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American vs British Accents, Dialects and Languages

My interest in social and cultural politics extends from my interest in genealogy and history and how they project into today's societies.

The city of Bristol in the West Country in England, which has its own Bristolian dialect.

The city of Bristol in the West Country in England, which has its own Bristolian dialect.

American vs British English

The American movie industry is second to none, and quite rightly so: Back to the Future, Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit are just some of my favourites.

However, although I’m continually exposed to the American language from watching TV, as a Brit the language always jars with me, for example:

  • ‘Pants’ and ‘chips’ have different meanings in Britain. What Americans call ‘pants’ is what we Brits call ‘trousers,’ to us ‘pants’ is ‘underpants’; and ‘fries’ in America is what we call ‘chips,’ whereas what Americans call ‘chips’ is what we call ‘crisps.’
  • The British words for ‘can’ and ‘garbage’ are ‘tin’ and ‘rubbish,’ respectively.
  • ‘Math’ is pronounced and spelt differently in Britain—we say ‘maths’ (with an ‘s’ on the end).
  • ‘Garage’ is pronounced so differently in America that it never sounds right to a Brit.

American vs British English Words

This kneejerk reaction to the American language (which Brits have) seems rather odd, considering all the different accents and dialects we’re accustomed to in our own country. We love our own cultural differences, even where local dialects from different regions can sometimes be incomprehensible to us if we are not from those regions.

I don’t know how many regional accents there are across Britain, but there are at least 30 (if not more) and dozens more across Ireland; considering how small Britain is compared to America, I think that’s quite impressive.

To hear the spoken word is the only real way to appreciate the great diversity of these accents, dialects and languages across the UK. Therefore, a broad sample of the variant accents, dialects and languages in the UK are demonstrated in this article with the aid of YouTube.

British vs American English

Americans Attempting to Pronounce British Place Names

Place names are rarely pounced the way they are spelt; so hearing Americans trying to pronounce British places is amusing, especially the Welsh town names.

Therefore, you may find the following two videos rather entertaining and educational; and hopefully, they set the scene for the rest of this article.

Americans Try to Pronounce UK Place Names

Americans Try to Pronounce Welsh Town Names

Received Pronunciation

The Standard British English, which is only spoken by 2% of the British population, is ‘Received Pronunciation.’

It’s the posh version of the language, with the two main versions being BBC English and the Queen’s English.

Received Pronunciation: The Posh British English Accent

Accents and Dialects of Britain

97% of the British population speak with a regional accent or dialect.

In order to appreciate this rich diversity of the English language in Britain, it helps to understand the fundamental difference between accent and dialect:

  • An accent is the way words are pronounced in a language (e.g., the Texan accent compared to the accent of a New Yorker.)
  • A dialect is where the words (and grammar) within a language are specific to a particular region.

Although there are many dozens of dialects throughout Britain, most Brits become familiar with the more common phrases and words spoken in many of these dialects.

Samples of 30 Different British Accents

Understanding the Diversity of British Accents

When I visited Scotland on holiday years ago, and we spent an evening in a local pub in Glasgow, once my ears were accustomed to the local accent (which took about half an hour), I was able to understand the gist of most of their dialect.

So when Scottish people say something like:

  • “Cannae ye see that lassie with the wee bairn.”

I automatically understand it to mean:

  • “Can you see that young lady with the small baby.”

London Accents and Dialects

The four main London accents and dialects are:

  1. Received Pronunciation (less than 2% of the population).
  2. Cockney (which has world fame).
  3. Estuary English (which is the up-and-coming London accent for the working class)
  4. The ‘Multicultural London English (the new London Street dialect, which includes words like ‘brov’ for ‘friend’).

How to Do an Estuary Accent

Cockney

Cockney is by far the most famous London dialect, historically most prevalent in the East End of London. Much of it has since found its way into common daily use throughout the world (e.g., ‘rabbit’), which means ‘talk a lot.’

The distinctive difference between the East End and the West End of London is that the East End is where the working class lives, and the West End is where all the wealth is.

Cockney originated in the East End of London sometime in the early 19th century as a street code that only traders and criminals understood.

The video below gives a good insight into Cockney in a more succinct way than I could describe if I tried to explain it in writing.

