Why so many accents in Britain?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by BenTheMan, Jul 2, 2011.

  1. BenTheMan Dr. of Physics, Prof. of Love Valued Senior Member

    I was talking with some of my colleagues from Great Britain and I realized how different their accents were. I asked about it, and they confirmed that there is a relatively huge variety of accents for such a small country.

    So...why? Is this something that can be traced back to the days of feudalism? Or earlier?
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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It goes back to the first millennium CE when the Roman Empire collapsed and they abandoned their colony on Britannia. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes, German tribes, sailed over and occupied the land. They marginalized or drove out the native Celtic people and established their "Anglisc" dialect of Old German as the language of "Angle Land." It was a long way from being a single, united country. Each region had its own king and each community slowly formed their own dialect of Anglisc.

    This was exacerbated when the Norsemen (or "Vikings") realized that with the Roman Legions gone the British Isles were wide open for plunder. They established several colonies in the northern regions and added their own (uneven) influence to the various dialects.

    Then in 1066 the Normans conquered the entire country and established medieval French as its official language. This brought about wrenching changes in English as French words, sounds and grammatical patterns influenced the language, and once again the impact varied from region to region.

    By the time the Normans had assimilated into the British "melting pot" and what was now called "English" regained its status as the national language during the 13th century, every region had its own way of speaking. A slow campaign of cultural unification began as England was already nominally a single country under one king, but normalization of the language was a much slower process. There was no consistency in the pronunciation of similar words; in many cases the standardized pronunciation of a word was that of a region in which the word held an important place in its commerce or culture. Spelling was even more chaotic, and as you can see it was never really repaired, unlike virtually every other European language whose spelling was standardized in the 19th century.

    Today's regional British accents are the remnants of regional dialects. Accents differ only in pronunciation, whereas dialects differ in vocabulary and/or grammar, so the fact that England now has only accents is a major improvement. They can all understand each other with a little exposure and effort; this would have been much more difficult 500 years ago.

    (There actually still are a few differences in vocabulary and grammar among some of the regional speech variants, but they are so slight in comparison to the situation in the past that we just shrug them off and call them accents rather than dialects.)

    What you hear in England is actually the historical norm. It's only been in the last few centuries as transportation technology improved and people had more time to travel, and especially in the last century with electronic communication bringing a nation's dominant dialect into every home, that many countries have developed a more-or-less standard dialect which is spoken by the majority of the citizens. In the past, regional dialects were rampant and not easily intercomprehensible, and whenever the central government weakened or collapsed, they often diverged into separate languages. This is, for example, how Latin became Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Occitan, Italian, Romanian, and several other less well-known languages, after the Roman Empire disintegrated.
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  5. Stryder Keeper of "good" ideas. Valued Senior Member

    I'm pretty sure it goes further back than that, as there have been artifacts like jewelry dug up at dig sites that predate roman interaction with the isle. (It suggest the indigenous people of the period were trading in Europe or with Caravans that traveled Europe)

    Trade (which is predominantly the reason for Romes occupation of the isle, along with resource plundering) usually meant a melting pot trading centre where many different cultures would meet and interact.

    England isn't the only country with accents, I'm sure you are aware that the US has a few varieties, so does Australia, There are also accents in different languages (however they usually also incur dialect changes too) German, French, Spanish and Italian also have differences based upon location/provinces, Russian and Chinese to my knowledge actually has more than one variant of language (different alphabets etc)

    Another point to language is that the verbal word could be reportedly recorded many different ways based upon how it's said. This is one of the main reasons for the many different but similar sounding surnames, as illiterate people of the time wouldn't know if someone had written their name correctly and would eventually potentially learn the written word but spelt wrongly.
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2011
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  7. GeoffP Caput gerat lupinum Valued Senior Member

    Most countries had numerous regional accents at one time (France being a good example). Even ze Germans have a variety of them; I'm told I speak shitty German with a Hamburg accent. Television and radio have erased many of these, producing monoculture. Which is loverly.
  8. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    France still has (or at least it did when I was last there, 12 years ago) regional accents.
  9. chimpkin C'mon, get happy! Registered Senior Member

    Southern drawls are getting less pronounced, from what I can tell...but I live in a major city...once you get out of the city the accent deepens.

