Aerial view of English houses and fields

Accents and dialects of England through time

From Anglo-Saxon roots, through Norman and Viking invasions to the diversity of the late 20th century, read a brief history of the English language in England.

The English language has always been a mixed bag of diverse words, structures and sounds. At no point in time has the language been identical across the entire country and it is highly unlikely that it ever will be.

Anglo-Saxon roots

English is derived from a number of Germanic dialects brought to these shores roughly 1,500 years ago by settlers we now call Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons came from present-day northern Germany, and settled mainly in the south and West Country. Their influence in that part of England can be seen in the geographical place names Wessex, Essex, Middlesex and Sussex – these names literally mean ‘West Saxons, East Saxons, Mid-Saxons and South Saxons’. The Angles, from modern-day Denmark, settled mainly in the east of the country – an area of England we still call East Anglia – while the Jutes, from Jutland in northern Denmark, and the Frisians, from the present-day Netherlands settled elsewhere.

As is still the case in their respective ‘homelands’, these people spoke slightly different versions of closely related languages. Thus the English we now speak emerged from a number of different roots and has at no point in its history been uniform across the whole country.

Ancient divisions

For most of the last 1,500 years these dialects developed in relative isolation, and so differences were preserved and in some cases exaggerated when parts of the country received fresh waves of settlers. The Viking invasions, that occurred throughout northern and eastern England from the 9th century onwards, had a huge impact on the language spoken in that part of the country. Many words and place-names in these areas have Scandinavian origin, such as beck meaning ‘stream’ or bairn meaning ‘child’, and the place-names Whitby and Grimsby.

In fact, ancient political and social divisions are still reflected in the regional dialects and accents of spoken English today. The recognisably different varieties of English spoken in the north of England, the Midlands, East Anglia and the West Country correspond remarkably closely to the boundaries that separated the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex respectively.

Contemporary diversity

The second half of the 20th century was a period of tremendous social upheaval. Since the end of the Second World War we have experienced far greater social and geographic mobility and enjoyed increased access to education and to broadcast media. All of this has had an impact linguistically. However, although many people believe that accents and dialects are disappearing, and our voices are becoming increasingly similar, there is actually still an incredible amount of regional diversity in the language spoken around the country today.

Although our language continues to change, some parts of the country have been affected more dramatically than others and some changes have only occurred at a local level – so we can still hear significant differences in speech patterns as we travel across England. We have also experienced a new wave of immigration, particularly from Commonwealth countries, with speakers bringing fresh dialects and accents that further enrich the linguistic landscape. Especially in urban areas, speakers of Asian and Caribbean descent have blended their mother tongue speech patterns with existing local dialects to produce wonderful new varieties of English, such as London Jamaican or Bradford Asian English.

Listen to the UK’s regional accents and dialects 

Click on a location on the map to hear speakers from 70 different locations recorded from the mid-20th century to the present day.

Image credit: Banner image of Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland used with permission of Beautiful England Photos.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.