Photograph of Welsh coastline

Accents and dialects of Wales

Welsh English, surprisingly, is arguably a younger variety than the English spoken in the USA. Find out more about the history of English in Wales and its relationship with the Welsh language.

Although Wales has had closer political links with England for much longer than the other Celtic nations, many areas of the country remained beyond the influence of the English language until relatively recently. Some areas, such as the Pembrokeshire coast, were settled by English speakers centuries ago, but inhospitable terrain proved a barrier to migration elsewhere.

Until the start of the 18th century the vast majority of the population of Wales spoke Welsh, although many would have had regular contact with English. It is surprising to think then, that Welsh English as we know it today is actually a younger variety than the English spoken in the USA.

The spread of English

The Industrial Revolution saw a massive influx of English speakers at the start of the 19th century, particularly to Glamorgan in South Wales. This mass immigration meant towns such as Cardiff and Newport and communities along The Valleys expanded rapidly and English began to replace Welsh as the mother tongue of many speakers in that part of the country. A similar trend also occurred in areas such as Monmouthshire in the south-east and Flintshire and Denbighshire in the north-east. Elsewhere, particularly in rural west and north-west Wales, the population remained predominantly Welsh speaking, although by the start of the 20th century contact with English had increased to the point that most speakers were bilingual.

The Welsh revival

By the start of the 20th century Welsh was no longer widely spoken as a mother tongue in the densely populated urban areas in the south and along the border with England. Educational policy during much of the first half of the last century – when schools taught almost exclusively in English – was a constant threat, although Welsh survived remarkably well in rural areas as a community language.

A more enlightened policy in recent years, notably the compulsory teaching of Welsh in schools, and a renewed sense of political and cultural pride has led to a steady increase in the number of Welsh speakers. According to the 2011 census, 19% of the population of Wales now claim to be able to speak Welsh, with a recent rise in usage among young children aged three to four and among adults aged 20 to 44. As in the last century there remains a marked north/south divide, with 11% of the population of Cardiff claiming to speak some Welsh, while 56% of the population of Gwynedd in the north-west use Welsh on a daily basis.

A north/south divide

This marked division is also reflected in the nature of the English spoken in Wales. The accent and dialect of South Wales is strongly influenced by the English spoken in neighbouring areas, such as Bristol and the West Country; the English spoken in Mid-Wales bears some comparison with that spoken in places like Shrewsbury and other Midlands border areas, and the English spoken in North Wales has a strong resemblance to the variety spoken on Merseyside.

The fact that many speakers were and are bilingual in English and Welsh, and because the two languages have existed side-by-side within the same communities for generations, means Welsh has also exerted a strong influence on the English spoken in Wales. We are, for instance, immediately able to recognise a Welsh accent even if a speaker’s vocabulary and grammar does not differ greatly from other varieties of English. Certain sounds, such as the pronunciation of the vowel in words such as rude and threw with an <iw> sound and the lack of a <z> sound among some speakers in North Wales are ‘borrowed’ straight from Welsh. Above all the characteristic intonation pattern, often described as a ‘lilt’, and most closely associated with a Valleys accent, derives from the different stress placement, rhythm and timing of Welsh 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 Pen y Fan, Brecon Beacons National Park 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.