British Accents – What They Sound Like and Learning to Hear Them

Siobhan Thompson talks about diverse British dialects in her “One woman, 17 accents” Anglophenia episode of her video blog on YouTube. She is good! And she’s a blast.

In the mid-90’s, I had a morning show on ABC Radio Networks that went via satellite to 61 markets. I was lucky enough to go to the U.K. on my employer’s dime to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Beatles first album release.  For ten days, we walked the streets of London, recording shows and interviews from places like Abbey Rd, Parliament, Pickadilly, Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner, pubs, you name it. At the end of each day, we would go to Capital Radio and upload the show back to ABC.

I’ve always been a mimic and done impressions- that was a big part of the show- and I was amazed at the diversity in accents in London alone. I’ve since made friends with people from Leeds, Edinburgh, Cornwall and Devonshire. It took me a while to tune my ear to know what they’re saying. Glaswegian is the toughest for me. It would be a lot more convenient if people from Glasgow came with subtitles. But that’s just me. I wish dogs could talk and I believe in Unicorns.

My co-host was Brain the Butler, a London native who worked at the network with me and later, on San Francisco radio. He was the perfect guide. We’d be riding on the top of a double decker bus with the digital recorders going and our mics and he’d say, “That’s St. Clemens. My dad was in the RAF and that was our chapel. We used to sing ‘Oranges and lemons, the bells of St. Clemens.’” Or we’d drive by a park and he’d say, “When I was eighteen, I worked on a BBC mobile crew and that’s where we shot Monty Python’s ‘Ministry of Funny Walks’ ” Brian’s a fascinating guy and really helped me identify the various London dialects.

We hit the streets early, walking 10 or 12 miles a day, fueled by bad pub food and strong English tea. We spent an entire day at the British Museum, looking at the Magna Carta and Beatles manuscripts. I said to one of the docents, “Man, you have a ton of Egyptian artifacts, here.” He said, “Oh this is nothing. Most of it’s not even on display. You should see what’s in the basements!”

We got a huge sampling of the diversity of accents. North London, Cockney, etc. “RP” or Received Pronunciation is what Brian spoke. Siobhan talks about these in her video. She makes it look and sound easy.

It’s like here in America. You can almost chart dialects like a weather map. Rolled R’s toward the East- the closer you get to England and our language’s roots. Softer in the coastal South, more twangy in the deep South, sharper and harsher in the NE

To do a dialect, we have to be able to hear the dialect. You know, sensitize the ear and really listen. Is he rolling his R’s? Is there a diphthong? Nasality? A deliberate lisp like Castilian Spanish? What are the components? That’s the key. Being able to identify and reproduce the physical components. Not everyone can do that. Siobhan Thompson is really good at it.

So, by the end of our trip, I could clearly identify about ten distinct London dialects. We took the Tube to Ealing one day, a suburb west of London to interview an author. He was Bill from Liverpool, who supposedly was the guy who introduced John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Who knows. We met him in a mall at 10 am. The first thing he said was, “Hey man, can I get a glass of wine?” He loosened up pretty quickly. It was a great interview. We got thrown out of the mall.