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  1. Are there rules of thumb for pinpointing British accents regionally?
  2. What other accents do Americans tend to mistake for British?
  3. Are there good online resources that can help with this? Audio samples would be essential.

EDIT: Also, is there such a thing as a "neutral" British accent, analogous to American broadcaster's midwest pronunciation that is perceived to be the most free of regional characteristics.

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Identifying accents is a very holistic affair. I suggest you just familiarise yourself with them. –  Noldorin Aug 26 '10 at 0:16
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Wikipedia's list of dialects of the English language is quite comprehensive: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_dialects –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 26 '10 at 12:19
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Less-travelled Americans will tend to identify accents from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa as British. I've even heard someone think that the late Canadian newscaster Peter Jennings was English, but that's really a stretch. –  MaxN Aug 27 '10 at 18:51
    
@mnewell It's funny you should say that, as the stereotype is for Americans to think Britons are actually Australian! However, I don't recall this actually happening to me (I'm British) when I've been in the States. –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 31 '10 at 11:37
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@Steve - most Americans who express a preference think I am speaking with an Australian accent, though I've never been there (I'm from "old" Hampshire). Here's the truly weird thing: of the 8 out of 10 Starbucks' baristas who don't get my name right on the cup, 100% of them put Tony instead of Colin, that is until yesterday when someone wrote Conan after asking me to repeat my name twice! –  ukayer Feb 25 '11 at 5:55

8 Answers 8

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Check this out in relation to the accent question. I find it extremely interesting to hear accents from different places.

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Thanks for this, looks like a great resource. For what it's worth, the Staffordshire voice sounds the most "neutral" to my midwestern US ear. –  Chris Noe Sep 4 '10 at 21:08
    
@ChrisNoe - Perhaps, but that's a relatively untrained (American) ear, so that observation may not be worth much, or worse may be a regional observation. For example, folks in the American South Midland dialect may find SSE more pleasant than other accents, as it probably derives from a common ancestor to their own. Likewise, someone from the American North Midland dialect might find a English midlands dialect like Staffordshire more pleasant, as those two dialects supposedly share an ancestor. –  T.E.D. Feb 3 at 19:29

Also, is there such a thing as a "neutral" British accent, analogous to American broadcaster's midwest pronunciation that is perceived to be the most free of regional characteristics.

The Cambridge pronunciation dictionary calls it "BBC English". Previously the term "received pronunciation" was in use.

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listen to Richard Dawkins for a good example -- search youtube –  moioci Aug 26 '10 at 2:30
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@moioci: I think he sounds a bit too posh to be "neutral"...but this is, of course, highly subjective. –  Steve Melnikoff Aug 26 '10 at 12:20
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@Steve is right - Dawkins is a shade too posh. I would say a BBC newsreader would be a better benchmark. –  user774 Aug 30 '10 at 19:19
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BBC newsreaders are a mixed bunch these days. –  TRiG Oct 14 '10 at 21:28
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David Attenborough is a pretty canonical example of RP, I think. –  PLL Dec 21 '10 at 8:09

I doubt there is really a completely neutral British English accent. There almost always small give aways in an individual's speech which carry influences of both region and class. Having been born and brought up in Solihull, a south-eastern suburb of Birmingham, I grew up able to speak with a West Midlands accent and alternatively with a supposedly neutral British accent. The latter was acquired by being sent to a posh boarding school by my parents, who were determined I should not speak with a Brummie accent.

I believe the West Midlands accent uses more vowel sounds which differ from the neutral (or BBC, or "Oxford" or Queen's English) pronunciation than any other regional accent. I think this is why West Midlands (or Birmingham or Brummie) is so despised. Personally I love it; it's the linguistic equivalent of a delicious mature Blue Stilton cheese.

The inhabitants of Solihull are somewhat obsessed with trying not to sound Brummie. They will even go to the extreme of saying in their obviously West Midland tones: "We're nothing to do with Birmingham, you know. We come from a little village near Stratford upon Avon". Their feigned association with Will Shakespeare is comic. I have no doubt that the playwrite/poet/actor spoke with a version of the West Midlands accent used in his day and, like any good actor, could probably mimic any accent needed for whatever part he was playing at the time.