    I found this...my mom "warshes" and "redds up" the house.


    I talk like a Yankee underneath a mild and somewhat cultivated Texas stoner accent (pays to blend with your surroundings).
    I only get really twangy when I'm being sarcastic.
    This has the interesting result that if you get me flustered I will say something like:

    "WHAD-DAyuh think yah DOO-IN!!!"
  10. Steve100 O͓͍̯̬̯̙͈̟̥̳̩͒̆̿ͬ̑̀̓̿͋ͬ ̙̳ͅ ̫̪̳͔O Valued Senior Member

    If you visit Mexbrough, Yorkshire East riding, you will find that not only the accent is very strong , but also the dialect is quite hard to grasp for some.
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Certainly. But up through the early centuries of the Common Era the inhabitants of the southern part of Britannia (its Roman name) or Albion (its Greek name, the earliest name on record) were Celts who spoke a Celtic language we call Brythonic, which has not been reconstructed to a very useful degree. Welsh and Cornish are descended from Brythonic. (We have no idea what they called the island.)

    It wasn't until the Angles, Saxons and Jutes sailed to Britannia in the fifth century and took over, that a Germanic language was spoken there. We used to call it "Old English" but since it's not at all intercomprehensible with Modern English we now refer to it as Anglo-Saxon.

    So any Roman (or other) influence on the language of the Brythonic people has almost no bearing on the development of the English language. To be sure, English has a legacy of Celtic vocabulary--although more in names than in words--but any second-order effect of the Roman influence on Brythonic in those names and words is impossible to identify.

    Therefore the influence of other languages on English begins with the Anglo-Saxon occupation, because that's when the existence of English begins in its ancestor, the Anglo-Saxon language.
    • As I noted there was considerable influence from the Scandinavian languages due to the establishment of Norse outposts on the north coast. Again, awkward, cake, fog, gasp, go, law, listen, moss, neck, root, skin, skirt, sky, sly, smile, take, want and window are all Norse words. The -s ending on third-person singular verbs is Scandinavian, and you can thank the Norsemen for replacing the Anglo-Saxon word sindan with "are."
    • Naturally many Latin words had entered the Brythonic language when the Christian monks brought their religion to the island. These were lost with the Brythonic language. But the monks were the only Romans who stayed behind when the Empire collapsed, so they added those same words to Anglo-Saxon.
    • Again, as I noted earlier, after the Norman invasion there was an enormous assimilation of French words into English. In addition to obvious borrowings like demeanor and majestic, many of our most common everyday words are French, including color, face, question, second, use and very. And as is often pointed out, while farmers called their animals by their Anglo-Saxon names: cow, sheep, pig, deer, chicken, calf; the butchers who sold the animals' meat and the chefs who cooked it used their French names: beef, mutton, pork, venison, cock, veal.
    • And of course as England took its place as a center of culture and politics our language began to take words from Latin and Greek. Today we carelessly combine Greek and Latin roots into combinations with no historical validity, such as television: Greek "distance" with Latin "sight."
    • We've also adopted words from many other languages. Russian czar, Spanish rodeo, Italian viola, Czech robot, Sanskrit karma, Chinese gung ho, Algonquin tomahawk, Inuit igloo, Navajo hogan, Dharuk boomerang, Finnish sauna...
    My friends in eastern Europe, who are not as familiar with English as western Europeans are, look at a page of English text and insist that it can't possibly be a Germanic language. It looks more like French.
    Radio, and even more strongly TV, have been steadily leveling American accents. When I was a kid in the 1950s it was very difficult for me to understand people from Mississippi or Alabama. But their children started listening to the network announcers with their standardized Hollywood-New York accent, and half a century later they talk more like we do. At the same time the entire nation has been listening to country music so we don't find their accent quite so impenetrable. In the 1950s the speech of the South was called, arguably, a dialect because there was a noticeable difference in vocabulary that thwarted intercomprehension. Today it's only an accent.
    Which are also being leveled under the influence of electronic media. TV studios in Latin America hire actors and actresses from all over the region. Audiences found it a little bizarre when a family in a telenovela (soap opera) sat around the dinner table and every member spoke with an accent from a different country. They now coach everyone to adopt the accent of Mexico, which is regarded as the most neutral--and also because Mexico was the first country with a major TV industry.

