It’s always said that Britain has a surprising number of regional accents for such a small island, at least compared to other English-speaking nations like the US or Canada. Take an hour-long train journey between any town in this "green and pleasant land" and there's a strong chance you’ll be able to pick up on the differences between the twangs of the native speakers.
This isn’t just a naive assumption – Britain really does have a richer variety of regional accents compared to the US. There are a bunch of complex reasons behind this, but it is largely tied to the longer history of English in the British Isles compared to North America.
Why does the UK have more regional accents than the US?
The English language, at least in some form, has been the mother tongue within the British Isles since the Anglo-Saxons over 1,500 years ago, while it has only been spoken in the Americas for around 500 years since European colonization.
When the seeds of the English language were first sprouting, people were not very mobile, and communication between regions was extremely limited. Each region’s accents were shaped by their own influences and pressures, plus they managed to remain fairly distinct because the speakers remained isolated from each other’s influence.
“English has been around a lot longer [in Britain]. Because a lot of the population wasn't very mobile, there were people who were staying for generations and more or less the same place,” Professor Dominic Watt, a linguist at the University of York who has co-authored editions of the textbook English Accents and Dialects, told IFLScience.
“There were social structures that kept people in one place back in the old days of feudalism. The majority of the population did not have opportunities to move around very much except maybe during times of war,” he added.
By comparison, English was initially spread across North America in a much more sweeping and actively mobile fashion. Vast numbers of people from the British Isles, often from the same towns and villages, were brought over at the same time and quickly settled across the vast space of land. There were other forces at play, like Spanish and French settlers who brought over their own languages, but the relatively rapid colonization did result in accents becoming more uniform than the homelands in Europe.
“If you look at the settlement project in North America, it was done in a very kind of deliberate way,” explained Watts. “The aim was to try and settle as much of the continent as possible as quickly as possible.”
“The very early founders were the first people to bring English to North America. People were self-selected. When it comes to importing a language, people came from quite similar backgrounds at the same time,” he added. “You had people who were quite socially homogeneous quite often from the same parts of the English-speaking world.”
Regional accents in the US and beyond
Of course, this isn’t to say that the US has no regional accents. It doesn’t take a linguist to tell the difference between the vocalizations of a New Yorker, a Texan cowboy, and a Valley Girl. However, the spread of dialect variation in the US is on a much bigger scale, geographically speaking.
“If you liken it to a jigsaw puzzle, you could say that the size of the pieces in Britain are really, really small. You don't have to go very far before you find some change in the way that people speak. Whereas the size of those pieces in North America, and Canada more particularly, those pieces are really large,” Watts told IFLScience.
Indeed, Canada and Australia were both similarly colonized by the English-speaking world, resulting in comparatively less regional diversity of accents to Britain. However, the same can not be said for other European countries that were shaped by similar historical forces to Britain.
“Germany is a really good comparison. Massive amounts of dialect variation. You don't have to go more than a few miles from here [Berlin] before people start speaking of Brandenburg accent, you go a little bit further south and they switch into this very broad Saxon speech, which is considered the least attractive variety of German by a lot of people,” Watts noted.
The future of regional accents
However, regional accent diversity is becoming flattened in our ever-more connected world. With unbounded mobility, mass communication, and the internet, regional accents in Britain are becoming more homogenized. That’s a trend that can be seen across many languages in the 21st century, especially in Europe.
As a counterpoint, languages rarely stay static for long. While there is a tendency towards accents leveling out, new accents and dialects are always emerging. As just one example, linguists at Florida International University have noted that a new Spanglish dialect is emerging in Miami as a result of Americans being influenced by decades of immigration from Spanish-speaking countries.
Within Britain, the past five decades or so have seen the emergence of a new accent, known as Multicultural London English or MLE. The English spoken by many in multicultural parts of London has become infused with the slang and linguistic rhythms of people from the Caribbean, as well as West Africa and South Asia, who migrated in the post-war era. Popular culture has since supercharged this influence and proliferated it beyond the confines of the big cities.
In this sense, accent variation will never die. Accents are at the core of people’s identity. Although colossal forces are working to homogenize accents, people will always strive to express themselves in endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.
“For a long time, people have been saying that education, the media, and everything will standardize everybody's speech, that we will all sound the same. But no, identity factors will oppose that,” Watts concludes.
“I think accents are going to be with us forever.”