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Regional voices: An introduction to language variation across the UK

If you travel across the UK you experience changing landscapes, architecture and customs, but also variation in the voices you hear. Discover the difference between an accent and a dialect, and explore attitudes to language variation across the country.

Regional voices

All languages change over time and vary according to place and social setting. The way we speak is influenced by many factors – the roots of our elders, our social and educational background, our working environment, our friends and our own sense of identity. As we move across the country we experience the changing landscape and architecture. At the same time we notice a gradual change in the sounds we hear – the accents and dialects that immediately conjure up a sense of the place to which they belong. The terms accent and dialect are often used interchangeably, although in strict linguistic terms they refer to different aspects of language variation.

To explore to a range of the UK's dialects and accents, click on a location on the map below to hear speakers from 70 different locations recorded from the mid-20th century to the present day.

What is a dialect?

A dialect is a specific variety of English that differs from other varieties in three specific ways: lexis (vocabulary), grammar (structure) and phonology (pronunciation or accent). English dialects may be different from each other, but all speakers within the English-speaking world can still generally understand them. A speaker from Newcastle upon Tyne, for instance, might pepper his speech with localised vocabulary, such as gan for 'to go' or clarts for 'mud'. He may often use regional grammatical constructions, such as the past tense constructions I’ve went and I’ve drank or the reflexive pronouns mysel, yoursel, hissel etc. In addition he probably uses a range of local pronunciations. For all these reasons he could be described as a Geordie dialect speaker.

What is an accent?

Accent, on the other hand, refers only to differences in the sound patterns of a specific dialect. A speaker from Newcastle upon Tyne who generally uses mainstream vocabulary and grammar, but whose pronunciation has an unmistakeable hint of Tyneside, should properly be described as having a Geordie accent. In other words, dialect is the umbrella term for a variety of linguistic features, one of which is accent. True dialect speakers are relatively rare, but despite popular belief we all speak with an accent.

In this section you can listen to original recordings of dialect speakers from across the UK, recorded at different times last century. You will also find recordings of RP speakers and minority ethnic communities. Consider the following statement and click on the highlighted words for more information about particular types of language variation:

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Attitudes to language variety

For many years, certain English dialects have been viewed more positively than others. Many of us make assumptions based on the way people speak – judging certain dialects or accents as too posh, harsh, aggressive, unfriendly, ‘unintelligent’ or ‘common’. Unfortunately many individuals have suffered as a result of this irrational prejudice. No one dialect is better at communicating meaning than another. The fact some dialects and accents are seen to be more prestigious than others is more a reflection of judgements based on social, rather than linguistic, criteria. We live in an increasingly homogeneous society and so the vocabulary, structure and sounds that define the speech of a particular region, should be and indeed are for many speakers, a source of great pride and an important expression of cultural identity.

  • 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.