How to Speak Cockney

Multicultural London English

In recent years Cockney has largely been displaced from London by MLE (Multicultural London English) as the new street language. Although Cockney hasn’t disappeared altogether, it’s moved predominantly into Kent, displacing the Kent accent, as Londoners have moved out into the suburbs.

MLE as the New London Dialect Explained

Bristolian

My son and I are Bristolian born and bred, so we speak the Bristolian dialect with a Bristolian accent. In time, someone moving to Bristol from London may pick up the Bristolian accent, but they’ll never likely pick up the dialect, although their children might.

An example of the Bristolian dialect:

  • “Ark at ee! Wants to be a real keener when it comes to the native tongue? To get stuck into Brizzle life, go grabs a glider and top up your lingo innit.”

A loose translation is:

  • “Look at him! He wants to work hard at learning the native tongue? To get stuck into Bristol life, you need to buy a cider in a pub and listen to the locals talking; isn’t that right.”

Song of Bristol With Chorus Sung in Bristolian

Different UK Languages

The UK (United Kingdom) isn’t one country. It’s made up of four separate Kingdoms united through treaties, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In the last two thousand years, England has been conquered and occupied a number of times by invading forces, including the:

  • Romans (43 AD to 410 AD)
  • Angles, Saxons and Jutes (5th century to 1066)
  • Vikings, in northern England (from 793 AD until 1066)
  • Normans in 1066.

However, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall were never fully occupied by invading forces at any time. Therefore, although Ancient Britains (Celts) in England were assimilated into Roman life, then Anglo-Saxon society and finally Norman culture, the Celts in the other parts of Britain never were.

Therefore the Gaelic languages in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall have survived to this day as a secondary language. Although they are all Gaelic-speaking countries they are (with the exception of Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic) distinctively different from each other. So understanding Scottish doesn’t help you to understand Welsh or Cornish. For example:

  • The Welsh word for Wales is ‘Cymru,’ and the Cornish word for Cornwall is ‘Kernow.’

Difference Between the UK, GB and England Explained

Scotland

Scotland became part of Great Britain under the Treaty of Union of 1707. Although it is now part of the UK, in 1979, the Scottish people voted in favour of a Scottish Assembly as part of Devolved powers. Then in another referendum in 1997, they voted yes to having their own Parliament and Government.

Since then, the Scottish Parliament, which has wide sweeping powers, has been controlled by a Scottish left-wing Socialist Government, so in recent years its policies have often been out of step with the British right-wing Conservative Government (e.g., university education being free in Scotland, while the British Government imposes an annual £9,000 fee for universities in the rest of the UK.)

As regards the Scottish languages, this is where I get a little confused. As well as the various Scottish dialects such as Glaswegian (which is an English language), they also have their own languages, including the ‘Scots’ language and the ‘Scottish Gaelic’ language. Both the Scots and Scottish Gaelic languages are Celtic (Gaelic) in origin and are very similar to the Irish languages because of the close historical ties between the two nations.

However, only about 1% of the population in Scotland speaks Scottish Gaelic, whereas, in contrast, about 30% of the population can speak Scots (the two often being confused, even by Scottish people themselves).

I think a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that the Scots are a Celtic tribe from Ireland, while the original Celts in Scotland were the Picts.

Scottish Gaelic

Ireland

Since the Act of Union 1801 Ireland was a subordinate part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain; until the Irish civil war of 1922. As part of a peace agreement following the civil war, Southern Ireland split from Britain to form its own Republic, while Northern Ireland remained under the control of Britain.

Subsequently, following the 30 years of civil unrest in Northern from the early 1970s, as part of the peace agreement Northern Ireland is now jointly ruled by the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain (Power Sharing). Obviously, the people of Northern Ireland elect their own representatives to the Northern Ireland Parliament, candidates who are citizens of Northern Ireland; but to explain it in any greater depth is beyond the scope of this article.

As regards the Irish languages, due to the close historical ties between Scotland and Ireland, their languages are very similar. So that although there are subtle differences between the Irish and Scottish languages, if you know the one you can generally understand the other.

Irish Lesson #1 – Introductions

Guide to Irish Accents

Wales

Welsh is a Gaelic (Celtic) language, with the welsh word for ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ being ‘Cymru’ and ‘Cymraeg,’ respectively.

