How many different English accents are there?

How can you tell one from the other? How does your accent affect your English teaching?

English is the most common official language in the world, with recognised status in over 50 countries – and as such, there is a wide variety of English accents across the globe.

English has developed, and suddenly you can’t understand a single word someone is saying! It can be hugely disappointing, can’t it? Many ELLs (English language learners) want to learn American, British, Australian, or Canadian English; lo and behold, they suddenly find themselves confused! There are almost 160 different English accents that exist all over the world. We cannot touch on all 160 different accents on this blog, so we will discuss the most common ones. Here are some of the most distinctive accents to listen out for.

Received Pronunciation

If you’ve ever tried to do a British accent, this is probably the one you were trying to imitate. It is the accent you’d typically hear on BBC News or World Service. Also known as ‘the Queen’s English’, it is often associated with the middle to upper classes. There is a more heightened version of received pronunciation or R.P as it’s also known, which is only really spoken on film and television. Think of Jane Austen films and Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey for reference.

Characteristics:

  • The ‘r’ at the end of words isn’t pronounced.
  • Trap-bath-split – meaning words like ‘bath’, ‘path’ and ‘dance’ are pronounced with a long ‘a’ [ɑː] sound as in the word ‘father’.
  • To practise heightened R.P. try pronouncing the word ‘mirror’ as ‘mere’ and the word ‘man’ as ‘men’.

You can listen to received pronunciation with the characters of Downton Abbey.

Cockney

Cockney is another iconic accent and one that you’ll instantly recognise. It is commonly associated with cockney rhyming slang and the language of market stall owners in the East End of London. However, a better, more accurate example can be heard in gangster films such as Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.

Characteristics:

  • Vowel sounds shift – words like ‘day’ sound like ‘die’, and ‘buy’ is more like ‘boy’.
  • Glottal stop – the letter ‘t’ is pronounced with the back of the throat and with less intensity, so words like ‘better’ sound more like ‘be’uh’.
  • The ‘th’ in words is pronounced as an ‘f’, so words like ‘think’ and ‘thing’ become ‘fink’ and ‘fing’.

Brummie

This is the accent in the midlands city of Birmingham. It also stretches to the surrounding areas, but it is distinctly different to the Coventry accent, which is only nineteen miles (thirty-six kilometres) away. What once was voted the worst accent in the U.K. has become a source of pride thanks to the hit T.V. series Peaky Blinders.

Characteristics:

  • Downward intonation at the end of sentences.
  • Changing vowel sounds – ‘oy’ is used instead of ‘i’ – so the sentence “I quite like it” sounds more like ‘Oy kwoyt loik it’.
  • Dropped ‘h’ sounds at the beginning of sentences.

Check out these Brummie accents in the T.V. series Peaky Blinders.

Yorkshire

Also known as God’s own country, Yorkshire is home to Leeds, York and Sheffield and is the largest county in the U.K. Because of the area’s size, there is a lot of variation within the Yorkshire accent. However, it is also considered one of the friendliest accents in the U.K. Another interesting fact about the Yorkshire accent is that it has roots in Old English and Old Norse, which was the language of the Vikings. This connection may explain why so many characters have the accent in the fantasy T.V. series  Game of Thrones.

Characteristics:

  • Words that generally end in an ‘ee’ sound are pronounced ‘eh’; for example, ‘happy’ sounds more like ‘appeh’, but the initial ‘h’ is not pronounced.
  • The word ‘the’ is often omitted, and the word ‘to’ is shortened to ‘t’ [tә].
  • Variants of words – for example, the words’ owt’ and ‘nowt’ mean ‘anything’ and ‘nothing’.

Geordie

High on the perplexing-to-foreigners British accent scale is Geordie (pronounced jor-dee). Spoken by the good folk of Newcastle and Tyneside in the northeast of England, it’s probably the hardest to understand of all the English accents and even baffles a lot of other Brits. The Geordie accent does not use the glottal stop in a usual fashion. Instead, a unique type of glottal stop characterises it. /p, t, k/ can all be pronounced simultaneously with a glottal stop after them in Geordie, both at the end of a syllable and sometimes before a weak vowel.

You can listen to the Geordie accent with the characters of Billy Elliot.

Scottish

If you’ve seen ‘Braveheart’, you may be confused in thinking that everyone in Scotland speaks like Mel Gibson in that movie. The Scottish accent and dialect are diverse and heavily influenced by the Gaelic language. Take the Edinburgh accent, for example, which is very soft. In contrast, you have a much thicker Glasgow accent, and speakers often cut their words. The spoken rhythms in the Highlands are very poetic and Scandanavian sounding. This is not dissimilar to the islands, which generally have stronger dialects and accents the more remote they are.

Characteristics:

  • The ‘r’ is pronounced and rolled.
  • Elongated vowel sounds – for example the word ‘face’ is pronounced ‘fehce’ [fe:s] and ‘goat’ becomes ‘goht’ [go:t].
  • Glottal stop – the letter ‘t’ is cut in between vowels. For example, the sentence “pass the water bottle” sounds more like “pass the wa’er bo’le”.

Listen to different Scottish accents from the movie Braveheart.

Welsh

Nearly 30% of people in Wales can speak Welsh – the dialect in English is therefore also heavily influenced by the Welsh language. This is particularly true in Northern Wales, where English is usually the second language in households, and the accent is thick and breathy. Southern Welsh accents, on the other hand, sound more clipped and musical – just like the singsong tones of Tom Jones.