    However, there are still unnormalized differences between the Spanish of Europe and the Spanish of the New World. Iberian Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese are even further apart.
    What Westerners generally refer to as Chinese "dialects" are actually distinct languages. It is impossible for speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghai, Fujian and other regions to understand each other at all. For example, "five" is wu in Mandarin but ng in Cantonese.
    Chinese does not have a phonetic writing system so it is not an "alphabet." In fact, all Chinese use the same non-phonetic writing system. This is one of the things that has kept the country more-or-less united for thousands of years. Of course pronunciation has diverged, but they all use the same words in the same sequence so they can all understand each other's writing. (About 98-99%, which is good enough.) The communist government has been imposing Mandarin in all the schools, so the day will come when all Chinese can understand it. At that point they will be able to introduce the phonetic writing system that was developed many years ago. (It's a syllabary, not an alphabet, because each symbol represents an entire syllable rather than a single phoneme.)
    One of the early inventions that facilitated the development of electronic information technology was punched tape, which we older people remember from pre-computer teleprinters, but was also used by the digital computers of the 1950s. The company that manufactured the devices was named Chadless, after the surname of its founder. The output of the device was naturally named the Chadless tape. Since the devices were expertly designed to cleanly remove the tiny rectangles from the punched holes, the word "chadless" was assumed to mean "without punch litter," and "chad" itself came to refer to the little rectangles. Up until the last punch card was thrown away (heck, I'm sure the government still has vaults full of the things), any little bits of cardboard stuck to a card were called "hanging chad."

    What's amusing is that "Chadless" is a respelling of the surname "Chadlace," reflecting the corrupted pronunciation of the second syllable.

    America has outdone itself in the garbling of foreign names. The infamous Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus (a staunch opponent of racial integration in the 1960s) was the descendant of a German family named Forbes. Many French families named Beauchamp have American branches spelled Beecham. The Coors brewery was founded by the German Kurz family. Americans named Prohaska have Czech grandparents named Prochazka.
    You can still sometimes tell that you're in southern France, the home of the Celtic Gauls, by hearing their trilled or flapped Celtic R, instead of the gargled German R of the Germanic Franks in northern France.
    The Sun Belt economy has been booming for a couple of decades so a lot of Yankees, immigrants and ethnic minorities have relocated into their major cities. This shifts the regional accent toward the national standard.
    I lived in Arizona from age 8 to 17. Although I never spoke like a cowboy with the softened and Westernized Southern drawl, I assimilated it. Whenever I sing country music I easily lapse into an authentic twang. People who know me do a double take and stare. I say, "Ah'm jez an ole cah-bowie from Ayer-zona."
    As I said, some of the speech variants within England could be called dialects rather than just accents, since they have differences in vocabulary and even grammar, not just pronunciation. But also, the phonetic differences are sometimes so great that establishing intercomprehension requires major effort. It seems like all Brits say that the people from Birmingham ("Brummies") are almost impossible to understand.

    If people from two regions can't understand each other with just a little familiarization, then regardless of whether the differences are limited to phonetics or extend into grammar and vocabulary, they should really be called distinct languages rather than "dialects" or "accents."

    This is obviously why Cantonese and Mandarin are separate languages, even though they use the same words in the same order. It takes weeks of immersion for a Chinese from Beijing and one from Hong Kong to understand each other at all, and much longer to reach perfect comprehension.

    Of course reality is never as clear-cut as theory, and this model leads to many difficult decisions. Czech and Slovak are distinct languages by any academic definition. Yet the two nations were combined into a single country for many decades, and the constant communication eventually allowed them to "decode" each other's speech and understand it. During the Soviet occupation of Estonia there were no TV broadcasts in Estonian. The Estonians found that with properly rigged antennas they could pick up the TV stations in Finland. After a few years they could all mentally turn Finnish into a dialect of Estonian. Of course the Finns had no similar experience so they can't understand Estonian.

