British English has always been a language of accents and dialects, and today, the United Kingdom has among the highest levels of accent diversity in the English-speaking world. But where did these dialects and accents originate?
Before you read on, be inspired by this woman and her presentation of 17 different British accents:
An old language
The rich variety of dialects in Britain can to a large extent be attributed to the fact that English has been spoken on this island for more than 1500 years. This long time period has allowed for the language to develop into regional varieties of English. If we compare Britain to Australia, where English has only been in use for about 230 years, there has not been sufficient time for dialects to develop to the same extent. The same can be said about the United States, where the language has been used for 400 years.
However, it is not the time scale alone that explains this wealth of dialects. We also have to understand what happened to the language during those years. So, let's take a leap back in British history...
The Anglo-Saxons bring English to England
Invasions and migration have to a great extent been a driving force in the development of dialects and accents in Britain. In the fifth century, Germanic tribes from the northwest of the European continent began settling on the island. The settlers consisted of three different peoples: the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. Since the first two groups were the largest, the settlers came to be known collectively as Anglo-Saxons. They all brought with them distinct dialects of their native Germanic language, the language we today call Anglo-Saxon or Old English.
The Anglo-Saxons would settle in different parts of England: the Angles mostly settled in the Midlands and eastern parts of England, the Saxons in the areas west and south of the Thames River, and the Jutes primarily in Kent and along the South Coast. Over time, these different settlement patterns resulted in the emergence of different Old English dialects, which again gave rise to the different accents of the British English we know today.
And then the Vikings came
Around 800 AD, the first Vikings arrived on British soil. Some of them were indeed the pirates and looters of popular legend. However, most were farmers and traders who lived very similar lives to the Anglo-Saxons. Within a short period of time, you could find permanent Viking settlements in Scotland and England. In the areas where the Vikings settled, Old English would adopt linguistic features from Old Norse, which was the language of the Vikings, and again new dialects would emerge.
We still see traces of Old Norse in English, particularly in the dialects of Northern England, which is where many of the Vikings settled. For example, if you go to York (or Jorvik, as the Vikings called the town), you will see that many of the streets in the city centre have strangely recognisable names such as Swinegate, Davygate, and Stonegate. Also, in the English accents spoken in the north of England and parts of Scotland, you can still find such words as fell (mountain), lait (seek), skalli (bald), bairn (child), braw (fantastic), kirk (church), and quine (girl/woman).
The Normans change the English language for good
In 1066, the French speaking Normans invaded England. The French language, which was very different from Old English, became a language for the elite and for the ruling class. It was a language of prestige and status, and for English speakers with ambitions in life, it was necessary to learn French. English had low status among the ruling classes, and before long, the distinction between those who spoke French and those who spoke English was not ethnic but social. It was not until the 15th century that English again had become the most prestigious language variety in England, perhaps with the exception of Latin.
The English language went through drastic changes during the Norman period. French words started seeping into the language, especially words associated with such things as government, law, art, and religion. But there were also changes made to its grammar and spelling. In fact, the English language changed so much that by 1100, it could no longer be defined as Old English. It had developed into a new language: Middle English.
Developing a standard written English
We have to remember that the English language for a long time was mostly a spoken language. Few people knew how to read and write, and for those who did, spelling and grammar were not standardised. However, modern English spelling started developing from about 1350 onwards, and it was based on the English that was used in the southeast of the country, near the power base of the royal court and the administration in Westminster.
During the next centuries, the language went through an increasing standardisation process. In 1476, the first printing press was brought to England, and this speeded up the process. Spelling and grammar became fixed, resulting in a more uniform written language. The Standard English we use today stems from this development from the 15th century. Also, it is the basis for the British accent we today refer to as Received Pronunciation.
Today, there are about forty very distinct dialects in the United Kingdom. In many cases, they use different spellings and word structure, and there are also many local words. You may already have heard of dialects such as Cockney (London), Glaswegian (Glasgow), Scouse (Liverpool), and Geordie (Newcastle) – all dialects that can be quite difficult to understand if you meet someone speaking it very broadly. Other dialects, such as Brummie (Birmingham) and Estuary English (Southeast) may be easier to understand, but certainly have their unique characteristics.
RP (Received Pronunciation), also called 'BBC English', 'Queen's English', or 'Oxford English', is probably the most recognisable dialect in Britain, and one that you are certain to have heard many times. It is often associated with people from the upper and upper middle classes and has traditionally been considered by many to be the most prestigious accent of British English. Unlike other dialects and accents, this is not associated with a geographical area, but with social class.
Since the 1950s, there has been far greater social and geographical mobility, and more people have had access to an education and to broadcast media. This has all impacted the British accents and dialects. There has also been a new wave of immigration, which has resulted in speakers bringing in new dialects and accents that have further enriched the linguistic landscape. This is true especially in urban areas, where speakers from several Commonwealth countries have blended their mother tongue speech patterns with existing dialects, producing yet other varieties of English. There is still an incredible amount of regional diversity in the languages spoken around the country today; languages and dialects are extremely dynamic – they are always changing, evolving, and adapting to the needs of their users.
Accent Bias Britain. Accents in Britain. Retrieved from: https://accentbiasbritain.org/accents-in-britain/
Braber, N (2018). Why does the UK have so many accents? Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/why-does-the-uk-have-so-many-accents-88434
Robinson, J (2019). Accents and dialects of England through time. Retrieved from: https://www.bl.uk/british-accents-and-dialects/articles/accents-and-dialects-of-england
Trask, R.L. (2010). Why do Languages Change? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Uptown, C and Widdowson, J.D.A (1996). An Atlas of English Dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.