Unlike Scotland, in the 1979 referendum, the Welsh people voted against ‘Devolved Powers’. It wasn’t until the 1997 referendums (when Scotland voted to have its own Parliament) that the welsh people voted in favour of a Welsh Assembly.

An Assembly doesn’t have as much power as a Parliament, but it does still have some significant powers. In time, if the ‘will of the people’ is there, then they may follow in Scotland’s footsteps and, through a referendum, elevate it to a Parliament.

Like Scotland and Ireland, Wales is historically a Celtic country with Gaelic as their official language, which, although it declined in popularity during the first half of the 20th century, has since had a revival.

In 1993 Wales legally became a bilingual country, and now Welsh is taught as a primary language in their schools, and all their official documentation and road signs are in Welsh, with the English underneath in smaller print.

Although I can’t speak it, I love listening to the Welsh language because it’s so poetic.

American Tries to Speak Welsh

North Wales: Feisty and Poetic

Cornwall

Like the other Celtic nations in the UK, Cornwall has its own flag and language.

The Cornish word for Cornwall being Kernow, and “Welcome to Cornwall” in Cornish is “Kernow a’gas dynnergh.”

Cornwall, situated in the far extreme southwest area of England, is the only part of England that has never been conquered, not even by the Romans or, in more recent times, by the British, although it hasn’t been for want of trying.

Although Cornwall has never been conquered by England, the English Parliament has just assumed power over it. Nevertheless, although 16 countries around the world (including Canada and Australia) have the British Monarch as their ‘Head of State,’ Cornwall has never recognised the Monarchy. Therefore the Queen of England is not Queen to Cornwall; consequently, it’s her heir apparent, as the Duchy of Cornwall (the Prince of Wales), who represents her interests there.

Because Cornwall has maintained its independence from invading forces, it has maintained its Celtic roots and language; in recognition of this Cornwall, was granted ‘Minority Status’ in 2014. This change in status means that if the ‘will of the people’ is there, then at some future date (through a referendum), the Cornish people could opt to have their own ‘Assembly’ and potentially even their own Government. Albeit, for the foreseeable future, with the lack of interest amongst the local population for devolved powers, there is little likelihood of the Cornish people wanting their own Assembly (let alone Government).

Free Cornwall – Cornwall Is Not England

Anthem of Cornwall Sung in Cornish (With English Subtitles)

Will American and British English Diverge or Converge?

Languages are forever evolving. With the ever-increasing exposure to each other languages from across the pond, will American English and British English ever become similar, or will they continue to evolve in their own separate ways?

I think the latter, citing the wide diversity of accents, dialects and languages across today’s Britain, which demonstrate that even in today’s world, you can still have such a wide diversity of linguistics in such a small geographical area as the UK.

What do you think? For instance, do you think Americans and the British will ever agree on what chips and pants are?

The History and Evolution of English

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Arthur Russ

Your Comments

Arthur Russ (author) from England on August 01, 2018:

It's the same with 'Scones'; some say the 'o' as in 'stone' while others say the 'o' as in gone. I say it as stone but with the 'c' replacing the 't'.

Ethan Mort on June 14, 2018:

People in England (well as far as I know- Cornwall) always argue how to say pasty some people say pasty (p-a-sty) others say pasty (p-ar-sty)

Arthur Russ (author) from England on February 04, 2017:

Thanks Jo, I would have loved to have seen how the Polish teach English; it must have been quite an experience for you.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on February 04, 2017:

My husband and I had an extended stay in an English Language school in Warsaw, Poland once. It was so interesting to learn how much of our American English is slang. Even though these students had studied English for years, they still had trouble following the language of Americans, in person and in films.

Very interesting article. We travel a lot, and I'm always fascinated by language.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on February 02, 2017:

Thanks for your feedback, it’s very informative. I can imagine it would generate some rather interesting discussions; even simple ones like how to pronounce tomato and potato. Britons can never agree on how to pronounce scones, so that’s often a source of discussion.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 31, 2017:

Been through lots of these discussions with other Caribbean natives who had early education with a British influence, and then an American college education. Your article is very interesting as are the videos. Appreciate the information and explanations on the different dialects.