There are slight regional variations in formal written English in the United Kingdom (for example, although the words wee and little are interchangeable in some contexts, one is more likely to see wee written by someone from northern Britain or Northern Ireland than by someone from Southern England or Wales). Nevertheless, there is a meaningful degree of uniformity in written English within the United Kingdom, and this could be described as "British English". The forms of spoken English, however, vary considerably more than in most other areas of the world where English is spoken and a uniform concept of "British English" is therefore more difficult to apply to the spoken language. According to Tom McArthur in the Oxford Guide to World English (p. 45), "[f]or many people...especially in England [the phrase British English] is tautologous," and it shares "all the ambiguities and tensions in the word British, and as a result can be used and interpreted in two ways, more broadly or more narrowly, within a range of blurring and ambiguity".
Cohabitation with the Scandinavians resulted in a significant grammatical simplification and lexical enrichment of the Anglo-Frisian core of English; the later Norman occupation led to the grafting onto that Germanic core of a more elaborate layer of words from the Romance branch of the European languages. This Norman influence entered English largely through the courts and government. Thus, English developed into a "borrowing" language of great flexibility and with a huge vocabulary.
The widespread use of English worldwide is largely attributable to the power of the former British Empire and the widespread global commerce it encouraged under free trade, and this is reflected in the continued use of the language in both its successor (the British Commonwealth, and later the Commonwealth of Nations) and many other countries. In the days before radio and television, most communication across the English-speaking world was by the written word. This helped to preserve a degree of global uniformity of the written language. However, due to the vast separation distances involved, variations in the spoken language began to arise. This was also aided by émigrés to the empire encountering other, non-British cultures. In some cases, resulting variations in the spoken language have led to these being reflected in minor variations in written language usage, grammar and spellings in other countries.
The major divisions are normally classified as English English (or English as spoken in England, which comprises Southern English dialects, Midlands English dialects and Northern English dialects), Welsh English, Scottish English and the closely related dialects of the Scots language. The various British dialects also differ in the words that they have borrowed from other languages. The Scottish and Northern English dialects include many words originally borrowed from Old Norse and a few borrowed from Gaelic.
Following its last major survey of English Dialects (1950–1961), the University of Leeds has started work on a new project. In May 2007 the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded a grant to a team led by Sally Johnson, Professor of Linguistics and Phonetics at Leeds University to study British regional dialects.
Johnson's team are sifting through a large collection of examples of regional slang words and phrases turned up by the "Voices project" run by the BBC, in which they invited the public to send in examples of English still spoken throughout the country. The BBC Voices project also collected hundreds of news articles about how the British speak English from swearing through to items on language schools. This information will also be collated and analysed by the Johnson's team both for content and for where it was reported. "Perhaps the most remarkable finding in the Voices study is that the English language is as diverse as ever, despite our increased mobility and constant exposure to other accents and dialects through TV and radio." Work by the team on this project is not expected to end before 2010. When covering the award of the grant on 1 June 2007, The Independent stated:
Mr Upton, who is Professor of English at Leeds University, said that they were "very pleased"
The form of English most commonly associated with educated speakers in the southern counties of England is called the "Received Standard", and its accent is called Received Pronunciation (RP). It derives from a mixture of the Midland and Southern dialects which were spoken in London during the Middle Ages and is frequently used as a model for teaching English to foreign learners. Although educated speakers from elsewhere within the UK may not speak with an RP accent it is now a class-dialect more than a local dialect. The best speakers of Standard English are those whose pronunciation, and language generally, least betray their locality. It may also be referred to as "the King's (or Queen's) English", "Public School English", or "BBC English" as this was originally the form of English used on radio and television, although a wider variety of accents can be heard these days. Only approximately two percent of Britons speak RP, and it has evolved quite markedly over the last 40 years.
