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English in Britain

If you have visited the UK, perhaps you have experienced the fact that many people speak with a different accent from the one you learned at school and they use words that do not belong in Standard English.

People put together as a bubble. Illustration.

English in Britain

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English in Britain

Would you understand someone from Yorkshire if he said: I’ll meet ye down’t pub. I’ve summat to tell ye? Or what does a Scotsman mean if he says: I’m fair scunnert wi’ this awfu’ wither? In the introduction, the person from Yorkshire said: I'll meet you at the pub. I've something to tell you. The Scotsman said: I'm really disgusted with this awful weather.

RP Accent

Most British people have a regional accent depending on where they grew up. The accent of English called RP (Received Pronunciation) or sometimes "BBC English" or the "Queen's English" is considered to be the most easily understood, and is the British accent most often used as a model for foreign learners of English. It is not a regional accent and is actually spoken by a very small number of people, but they tend to be at the top of the social scale.

Regional Accents and Dialects

There are many local accents and dialects. In the south-east, around London, many people speak with an accent close to RP, while Cockney is a dialect found in the East End of London. The “h” is often dropped in Cockney speech and they use rhyming slang. Instead of stairs they would say apples and pears, or dog and bone instead of telephone. Another accent from this area is Estuary English which has developed in recent years around the Thames estuary. It has features of Cockney and is considered by some people to be working class, but many think that it sounds friendlier than RP. Here is Bill Bryson form 'Journeys in English' with more English dialects.

English Dialects

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English Dialects
English dialects (transcript)

Thanks in large parts with (to) large geographical spread, English has developed more dialects than any other language group. And particularly in its country of birth, users are passionately defensive about them.

As here at the centenary gathering of the Yorkshire Dialect Society. “As far as I’m concerned. Well, I’m getting old anyway, so (the) dialect is not going to die in my time. I hope it won’t die in the next century either. Because in my mind there is no doubt at all, if you want to really stress something, it’s far better in dialect.”

“Well, it seems better as well though. Did you know that the word ‘something’ takes 1.95 seconds to say and the word ‘summit’ only takes 0.98 of a second to say. So therefore you save your breath, don’t you?” “Yes, that’s right. We don’t waste our breath in North England, do we?”

You will find changes in accent and dialect as you move away from the south-east, with many local variations. Still regardless of geography, the higher up the social scale a person is, the less obvious is often their regional accent.

New Varieties of English

Ethnic minorities in Britain also have their characteristic accents and the music scene has some striking varieties of these, for example, West Indian reggae. Due to the influence of the ethnic minorities, new varieties of English have developed in the UK, such as, London Jamaican and Bradford Asian English. Many new terms have also come into Standard English, for example, bhangra, a mixture of traditional Punjabi music, reggae and hip-hop.

Test Your Knowledge

  1. What is RP?
  2. What is Estuary English?
  3. Does an accent indicate anything about a person's social standing?
  4. How has immigration to the UK influenced the variety of accents there?
  5. Where is Bill Bryson speaking from in the audio?
  6. According to him, how do people feel about dialects in Britain?
  7. What are the advantages of dialects according to the two men Bryson interviews?

Research British accents and dialects

Use the site British Dialects to do some research into this aspect of the English language. You could make your own overview where you add a few characteristics for the different areas.

Discussion questions

  1. Which English accent/dialect is your favourite?
  2. How important is your local Norwegian dialect to you
  3. Are older people fonder of their dialects than young people? If so why do you think this is the case?

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