English Accents: Some Brief Notes

Within Great Britain since early modern times one originally southeastern accent, through its association with royalty, the government and the seats of learning became emulated by many relatively sophisticated people even as far from its original home as Scotland. At one time that type of speech could reasonably be called, as it was by Henry Sweet (1890 p.v) simply ‘educated spoken English’. However, as education spread amongst an ever wider range of people, that term became no longer appropriate.

There has never been one generally accepted term for this accent, but in the earlier twentieth century, the foremost authority of the day on English pronunciation, Daniel Jones, after rather anguished deliberatiom, decided upon the sadly unfortunate ‘Received Pronunciation’. He introduced this term in 1926 in a revision of his highly influential English Pronouncing Dictionary. Mostly used in its abbreviation ‘RP’, it became more fully established than any previous one. It still survives in quite wide use, despite its obvious unsuitability, even in the Wells LPD (Longman Pronunciation Dictionary 2008). However, by the later twentieth century it was widely considered to be unacceptably archaic and also resented by many who felt it carried an implication that other accents were inferior.

There has been no universally agreed substitute for ‘RP’ but in 2014 Cruttenden, in the latest and most fundamental of his highly regarded successive revisions of Gimson’s English Pronunciation, replaced it with the term ‘General British’ abbreviation ‘GB’. This correlated usefully with the established term General American (GA) for the pronunciation of most speakers in the USA and Canada.   

Certain of the sounds of GB have been much discussed. The consonant /h/ in Early Modern English seemed to be word-initially used or not as a matter of indifference according to David Crystal who said at p. xxix of his 2016 Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation ‘In Shakespeare’s time, it would have come and gone without notice...’ It certainly disappeared from most of the English regional dialects.

In sharp contrast ‘sounding one’s aitches’ became by the end of the eighteenth century a shibboleth of education. It had become grossly unfashionable to omit them except only from the words heir, honest, honour and hour (or their derivatives). The same went for GA speakers who added at least herb to that list. Many of them also included homage, huge, humble and humour according to Webster (1983).

When it came to words like why and where, from the early twentieth century practically no GB speakers any longer used aitches in them in daily conversation. This was in contrast with many GA, Irish, and Scottish speakers.

As for the yods in words like tune, due and new, GA alone dropped them preferring /tun, du/ and /nu/ whereas GB and most other ‘educated’ English varieties have kept to either /tjun, dju & nju/ or, increasingly for the former two, preferred /ʧun & ʤu/.

While GB and British post-colonial countries such as Australia and South Africa have lost pre-consonantal and end-of-sentence etc r’s, they have been maintained by GA users, by large numbers of West-of-England speakers, and in Irish and Scottish accents, eg in words such  as arm, bird, learn, storm, urge etc.

The most striking other difference between varieties of spoken English around the world is to be found in their treatment of vowels in strong syllables ending with voiceless fricatives such as staff, bath and pass and others containing clusters beginning with a nasal consonant such as chance and demand. In southeast England, in South Africa, and variably in Australia and New Zealand these words have those vowels lengthened to become like the vowel of palm. However, in northern and much of midland England, and in parts of Australasia, speakers have kept to ash ie the short vowel of hat for these pass and chance types of word.

Words of the cough, cloth, cross, type have largely a longer and closer vowel in GA /kɔːf, klɔːθ, krɔːs/ but a short opener one in GB /kɒf, klɒθ, krɒs/. A long vowel had been commonly used in Victorian England but became mainly old-fashioned early in the twentieth century.

Other directions along which the accents of British and American English diverged during the nineteenth century included the endings of words which in GA are usually blackberry /`blakberi/, dictionary /`dɪkʃəneri/, difficulty /`dɪfəklti/, matrimony /`matrəmouni/, melancholy /`melənkɑli/ and territory /`terətɔri/ but which now in GB usually have weaker endings giving /`blakbri/, /`dɪkʃnri/, /`dɪfklti/, /`matrəməni/, /`melənkəli/ and /`terətri/.

Unlike GB, GA usually stresses the last syllable of words evidently from French such as GA beret /bə`reɪ/, brochure /broʊʊr/, cliche /kli`ʃeɪ/, debris /də`bri/, garage /ɡə`rɑʒ/, plateau /plæ`toʊ/, salon /sə`lɑn/. Compare GB /`bereɪ/, /`broʊʃə/, /`kliʃeɪ/, /`deɪbri/, /`garɑʒ/, /`platoʊ/, /`salɒn/.