Let's not get too serious about it.

Noel

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Re: Stilton - What...not Wensleydale? –  Mitch Feb 3 at 17:31

is there such a thing as a "neutral" British accent

I believe that both BBC English and Received Pronunciation are artificial attempts to impose a "neutral" accent where there was previously none.

I think of BBC English as analogous to inventing Canberra as the capital of Australia to avoid offending the good people of Sydney and Melbourne.

On the other hand, Received Pronunciation was an attempt by one, particularly privileged, class of people to unilaterally declare their accent as The Neutral One.

I don't believe there is a neutral British accent.

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I think there are a few small areas dotted all over England which produce accents such that the hearer does not automatically think "he's from Birmingham", or "she's a geordie", or "he's a cockney". –  John Ferguson Sep 29 '10 at 21:08

There was a PBS/BBC tv show back in the '80's called "The Story of English". Also has an updated companion book.

It was quite the good program. One interesting thing that was done in the show, was to compare various British accents to American accents. For example comparing American Southern accents, to accents in specific parts of Great Britain. Anyway, it was a long time ago when I saw the program; but it was quite fascinating.

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Pin pointing British accents I would say would only come from familiarity and experience. Coming from the UK with a fairly neutral East Midlands accent and being a fairly regular visitor to the States in the past, my accent has been confused in order of frequency as Australian, South African, NZ, French and Russian. The most common response to hearing my voice in the States is "Cool accent... Where are you from?"

I would urge caution regarding using BBC news readers as a source of a neutral British accent as in recent years some regional accents have been quite commonly used. The current anchor for the 6 o'clock BBC news, Hugh Edwards is Welsh and his accent is quite distinctive. Better examples would be Moira Stewart or Sophie Rayworth. I agree that Richard Dawkins is a little on the posh side.

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In my view, Mishal Husain, Evan Davies, Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes and Alice Roberts have quite good examples of neutral accents. I enjoy listening to them more than people from my own region. –  John Ferguson Sep 29 '10 at 21:09
    
What about Charlotte Green? youtube.com/watch?v=kKBWsy5A2bA Laughing on the Today programme. And youtube.com/watch?v=V_BJM2h9FRo Being herself at The News Quiz. –  TRiG Feb 9 '11 at 19:50
    
Paul, an "anchor" 0.tqn.com/d/cruises/1/0/F/7/5/Astoria_36.JPG ? Don't you mean a newsreader? dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/… –  Tristan r Feb 3 at 16:41

This site at the British Library has a collection of different regional accents, some recent and some recorded several decades ago:

http://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/

Some of the older ones, made c. 1918, are quite difficult for a modern Brit to understand, and the recording quality can be poor too:

http://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/Berliner-Lautarchiv-British-and-Commonwealth-recordings

Perhaps a rule-of-thumb is that people from the north of England generally pronounce the 'a' in words like bath and glass short, whereas people from the south draw it out longer, more of an 'ah' sound, 'barth, glarss'. Also, northerners pronounce 'u' more like 'oo'. I don't know the technical words for this, sorry.

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"Americans" are a rather diverse lot. Many of my friends aren't very well travelled, and honestly couldn't tell an Indian accent from a Brit from an Aussie. On the other hand, folks who love watching the Pythons and/or imported British shows like Downton Abbey, eventually might be able to discern multiple different British accents.

Heck, some folks (particularly clerks) are isolated enough that they are hopeless outside of their own native accent. My dad had horrible trouble when visiting me in Philly trying to ask for a can of Skoal at a convenience store. Conversely, I had a buddy from Philly visiting the South tell me about multiple failed attempts to ask a southerner for directions.

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I think I understand how this applies to the question (hard to generalize American perceptions of British accents), but it would be helpful if you could make it a little clearer. –  KitFox Feb 6 at 14:21

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