To speak of the British accent, in most parts of the world, means to speak of an extremely formal type of English known as Received Pronunciation (RP) or “The Queen’s English”.
What may come as a surprise to those visiting the UK for the first time is how uncommon this accent is amongst the British population, including those in positions of authority. Indeed, there are an incredible number of different British accents on this small island, indicating not only which part of the country the speaker is from, but also providing some idea of their upbringing and social class. For people outside of the UK some regional accents will be almost impossible to understand and it is quite useful for anyone studying English to gain as much exposure to different types of British accent as possible; this is particularly true if you aim to study or work here.
It is useful to first distinguish between accent and dialect. When we talk about accent, we are focusing on pronunciation. Dialect concerns not only pronunciation, but also expressions and phrases exclusive to certain regions. For an idea of the variations in dialect vocabulary one only has to consider the fifteen different names for the humble bread roll. This can prove confusing even for the native population. Indeed, anyone hoping for a sweet treat rather than a sandwich should avoid asking for a “barm cake” or “stottie cake” in the North of England.
Whilst it is usually possible for a native British English speaker to understand the accent of someone from another part of the country, particularly strong regional accents will sometimes be accompanied by subtitles- even in documentaries broadcast to a UK audience. It could be argued that dialects present a greater barrier to understanding than accents on their own. Although people encounter a variety of different British accents simply by watching television, their exposure to regional dialects is less.
Many Youtube users from the UK (and all around the world!) have uploaded videos of themselves reading from a list of words and answering a few simple questions to provide others with an idea of both pronunciation and dialect in their region. Check out a couple of examples from Liverpool in the north and Bristol in the south of England.
Perhaps the easiest indicator of which part of the country a person comes from is their pronunciation of the “a” sound in words such as “bath” and “grass”. The “long a”, which has been compared to the sound a person makes when the doctor examines their throat, is almost exclusively found in the South East of England. In contrast, using the short “a” for these words (/æ/ as in cat) tends to identify the speaker as coming from north of Hemel Hempstead, or thereabouts. People from the South West and East Anglia tend to use a combination of these sounds. However, regional accents are very hard to detect in people who have had a middle/upper class upbringing. This phonological map of the UK provides more detail on the differences in pronunciation by region.
The creator of this video successfully imitates accents from the UK and a variety of countries around the world (warning: some strong language!).
It is interesting to note that many of these “foreign” accents have been present in the UK for decades and that traces of them can be found in the speech of a lot of young people born in the UK who have no connection to the accent’s country of origin, mainly due to living in an ethnically diverse area or identifying with a certain lifestyle or social group.
For more information on types of British accents and to listen to audio recordings of speakers from various parts of the UK, visit the Dialects of English Archive.