Understanding British English Accents

By Bryony Stevens

Accents can be a funny thing to understand, as there are so many that exist. One of the most prominent languages and accents is British English. It covers most of the U.K.’s primary language selection, spanning across several more countries, such as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Although the language may seem difficult to comprehend at first, with enough time and patience, you can learn the basics of it, and potentially may have the ability to have a complete conversation with someone who uses British English.

What are British Accents?

A British accent is an accent that uses English as a language, but delivers distinct pronunciations of certain words in ways used in the United Kingdom. Typically, British accents are spoken with a more “flowery” substance than simplified English, or “American” English. These can cause problems for those who aren’t accustomed to the language, as some words have different definitions than simplified English. British accents can be divided into several different categories, the most popular being Received Pronunciation and Cockney.


Received Pronunciation

Received Pronunciation is the most commonly spoken language in the U.K. This language is non-regional, meaning it’s spoken by most in the area. This is the most famous accent, usually seen in movies and TV series that feature British actors/actresses. It’s also spoken by Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s Prime Ministers and by many newsreaders. This accent doesn’t typically use “r’s” at the end of words, making the speech more simple. “Mother” would be pronounced muthuh” masking the r sound at the end of the word. A sounds are typically more prominent, bath being pronounced with more emphasis on the a, making it broader and deeper. The American way of saying bath is with an a like in “cat.” More examples of words that Englishmen and -women say with a longer and deeper a are: rather, laugh, can’t and dance.

Cockney English

Cockney English is the second most popular version of British accents. It used to be a dialect spoken by working-class Londoners, but now a variant of Cockney English called Estuary English is spoken in much of the southern U.K. Cockney uses different vowel sounds, like “trap” in American being pronounced as “trep,” replacing the “a” sound with an “e” vowel sound. Similar to traditional English, Cockney uses non-rhoticity, which is the removing of r sounds at the end of words and before a consonant. Cockneys also change the sound of other vowels. They say words like day and pay almost like die and pie. And they say buy almost like boy. Cockneys swallow the t’s in words such as bottle, water and butter. Instead, they make a sound like they’re opening a bottle; this sound is produced in their throats (in their glottis). Here is a sample of how this sounds. And lastly, Cockneys tend to replace th at the beginning of words by f, but there are other British accents that do this as well. So if your th at the beginning of words isn’t the best, just say f and you will sound British!

Work on your accent! It’s never too late to improve your accent: Watch this instruction video on YouTube. Pretty good!

If you want to read more about British accents, I also recommend reading this blog post which explains all the different accents in the UK, and has sampled speech examples of famous people who speak with that particular accent. Very interesting and not too technical!


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