Characteristics:

  • Use of a light ‘l’ sound on words like ‘milk’, ‘girl’, ‘small’ and ‘welcome’. This is made by releasing the ‘l’ sound rather than holding it with the tongue.
  • The syllables are evenly stressed, making it sound very melodic.
  • Rolled ‘r’ sounds.

Northern Irish

And last but not least on our list is the beautiful Northern Irish accent. Like the neighbouring country, the Republic of Ireland, the accents within this region vary. On top of that, many definitive words and phrases make the Northern Irish dialect distinctive. Take the word “wee”, for example, which means small (the same as in Scottish). And if anyone asks you, “what’s the craic?” you can be sure they’re asking you what your news is or what you’ve been doing.

Characteristics:

  • The ‘r’ at the end of sentences is exaggerated to sound like ‘arrr’.
  • Less rounded vowel sounds – when saying ‘ow’, the mouth is very tight – produce a very short ‘y’ sound instead of a ‘w’ in words like ‘cow’, ‘how’ and ‘now’.
  • Rising intonation at the end of sentences (even when it’s not a question).

An example of the Northern Irish accent can be heard on the T.V. series Derry Girls.

Irish

According to a 2018 survey by CEO World Magazine, the Irish accent was voted the second most attractive British accent in the world, after RP British English.

Key features:

  • Softened vowels
  • Hardened consonants – words like ‘think’ and ‘that’ often turn into ‘tink’ and ‘dat’ ‘i’ sounds change to ‘oi’ sounds – think of ‘Ireland’ as ‘Oireland’
  • ‘g’ sounds are dropped – ‘walking’ and ‘talking’ becomes ‘walkin’ and ‘talkin’

Hear it on screen: Carnival Row on Amazon Prime, Derry Girls (Northern Irish) on Netflix.

American – East Coast vs West Coast

All American accents have an easily detectable amount of twang, but there are differences between regional accents. These are some common differences between east and west coast accents:

  • Words with – or sounds like horrible, horror, and orange are pronounced like their spellings on the west coast, but on the east coast, they often pronounce them as ‘harrable’, ‘harrer’ and ‘arnge’.
  • Often – ‘ir’ sounds in an east coast accent turn into – ‘ar’ sounds. Words like fire and dryer sound like ‘far’ and ‘drar’.
  • Words with the ‘o’ sound in words like home are pronounced as written on the west coast, but some east coast accents have an ‘ay’ sound to them.

Hear it on screen in any American film or T.V. show – listen to Janice in Friends for a particularly nasal-sounding New York accent.

Suppose you are not a native American English speaker. In that case, you’ll probably find it difficult to distinguish between an American accent and a Canadian one, but there are some differences.

Key features:

  • Words with an ‘ou’ or ‘ue’ are typically pronounced ‘oo’ – ‘about’ becomes ‘aboot’ and ‘Tuesday’ becomes ‘Tooz-day’.
  • The letter ‘z’ is pronounced as ‘zed’, not ‘zee’ like in American accents.
  • ‘Eh’ (pronounced ‘hay’) instead of ‘huh’ is more common – ‘The weather is nice, eh?’ instead of ‘The weather is nice, huh?’.

Hear it on screen in Fargo on Netflix.

Australian

Like any other country, there are a variety of regional accents across Australia. Still, a general, mellow Aussie accent should be pretty easy to recognise. This is because the accent developed from colonists in the south of England. It is loosely related to the modern Cockney accent but with a bit of a twang.

Key features:

  • Words like ‘write’ and ‘drive’ with an ‘i’ sound become more like ‘oi’ sounds but are not overly emphasised.
  • Hard’ a’ sounds become softer ‘aye’ sounds, almost like an ‘eye’ sound – in words like ‘way’ and ‘date’.
  • Harsh ‘t’ sounds at the end of words are replaced with glottal stops – like stopping the end of the word in your throat. ‘R’ sounds are dropped and replaced with ‘ah’ sounds – ‘shiver’ becomes ‘shiv-ah’ and ‘car’ becomes ‘cah’.

Hear it on screen in Offspring and Secret City on Netflix.

Standard English

Even more confusing to non-English speakers, we now come to what we call Standard English. In everyday usage, standard English is considered the most widely accepted and understood within an English-speaking country or worldwide. It’s usually free of any attachment to class or region.

What are some examples of Standard English accents?

Listen to Standard English accent examples: Daniel Craig, Keira Knightly, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy and Helen Mirren.

 FAQS

How important are accents in my job as an English teacher? English?

Your accent is the way you sound when you speak. Accent describes the verbal personality of a native speaker as many accents are used worldwide according to different nations of the world. Many ELLs (English language learners) will eventually speak with the accent of their English teacher or the country where they are at.

Can my students understand me if I have a strong regional accent?

Pay attention to your enunciation. Tone down your accent and try articulating and pronouncing words. You can also help yourself by speaking slowly. When teaching ELLs (English language learners), regardless of their level, EFL teachers should always talk slower. We usually revert to our accent with other English speakers, so make sure you make that switch in class. With these tips in mind, you will be fine.

Conclusion

Different types of English accents are used in different countries and regions. So as long as you speak clearly and correctly, the accent is secondary. But, at our Online Trinity CertTESOL courses, we teach and show you the best way of getting your message through.