English is spoken in more than 60 countries in the world and, according to some figures, is used by more than 1 billion people.
Many varieties, accents and dialects of English exist worldwide.
English accents in the UK
The UK is a relatively small country, but we have a surprising variety of English accents and dialects.
Visitors and immigrants who have learned to speak English abroad can find the range of dialects and accents in the UK confusing, and some accents difficult to understand.
Areas of the UK with distinct accents include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the counties of Cornwall, Yorkshire and Norfolk; and the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham, and Belfast. And these are just a few examples, so you begin to get an idea of the wide variation in English pronunciation across the UK!
Immigrants to the UK, or students residing here temporarily to learn English, are very likely to learn to speak English with a specific accent, depending on their location in the UK.
Many students tell me they want to learn to speak ‘English English’ (as opposed to American English, for instance) – they are often surprised to learn just how many variations of English accent exist here in the UK.
You can hear how pronunciation varies across the UK with recordings of modern and old dialects, received pronunciation, and minority ethnic English pronunciation, on the British Library Sounds Familiar? web site.
English dialects in the UK
Generally speaking, English accents are varieties that differ only in terms of pronunciation: for instance, Standard English can be spoken with a regional accent, whereas English dialects differ in terms of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.
However, the distinction is not always clear-cut and there is much debate about how many non-pronunciation features (grammar, vocabulary, idiom) it takes before an accent becomes a dialect.
Regional dialects of the UK include those of Orkney, Shetland, Glasgow and Edinburgh, Wales (where the dialect is strongly influenced by the Welsh language), and Ireland where we have:
- Anglo-Irish used by the descendants of English settlers;
- Ulster Scots – the speech of the descendants of 17c Protestant Scots settlers;
- and Hiberno-Irish spoken by usually Catholic people whose ancestral tongue was Gaelic.
These are just a few of the many English dialects in the UK.
Listen to English dialects
You can listen to 287 extracts of English dialect from the Survey of English Dialects – a nationwide survey of the vernacular speech of England undertaken by researchers at the University of Leeds. You can search for dialects by county or date.
English accents and dialects are discussed on the BBC’s Radio 4 radio programmes Routes of English. You can also hear examples of the accents and dialects on these shows.
How much does accent and dialect vary in your country and in your language?
Image by Joe Lodge