    Then there's the phenomenon of the dialect continuum. You have Village A, Village B... all the way to Village Z, at fifty-mile increments. There is so much interaction between the people of neighboring villages that the inhabitants of Village K, for example, can easily understand the dialects of Village J and Village L. But the people of Village A and Village Z can't understand each other at all. Are they languages or dialects?

    There are villages on the Dutch-German border where a speech variant is spoken that contains elements of both Dutch and German. They can understand the Dutch people west of them and the German people east of them. But the people in Amsterdam can't understand the people in Berlin!
  12. quadraphonics Bloodthirsty Barbarian Valued Senior Member

    No no no, the origins of British accents are mostly much more recent than that. They're mostly artifacts of the raging class system, with the upper classes continually inventing new accents to differentiate themselves and the older posh accents then percolating down through the social classes. Add in a bit of blue-collar reaction against this, as well as some regionalism, and there you are. I've read that American English is actually much closer to accent to what British English was back when the two split - so all of those differences you hear between the two nowadays, are recent inventions on the part of Britain.
  13. Steve100 O͓͍̯̬̯̙͈̟̥̳̩͒̆̿ͬ̑̀̓̿͋ͬ ̙̳ͅ ̫̪̳͔O Valued Senior Member

    Don't think I've ever met anyone that can't understand Brummies.
    Maybe can't listen because they make everything sound so boring.
  14. LingLang Registered Member


    I don't think you know just how right you are!

    Here's an item from Robinson, Orrin W. "Old English and its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliet Germanic Languages" (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 137:

    "Although the invading Germanic tribes were far from an undifferentiated mass, the later clear distinctions, for example in dialect, are probably due to political divisions that arose after the invasions."


    By the way, you seem to be familiar with the concept of Covert Dialectal Prestige, as enunciated by William Labov. If not, then you certainly are very socially observant and aware. Either way, I congratulate you!
  15. LingLang Registered Member

    Probably the most important factor in the intensity of dialect diversity in Great Britain is the length of time during which the island has been occupied by speakers of the same language.

    Sturtevant, William C. and D'Azevedo, Warren L., eds. "Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 11: Great Basin" (Washington, DC: Smisthsonian Institution, 1986), p.102:

    "If a large area is covered by a uniform or nearly uniform language, then its occupation must be fairly recent. If, on the other hand, an area has diverse dialects or languages, the speakers must have remained in or near the same area for some time, in order for that diversity to have developed."


    Obviously, English has been spoken in Great Britain far longer than it's been spoken anywhere else, just as it's been spoken on the Eastern Seaboard of the US longer than it's been spoken anywhere else in the US, which accounts for concentrated dialect diversity in these areas than in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.
  16. nietzschefan Thread Killer Valued Senior Member

    I like Linglang's reasoning.

    In Canada we have a fairly uniform accent, except for newfies out east. Quebec of course has to do with French language and Only Vancouver do you notice a slight Califori lilt.
  17. GeoffP Caput gerat lupinum Valued Senior Member

    Quebec is packed with accents. The north is pretty noticeable, and so is Gaspe. The trained ear can still separate Montreal and Ste-Foy/Ville du Quebec.
  18. nietzschefan Thread Killer Valued Senior Member

    For sure. Mostly border towns getting English influence I guess.
  19. LingLang Registered Member

    Tell me about it!

    What little French I speak I learned in Centre-Ville/Ste Marie, bordering on the Plateau, and I got laughed at every time I tried to speak French in the better parts of Montreal (especially from the way I pronounce "oui" and "moi" as /weh/ and /mweh/.

    Oh, by the way: "Go Habs!!!"
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2011
  20. Robert Schunk Registered Senior Member

    Just want you all to know, I'm Robert Schunk, and I'm abandoning that stupid "LilgLang" moniker forever!!!

    Oh, God, how I hated that stupid thing!
  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    If you believed that you had to make up a pseudonym and keep it forever, why did you make up one you don't like??? The rest of us are, for the most part, quite pleased with ours.

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