Why the UK Has So Many Accents

A deep dive into why your voice sounds the way it does.
07 February 2020, 12:24pm
couple squeezing faces
Photo: Emily Bowler

For such a small island nation, it's surprising how many different local accents and dialects there are in the UK. With a spectrum ranging from London’s big-tongued Cockney twang to the flu-y tones of resident Brummies and the nasal Scouse whine, where do these accents originate from?

Intriguingly, the way we talk to one another is rooted in something deeper than the notion of us just having a natural speaking voice. Subconscious displays of self-identity, our susceptibility to our environment and our portrayal of a character we want the world to see play a considerable part in how we communicate.

Let's first begin by acknowledging that the United Kingdom is home to 69 cities (nice), 51 of which are in England, and all of which boast their own signature mouth-sound. The history of differing accents and dialects in the UK dates back as far as the 5th Century, when the Anglo-Saxons arrived at the end of Roman rule. But how does that explain why voices vary from region to region?

First, let's allow expert linguists Dr Rob Drummond and Dr Erin Carrie to define the difference between an accent and a dialect, and just how they came about.

The Difference Between Accent and Dialect

"When we talk about accents, we're only talking about sounds and pronunciation," explains Dr Drummond, "but when we talk about dialects, we're talking about grammar and words as well. The history of the country that is now the UK is what determined how they both originated. It's the combined effect of how many times this country's been invaded and inhabited by different groups of people.

"Originally, the UK started off as a Celtic country, and then the Anglo-Saxons came in, over the years Vikings and Normans came in, and then the Romans. All of these different people brought with them different languages, and gradually these languages started to develop into one that was shared and recognisable. This resulted in different dialects that could be understood by different people, despite the fact they were still influenced by the same language.

"The very fact that we still have all these different accents and dialects suggests there's some other process going on. To me, it's all down to identity; these accents and dialects are being maintained largely through the need to differentiate ourselves from some people and show that we're similar to others."

Why People's Accents Change

Whether your voice resembles that of a Geordie, a Manc, a Scot or a Londoner, chances are you've been struck by the capability our voices possess to change after time spent in a different environment. "If you are born in London, you will have a London accent, because that's what you've experienced and been exposed to," explains Dr Carrie. "If you're taken out of that situation and moved elsewhere with completely different accents and dialects, it gets quite interesting, especially with children – as they're learning all the time, they're so malleable that they are able to acquire the linguistic norms of the people in their new community.

"For adults, it's different. For example, there are lots of cases of people moving across the country for work-related reasons who pick up new accents and dialects, but it's much more a case of identity as opposed to natural development. It's a subconscious decision of how much they want to integrate into that new community and show they're part of it by speaking the same as everyone else.

"Some might switch over and adapt, which is called being bidialectal. Others may have a strong sense of where they're from and find themselves exaggerating their original accent, perhaps to associate with family and friends they’ve left behind."

Will Accents Continue to Evolve Over Time?

English – or a recognisable version of it – will probably remain the nation's unifying basic language for a long while yet. We live in a time in which everyone, no matter their region of origin, still generally understands each other. Fascinatingly, though, dialects and accents will continue to evolve, and in areas sandwiched by more dominant localities – such as Swanage and Lymm, situated between Liverpool and Manchester – you will find what is called a dialect continuum. There will be places that reflect more of a Liverpudlian sound and others that lean more towards Mancunian. Nevertheless, there are no boundaries, and accents and dialects will continue to merge into and out of each other gradually, over both space and time.

When we're meeting someone for the first time, we generally want to make a positive lasting impression. We may want to look and smell our best to present ourselves in the most positive way. But have you ever pondered whether you're also being judged once you open your mouth? Your subconscious does, which is why our diction and timbre may change when we go to a job interview or meet our partners' parents.

"People do studies on which accent is the most attractive or friendliest all the time, and often it's the Birmingham accent which comes down at the bottom," says Dr Drummond. "The London accent might rank quite high when it comes to sounding the most educated or distinguished; Newcastle always ranks highly for being the friendliest. What you have to remember is that all of this is completely socially constructed. No accent is better or worse from a linguistic point of view. Over time, society has given accents and dialects their relative prestige and this has developed into a self-fulfilling ideology."