Decoding British Accents
January 28, 2022 7:37 AM   Subscribe

I've been watching Victorian Farm and reading Alexis Hall novels and both make me wonder how much I miss because I can't hear/understand the nuances of different English accents and their cultural implications.

In reading Alexis Hall's Spires series, I think I'm getting the impression that Northern accents are considered working class? And that Essex accents are considered Jersey-Shore-Ish? With Victorian Farm I wonder if/what I'm missing by not being able to interpret the accents of the cast. Are their class distinctions between the cast members? Etc.

I'm looking for 1) Websites or other resources that break down the implications of accents and class in England. 2) This one feels like a stretch....but any if any Mefites have specific insight into the accents of the cast of Victorian Farm, I would be all ears. (Pun not intended but appreciated after the fact!)
posted by jeszac to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
This is something I'm amusement-level interested in as well, and my best rec to you is to watch a lot of comedy panel shows: Would I Lie to You, 8 out of 10 Cats/Cats Does Countdown, Mock the Week, Qi, etc. You can find them all on youtube just like the Farm series. I've learned more about UK accents from panel shows than anything academic I could ever read, just by listening to the comics make fun of each other. I watch these shows with Wikipedia open so I can look up where each person was born & raised. (Second best option: British reality TV with un-famous people.)

It's because I've heard so many voices on British panel shows that I realized how awful Michael C Hall's accent is in the show Safe. It's an accent from nowhere and when you get used to every accent being recognizably from a place, hearing it is almost shocking. (It's also how I discovered that my favorite accent is a Lancashire accent.)
posted by phunniemee at 7:48 AM on January 28, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: This (20-ish minute long) video is fun and gives an overview. Starts with RP, Cockney, the really obvious ones... but digs much deeper, hitting 20 in total. After you watch enough UK TV, you start to be able to spot some of these. I correctly identified my new neighbor as being from Manchester, and it tickled him.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:20 AM on January 28, 2022 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Just FYI Ruth Goodman is Welsh, not English :)
posted by DarlingBri at 8:24 AM on January 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

you get used to every accent being recognizably from a place

As an American living here in the UK, I totally second this. Also, one thing that complicates the ability to pinpoint British people's regional accents is that often when they move to London, they try to drop the accent they grew up with and sound more like a generic middle-class BBC person.

On the topic of British accent-switchers I also recommend looking up the "mockney" controversy around rich people pretending to be regular working-class folks.
posted by johngoren at 8:27 AM on January 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Northern accents are considered working class? - yes. The accent of the middle-to-upper classes is a kind of southern english accent, now spoken across the country. Ordinary northern accents are quite different, and are very much working-class-associated.

And that Essex accents are considered Jersey-Shore-Ish - yes. This is a result of Essex being increasingly populated by east london overspill throughout the past hundred years or so, and the accent and culture (and the way they're looked down on) come from that.
posted by vincebowdren at 8:30 AM on January 28, 2022

When Christopher Eccleston took on the role of The Doctor on the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, his choice to use his own Northern accent was noteworthy enough that they made this joke about it. Here he is being interviewed about that.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:33 AM on January 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

The upper class has always been more mobile and typically go to the same schools and universities wherever they were born - so they sound the same. Working class people have traditionally stayed in one small location for generations, so their accents are the most strongly localised.
posted by Phanx at 8:34 AM on January 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Essex is the New Jersey of England so for definite an Essex accent is the equivalent of Jersey Shore.

I spent some years in the Midlands when I was a child and picked up the accent, so I speak with a bit of an East Midlands accent, with flat vowels (saying 'bath' with an 'a' as in 'cat' rather than 'barth', as they say in the south). Over the years it's caused some people to treat me as if I'm a thicko, acting surprised when they find out I'm a highly-qualified professional in my field.
posted by essexjan at 8:36 AM on January 28, 2022 [7 favorites]

when they move to London, they try to drop the accent they grew up with

I suspect it's less deliberate than that; lots of (middle-class) people move to London at an age when their accent is still malleable, and it just changes to match their new environment.
posted by vincebowdren at 8:38 AM on January 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Seconding the rec to watch comedy panel shows! Also, Gavin and Stacey makes it easy even for my American ears to hear the differences between the Welsh and Essex accents (and to start to understand the cultural aspects tied to them).
posted by sriracha at 8:51 AM on January 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lots of interesting stuff on accent bias and prejudices on Accent Bias Britain, including research on people's perceptions of accents and recordings of people saying the same phrases etc.
posted by knapah at 9:03 AM on January 28, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Sound recordings at the British Library of regional accents.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:36 AM on January 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Ian Jack is a perceptive commentator on the British class system, and this article is very good on accents as class markers: Flattening in England, resurgent in Scotland: accents still shape our island life.
posted by verstegan at 10:42 AM on January 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