Estuary English has been gaining prominence in recent decades: it has some features of RP and some of Cockney. In London itself, the broad local accent is still changing, partly influenced by Caribbean speech. Communities migrating to the UK in recent decades have brought many more languages to the country. Surveys started in 1979 by the Inner London Education Authority discovered over 100 languages being spoken domestically by the families of the inner city's school children. As a result, Londoners speak with a mixture of accents, depending on ethnicity, neighbourhood, class, age, upbringing, and sundry other factors.
Since the mass immigration to Northamptonshire in the 1940s and its close accent borders, it has become a source of various accent developments. There, nowadays, one finds an accent known locally as the Kettering accent, which is a mixture of many different local accents, including East Midlands, East Anglian, Scottish, and Cockney. In addition, in the town of Corby, five miles (8 km) north, one can find Corbyite, which unlike the Kettering accent, is largely based on Scottish. This is due to the influx of Scottish steelworkers.
Outside the southeast there are, in England alone, other families of accents easily distinguished by natives, including:
- West Country (South West England)
- East Anglian
- West Midlands (Black Country, Birmingham)
- East Midlands
- Liverpool (Scouse)
- Manchester and other east Lancashire accents
- Newcastle (Geordie) and other northeast England accents
Although some of the stronger regional accents may sometimes be difficult for some anglophones from outside Britain to understand, almost all "British English" accents are mutually intelligible amongst the British themselves, with only occasional difficulty between very diverse accents. However, modern communications and mass media have reduced these differences significantly. In addition, most British people can to some degree temporarily 'swing' their accent (and particularly their vocabulary) towards a more neutral form of "standard" English at will, to reduce difficulty where very different accents are involved, or when speaking to foreigners. This phenomenon is known in linguistics as code shifting.
StandardisationAs with English around the world, the English language as used in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland is governed by convention rather than formal code: there is no equivalent body to the Académie française or the Real Academia Española, and the authoritative dictionaries (for example, Oxford English Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Chambers Dictionary, Collins Dictionary) record usage rather than prescribe it. In addition, vocabulary and usage change with time; words are freely borrowed from other languages and other strains of English, and neologisms are frequent.
For historical reasons dating back to the rise of London in the 9th century, the form of language spoken in London and the East Midlands became standard English within the Court, and ultimately became the basis for generally accepted use in the law, government, literature and education within Britain. Largely, modern British spelling was standardised in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), although previous writers had also played a significant role in this and much has changed since 1755. Scotland, which underwent parliamentary union with England only in 1707 (and devolved in 1998), still has a few independent aspects of standardisation, especially within its autonomous legal system.
Since the early 20th century, numerous books by British authors intended as guides to English grammar and usage have been published, a few of which have achieved sufficient acclaim to have remained in print for long periods and to have been reissued in new editions after some decades. These include, most notably of all, Fowler's Modern English Usage and The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers. Detailed guidance on many aspects of writing British English for publication is included in style guides issued by various publishers including The Times newspaper, the Oxford University Press and the Cambridge University Press, and others. The Oxford University Press guidelines were originally drafted as a single broadsheet page by Horace Henry Hart and were, at the time (1893) the first guide of their type in English; they were gradually expanded and eventually published, first as Hart's Rules and, most recently (in 2002), as part of The Oxford Manual of Style. Comparable in authority and stature to The Chicago Manual of Style for published American English, the Oxford Manual is a fairly exhaustive standard for published British English, to which writers can turn in the absence of any specific document issued by the publishing house that will publish their work.
- American and British English differences
- British Isles (terminology)
- Irish Language
- Languages in the United Kingdom
- Regional accents of English
- Scots language
- Scottish English
- Ulster Scots language
- McArthur, Tom (2002). Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866248-3 hardback, ISBN 0-19-860771-7 paperback.
- Bragg, Melvyn (2004). The Adventure of English, London: Sceptre. ISBN 0-340-82993-1
- Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62181-X.
- Simpson, John (ed.) (1989). Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Sounds Familiar? Examples of regional accents and dialects across the UK on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website
- The English-to-American Dictionary British words and terms translated into American English