Uniquely, most Scottish accents have the same type of vowel in both words of the sequences good food [ʉ], Sam’s psalms [a] and ought not [ɔ]. They and the Irish have an extra consonant phoneme ie the voiceless velar fricative /x/ in loch and many of the placenames of the two countries.

Most Northern English sophisticated speakers have very few differences of pronunciation from their south-of-England counterparts. However, there is one northern characteristic that contrasts with the whole of the rest of the English-speaking world, though it is hardly if at all noticed as doing so. It is the preference, even in conversational speech styles, for an unreduced vowel in any unstressed prefix that ends with a consonant. This is heard in words such as advise, contain, observe and success which they pronounce as /ad`vaɪz, kɒn`teɪn, ɒb`zɜv & sᴧk`ses/. Where the weak prefix ends with a vowel sound, northern usage is no different from that of the rest of the English-speaking world so has /ə/ as the first vowel in such words as apply, connect, oblige, survey /ə`plaɪ, kə`nekt, ə`blaɪdʒ,  sə`veɪ/.

In England’s largest county, Yorkshire, typical speakers have the unique tendency to cause the final soft consonants /b, d, g, ʤ, v, ð , z, ʒ / of a preceding syllable to be regularly converted to their corresponding sharp equivalents /p, t, k, ʧ, f, θ, s, ʃ/ under the influence of a following sharp consonant. This process has occurred in GB only in the half dozen individual items breadth, length, width, used-to, have-to and supposed-to, which are usually pronounced as /bretθ, leŋkθ, wɪtθ, `jus tu, `haf tu & sə`pəʊs tu/ but in characteristicly Yorkshire speech Bradford is generally pronounced as if it were spelt Bratford and flagpole as if it were *flackpole and so on.

LPD assigns its ‘British Non-RP’ § symbol to the educated Northernisms it gives including among, exam, exhaust (noun), because, breakfast, eighteen, eighty, gooseberry, mischief, none, nothing, once, raspberry, says, us, with and yesterday with the pronunciations /ə`mɒŋ, `egzam, `egzɔst, bɪ`kɒs, `breɪkfəst, eɪt`tin, `eɪt.tɪ, `ɡʊsbrɪ, `mɪsʧif, nɒn, `nɒθɪŋ, wɒns, `rasbrɪ, seɪz, ᴧz, wɪθ & jestə`deɪ/. CEPD (the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary), where it mentions any of these Northernisms, does so only with wordy explanatory ‘boxes’ excluding them from its category of ‘BBC pronunciations’. Not surprisingly, in a few cases the two authorities differ eg LPD (rightly) not agreeing with the CEPD (2011) unqualified acceptance of /`ɡuzbri, `mɪsʧif & jestə`deɪ/. CEPD’s term ‘BBC accent’ is defined at its p.vi as ‘the accent most often heard in the speech of newsreaders and announcers on the serious channels of the BBC’ a description which can still be said to hold good but has, with latterday changes in BBC policy, become rather weakened in its force.


Cruttenden, Alan (2014) Gimson’s Pronunciation of English. London:Routledge

Crystal, David (2016) The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation. OUP

Jones, Daniel (1926) English Pronouncing Dictionary. London:Dent

Merriam Webster (1983) Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, Massachusetts USA

Roach, Peter, Jane Setter & John Esling (2011) Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary. CUP [CEPD]

Sweet, Henry (1890) A Primer of Spoken English OUP

Wells, J. C. (2008) Longman Pronunciation Dictionary [LPD]

The above is a slight revision of a paper originally offered to honour Professor Rafael Monroy Casas on the occasion of his retirement from his chair of English at the University of Murcia.

At his kind invitation in July 1993 four of us—myself and the late Bev Collins to do the phonetics, my wife Jane to conduct conversation classes and Bev’s wife Sandra to lecture on teaching methods—began the first of a succession of intensive two-week summer courses in spoken English which ran for seven consecutive years with that team.

It was a great pleasure for all of us to work at that beautiful ancient university and to experience the wonderful welcome and friendship we received from Rafael and the late Paco Gutiérrez. and their colleagues.