You don’t ask about the situation in Scotland- but I’f recommend Ashley Douglas article on the Scottish linguistic landscape In this case you Scots which is a different language - but there is a lot of code switching that goes on when people talk to family and school friends versus those from further afield. She gives the example of the sentence “I know the girl that went to Linlithgow two years ago” that sounds largely similar in RP English and Standard Scottish. In full on Scots it is “Ae ken the lassie that gaed tae Lithgae twa year syne”. In all parts of the UK I think you need to be aware not just of the accent but also of the way people code switch when the talk and when they listen.
posted by rongorongo at 11:36 AM on January 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

You could start by understanding that British and English are not synonyms!
posted by humph at 11:55 AM on January 28, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm US born and raised, but have spent the majority of my adult life living in London. You'll often hear the old chestnut about "In the US they think 100 years is a long time, but in Europe they think 100 miles is a long way." Well I had to explain to someone why they couldn't see all of the US in a weekend, by showing the distances on a map and comparing it to a map of Europe for scale.

The thing they said that sticks in my memory was this: "You mean these two towns are 400 miles apart, and they have the same accent??"

Accents are significant here, and it's true that some folks will lose their home accent when they move to London. Just as someone may lose their "Okie" drawl in the US to fit in with corporate America, you'll often find out with surprise that someone you know is from the West Country. Someone from Manchester or Edinburgh will proudly keep their accent, but people from (say) Devon are more likely to code-switch.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 6:56 AM on January 29, 2022 [3 favorites]

It's because I've heard so many voices on British panel shows that I realized how awful Michael C Hall's accent is in the show Safe. It's an accent from nowhere and when you get used to every accent being recognizably from a place, hearing it is almost shocking.

I have not seen Safe, but this prompted me to try and find out what he sounded like, and a top result was Michael C. Hall Achieves An Authentic British Accent In "Safe". I'm a terrible judge, but it seems like reactions on the quality of it are very polarized in either direction.
posted by Pryde at 10:30 AM on January 29, 2022

In terms of links with class, I wanted to say that not just accents but words within an accent can have different class links. For example, in Scotland “outwith “ - fantastically useful word meaning “outside” in the sense of “beyond” - is often heard spoken by lawyers and academics. But “youse”- an equally useful word meaning plural “you” (like the French “vous”) is more working class - probably because many English speakers assume the speaker is just failing to say “you” properly. Remember that accents - or full on languages like Scots - are usually not taught in School, so speakers have an intuitive rather than academic idea of how how they work. Remember conversely that nobody learns about regional accents and languages from other parts of the UK at school - so there is a lot of ignorance about them.
posted by rongorongo at 11:14 AM on January 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

In the "no such thing as society" 'classless Britain', there remain signifiers of upper and lower. We say those words from Margaret Thatcher indicate the end of class, by they're one of Britain's better political lies of my lifetime. Regional accents might indicate authenticity, but mostly it's sophisticated Town contrasted by rural ignorance.

I'm south-eastern which is adjacent to London and deemed posh. Radio created the dominance of Received Pronunciation. City and city-adjacent meant sophistication up until mid-eighties. London, as the capital, might hold sway over England's English; it is a mix of many things and has "Estuary" amplification of the Cockney accent up against Caribbean, African, Middle East and Indian subcontinent influences.

Scotland has soft musical Highlands accents to contrast with tight, punctuated Glasgow/Ed
inburgh/borders city speak, but even then remote Aberdeenshire is different to Hebridean and Speyside and "Glesgee" very firmly isn't "Aidenburrr."

Wales has an emphasis on the penultimate syllable, with soft "there's luff-lee" in the south with near-Liverpudlian nasal thing in the north ("thar's still droo-eds on An-gull-sey").

Back in England: East Anglia has a different 'farming burr' to the West Country, and Sussex, south of London has another kind of rolled-r burr. The Midlands, particularly The Black Country near Birmingham ("Bear-ming-gam") have intonation that is mocked as 'yam-yam'. East Midlands merges into South Yorkshire (Yarksheer) with historical opposition to Lancahsire ('Lahn-kah-sheer'). The Lake District ('Cum-bree-uh') is again soft and rural, reaching up to Newcastle ('Noo-cassle, how-weh!') and South Shields.
posted by k3ninho at 11:44 AM on January 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

Poor Michael C. Hall... none of his accents convince me.

I always associated Northern English accents with the working class simply because of the Beatles. Of course it is much more nuanced than that, but there you have it.
posted by Crystal Fox at 4:15 PM on January 29, 2022

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