
      • Glasgow/Glaswegian
      • Edinburgh
  4. Wales
    • Accent example:
      • Welsh

Note: This list is far from all-encompassing! There are many, many more that are not mentioned.

What UK Accents Sound Like

As a fun way to help people discover and sample UK accents and dialects from a few of the different regions, Expedia put together this map:

The Accent Map by Expedia.co.uk

UK Accents and Dialect Descriptions

If you’ve had fun clicking around Expedia’s UK accent and dialect map, you may notice that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between the different sounds. This is normal, especially for the untrained ear.

Here are a few descriptions of some of the accents and dialects to help you tell the difference between various UK accents.

Received Pronunciation or RP Explanation

When the rest of the world thinks of a ‘British accent,’ Received Pronunciation or ‘RP,’ is usually the sound that they’re imagining. RP does not have a link to any particular region. Unlike some of the other distinguished sounds of the UK, RP is an accent and not a dialect (speakers are communicating in Standard English).

Characteristics of the RP Accent

While many other accents tend to drop or modify the sounds of certain letters, an RP accent is more apt to hit the sounds of each letter in a word. However, a speaker may occasionally drop the sound of certain letters – like dropping the ‘t’ in water.

RP Accent Example: Kate Middleton and Prince William

The Manchester (Mancunian) Accent

Appropriately, the Manchester dialect and accent, Mancunian, originates from those who reside in the North West England city of Manchester, and its surrounding area.

Characteristics of the Mancunian Accent

Some characteristics of this sound include dropping the ‘r’ and ‘t’ at the end of words, (roar). The ‘t’ is also dropped when it’s in the middle of words, and is substituted with a ‘glottal stop’ (e.g. letter becomes le’ah). Another characteristic also includes dropping the ‘h’ sound at the beginning of a word, so a word like ‘hand’ becomes ‘and.’

The Cockney Accent

This East-London accent is technically reserved for those who are born within earshot of Bow Bells, which are the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in the Cheapside district. However, Cockney is also sometimes used to describe the accent of London’s working class.

Characteristics of the Cockney Accent

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Cockney is the replacement of the ‘th’ sound with an ‘f’ sound – for example, ‘thank’ sounds more like ‘fank.’ They may also drop the ‘h’ sound as well, making words such as ‘have’ sound more like ‘ave.’

The Birmingham or ‘Brummie’ Accent

A map of the UK shows the entire country highlighted in red with the cities of Birmingham and London depicted by placemarkersYou may have already guessed it, but the Birmingham or ‘Brummie’ accent is linked to those from Birmingham, although the geographic delineations aren’t exactly precise. There are a wealth of other accents that are close to Birmingham and can seem similar to the untrained ear (for example, just 31 miles away from Birmingham, people may have a Coventry accent).

Characteristics of a Birmingham Accent

Brummie is famous for its difficulty to master. It tends to be that you’re either born into it, or you’re going to spend years trying to learn it, and even then, you may not be successful. This accent has been described as both gruff, and lilting. A common mistake for those who are trying to pick up the accent, is to make it sound similar to a drawl, when really it’s fast, and urban. You simply just have to hear it to understand (tip: the Expedia map above has a sample for you to try!)

The London Accent

A map of the UK shows the entire country highlighted in red with the cities of Birmingham and London depicted by placemarkersNow that you’re starting to get an image of the diversity of accents in the UK, you may not be as surprised to learn that a London accent isn’t a real thing either… Or rather, it’s not just one sound, but at least three.

Cockney, mentioned above, originates from East England, and ‘Estuary’ is another accent from London, referring specifically to those who live around the river. RP (mentioned above) is the third accent you’re likely to find in London.

Characteristics of the Estuary Accent

According to Pronunciation Studio, “Estuary speakers would certainly drop the /h/ in function words, particularly where they appear in the middle of sentences. For example, “Where’s he gone?” may sound like “Where’s ‘e gone?”

The Wales or Welsh English Accent

A map of the UK shows Wales highlighted in redWales is a country within Great Britain, and like many of the other countries and territories, the speakers from this particular geography have a very distinctive sound.

Characteristics of the Welsh Accent

According to Babbel Magazine, the melodic Welsh English accent places a slight trill on the letter “r.” This is also a trait of Scottish accents, and illustrates the Celtic influence that underpins a Welsh English accent. Interestingly, the Welsh accent doesn’t tend to place emphasis on any particular part of the word (e.g. standard English might hit the ‘lang’ in language harder than the rest of the word, whereas Welsh emphasizes the entire word equally).

The Glasgow or Glaswegian Accent

A map of the UK shows Scotland highlighted in red with two placemarkers showing where the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are locatedThe Glasgow accent of Scotland is often described as gruff and guttural, although it’s also quite pleasant! In a recent survey, British Airlines uncovered that Glaswegian is one of America’s favorite accents.

Characteristics of the Glaswegian Accent

Glaswegian is famous for its use of a glottal stop while dropping a ‘t’ from words. For instance, a phrase like “Pass the water bottle,” quickly becomes “Pass the wa’er bo’le.” Because Glasgow has had a historical role as a major port, the influence of immigration from Scottish Highlanders, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European people have all contributed to its unique sounds and dialect.

Glaswegian Accent Example: Scottish Actor James McAvoy

The Scottish Accent of Edinburgh

A map of the UK shows Scotland highlighted in red with two placemarkers showing where the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are locatedCompared to Glasgow, Edinburgh is farther West. And even though it’s only about an hour’s drive away, the accent is different from Glasgow’s.

Characteristics of Edinburgh Accent

Edinburgh’s accent is slightly softer than Glasgow’s, and has also been described as ‘rounder,’ almost as though there’s an influence from London, England. Interestingly, and similar to London, Edinburgh has a range of accents, from those characterized as ‘posh’ or upper-class, and those that are linked to the working class.

Edinburgh Accent Example: David Elliot is from Edinburgh

The Northern Irish Accent

A map of the UK shows Northern Ireland highlighted in redWith its close proximity to Scotland and England (it’s only a ferry ride away), the Northern Irish accent is influenced by surrounding populations.

Characteristics of Northern Irish Accent

All Irish accents tend to pronounce the ‘ru’ sound after a vowel, such as in words like ‘first,’ and ‘farther.’ However, the ‘r’ sound is closer to the English West Country accent than the rolled ‘r’ that is characteristic of Scottish English. According to the British Library, “Northern Irish English has a distinctive intonation pattern and a broad Northern Irish accent is characterised by a very noticeable tendency to raise the pitch towards the end of an utterance, even if the speaker is not asking a question.”

Note: This is just one of several Irish accents. Northern Ireland and its neighboring country, the Republic of Ireland are very diverse!

Northern Irish Accent Example: Actress Laura Donnelly

What Other UK Accents Do You Know and Love?

What we’ve listed out above is just a drop in the bucket and doesn’t give full credence to the diversity of accents and dialects in the UK.

Which ones would you like to see included? How would you describe them?

Are there certain accents that you feel drawn to more than others?

Bonus: If you’re a voice over actor, you might be interested in learning more about the UK Voice Acting Industry.

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