Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I Do Have a British Accent and I'm Never Going to Shut Up About It

I have often heard it said that there is no such thing as a British accent, that Britain is made up of many different accents (and dialects) from England, Scotland, and Wales.

While I do not disagree with the last part, insisting that there is no such thing as a British accent is a bold and—I would argue—inaccurate proclamation. You see, there's a hierarchy at work when we discuss the language of a particular place. Let's take the fine city of Liverpool as an example.

Most natives of Liverpool speak with what is known as a Scouse accent. But because Liverpool is a city located in England, Scouse can also be referred to—albeit less specifically—as an example of an English accent (though not the English accent). And because England is one of the nations comprising Great Britain, we can say—even more broadly—that Scouse is also an example of a British accent (though not the British accent).

The parts in brackets are very important. Scouse is not the British accent for the very reason that there is no such thing as "the British accent."

Indeed, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph, Britain is made up of many different accents; there is the Glaswegian accent in Scotland, the generally non-rhotic Cardiff accent in Wales, and the Cockney accent in England, to name just three. But all of these are, nonetheless, examples of a British accent because they each have one thing in common: they employ certain phonetic qualities distinctive to a particular part of Britain.

Think of these accents as files on your computer. Imagine that your desktop has become cluttered and you'd like to organise said files. You would move all of your Wales-based accents into a folder labeled "Welsh accents," your England-based accents into a folder called "English Accents", and your Scottish-based accents into a folder named "Scottish accents."

But wait, you're a stickler for tidiness, you say? You want as few folders on your desktop as possible? Easy! Just move all three folders into a fourth folder titled "British Accents." And if, like me, you are obsessive compulsive when it comes to your desktop, you could even move the parent folder into a fifth folder titled "European accents".

The point is, accent-labeling works on a hierarchical basis.    

Now, I recognise that there are instances in which the term British accent is often misused; for example, an American once said to me, "I knew you were English, Laurence, because of your British accent." A British accent is by no means a guarantee that its user is English. Actually, it isn't always a guarantee that he or she is British (the speaker might be a foreign national who has acquired a British accent). It just guarantees that the user speaks with an accent that is phonetically identical to one spoken in a particular part of Britain.

But just in case all of this doesn't convince you, let me present you with the following statement:  
Saying there is no such thing as a British accent is sort of like saying there is no such thing as a British person
In reality, there are almost 61 million British people, of which I am one. And, as with accents, a British person belongs to a subset of demonyms. For instance, I am not only British, but I identify as any of the following: "Grimbarian" (a person from Grimsby), "English" (a person from England), "British" (a person from Britain), "European" (a person from Europe), "Human" (a person), or "tiny speck floating around in the vastness of the cosmos" (a person who has had far too much Jack Daniels).

To conclude, I don't doubt that it is often best—and potentially less confusing—to refer to a person's accent with as much specificity as you can. Heck, you might even get brownie points for correctly identifying your friend's accent as Scouse. But don't, under any circumstances, try telling me that I don't have a British accent. If you do, I will not only force you to re-read this entire article, but I will do so while fervently reminding you of its title: I do have a British accent and I'm never going to shut up about it.
  
What do you think? Is there such a thing as a British accent? Is the term so broad that it is virtually meaningless? Let me know in the comments below.

This article was written by Laurence Brown. Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and has written for Anglotopia. He is Editor-in-chief of Lost in the Pond and loves nothing more than to share these articles with anglophiles, expats, and other interested parties on social media. Follow Lost in the Pond on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

7 comments:

Smitten by Britain said...

Ha,ha. As much as we wish it were, England ain't the centre of the universe.

Tim Haselden said...

If you want to go that far, there are different accents of scouse, from the heavy "K" sounds of Kirby to the softer k sounds of Anfield .. Hell , you'll know it yourself the variations in the Geordie accent from Maccums to Geordie to the softer accent of northumberland.. I suppose what most American readers would consider a "British" accent would be RP (received pronunciation) or BBC English..or ones posh/telephone voice. Public schooled english... but even here each school has it's own accent. just listen to David Cameron and George Osborne.......

Laurence Brown said...

Yes, a very good point, Tim. There almost seems no end to accent variation. On the other end of the spectrum, you could arguably compare a human accent with that of, say, a cat.

Mike @ A Bit About Britain said...

Great article. The sad thing is, most of our regional accents are merging into a kind of RP/Thames Estuary/Celtic fringe thingy!

Gareth Chadwick said...

I think you also need to bear in mind that to non-native ears, the differences between, say, a West Country accent and a Brummie one, or Scouse and Georgie, may not be so clear. They both sound 'British' as they have the same overarching characteristics of pronunciation, but the subtler differences may not be so obvious. In the same way that French or German accents differ, but to a non-native speaker just sound, well, French and German. And I still struggle to differentiate a US and a Canadian accent. They both just sound 'American' (although don't tell my Canadian friends that!).

Anonymous said...

I was once told that, as someone from Kent with a Kentish accent, I didn't have an accent while the rest of Britain did. I'm often told that I'm posh as I don't sound as common as the rest of Kent.
I like to think I have my own personal accent, if no one else can make up their mind about it!

Anonymous said...

Since I am German, I started out learning the Queens English in school, we were scolded if we used American pronunciation. I have all but lost it since I have been living in US for ages. The Queens English, however, sounds so much smarter.

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