Monday, June 1, 2020

Lilts, Brogues, and Llanfairpwll: The ‘Englishes’ of the British Isles

by Bryan Lu

Bryan Lu was a senior in Computer Science when he wrote this blog post in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ in spring 2019.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

When someone asks you to talk with a British accent, what do you sound like? Chances are, you are trying to imitate the sound of BBC News broadcasters or 19th century Victorian era nobility. You might even throw in some cliché phrases like, “Jolly good show, old chap!” or “pip pip, cheerio!” While these phrases certainly are very stereotypically English, the British Isles contain much more diversity in accents and dialects of the English language than most people would realize. Just take a look at this list, for example. There are quite a few varieties within England itself, including one known as Received Pronunciation (or RP), which is the accent you were most likely trying to mimic earlier. Furthermore, there are the kinds of English spoken in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, all of which have their own quirks and regional variations. These three specific varieties of English are often forgotten or confused for each other, so this linguistic tour of the British Isles will try to give those minority varieties more of the spotlight.

Giant’s Causeway, Ireland. 

Source: Tony Bowden, Flickr Creative Commons

First up is Irish English, or Hiberno-English. There has been a long history of contact between the English and Irish languages in Ireland, as the first English-speaking settlers traveled to the island in the 12th century. So, it makes sense that Irish English is heavily influenced by features of Irish Gaelic. For example, one of the defining features of Irish English is the use of “t” or “d” sounds instead of “th.” In this way, “thin” becomes “tin,” and “breathe” becomes something like “breed.” This pronunciation came about because Irish has no equivalent to the English “th” sounds, causing Irish speakers to approximate them with “t” and “d.” However, it must be noted that most people from Northern Ireland do not use this pronunciation. Another feature borrowed from Irish is the large range in pitch in general speech. On the stressed syllables of words, the voice of some Irish English speakers becomes lower in pitch. This is the reason why Irish English is sometimes described as sing-songy or lyrical. This pattern of intonation is especially characteristic of people from County Cork in the south of Ireland (like Roy Keane, a former Manchester United midfielder). Other famous people who speak a kind of Irish English include actress Saoirse Ronan (more modern Dublin accent), Conor McGregor (older Dublin accent), and Liam Neeson (Northern Irish accent).

Robert Burns, Scots language poet
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Next, we move on to Scottish English. The English used in Scotland can be described as a continuum, with Broad/Lowland Scots on one end and Standard Scottish English (SSE) on the other (Scobbie, Gordeeva, & Matthews, 2006). The case of Scotland is particularly interesting, as there are two different languages that have affected the English spoken there: Scots and Scottish Gaelic. One aspect of this is the unique vocabulary that the languages have brought to Scotland. Words like wee ‘small’ and bairn ‘child’ and the suffixes -nae ‘-not’ and -ie (like in laddie) all come from the Scots language, which was also the original language of the poem/song Auld Lang Syne. While Scots words are mostly restricted to within Scotland, many loanwords from Scottish Gaelic are used in all types of English. These include words like clan, slogan, and of course, whisky. There are also a number of pronunciations that are characteristic of Scottish English. One is that there is no distinction between the vowel in “put” and the vowel in “boot.” Instead, it is pronounced a bit like the sound halfway between the vowels in “bit” and “boot” (this is known as a close central rounded vowel). Other features include the use of a glottal stop (the catch in your throat when you say uh-oh) in place of “t” in the middle and end of words and the guttural “ch,” as in Loch Ness. To make this sound, say the letter “k”, but instead of releasing the air quickly, exhale with your tongue in the same position (like in the letters “f” and “s”). If you want to hear some Scottish English, take a listen to James McAvoy in this video for an extremely over-the-top accent: For more subdued versions, you could watch some videos of Andy Murray or Karen Gillan.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, we travel to Wales, in the southwest part of Great Britain. This variety, in my opinion, is more similar to RP than Scottish or Irish English, but there still are noticeable differences. One feature that Welsh English takes specifically from the Welsh language is that unstressed vowels at the ends of words tend to sound more like the vowel in “bed.” Multisyllabic Welsh words do not have schwas (neutral vowels, as in “the” or “above”), so this has carried over to Welsh English. Furthermore, Welsh English has more contrast with vowel length than most other varieties of English. In this context, vowel length simply means the amount of time the vowel is spoken for. For example, the words “cat” (using a vowel like “ahh”) and “cart” sound the same, except that the vowel in “cart” takes a bit more time to say. The longer vowel length of Welsh English is especially prominent in words that end in a long “e” sound, like “happy” or “city.” In those words, the vowel of the final syllable is drawn out longer than in other accents. This video of the actor Luke Evans presents a good example of a Welsh accent (plus Welsh slang!), and some other people you could listen to are Catherine Zeta-Jones or Tom Jones (when he isn’t singing).

There are many, many other accents of the British Isles to explore, and there could be a lot more said about Irish, Scottish, and Welsh English varieties of English. From Scouse and Geordie in the north of England, to Cockney and Cornish in the south, and even subvarieties of Scottish and Irish English, there is an impressive amount of diversity in a relatively compact geographical area. If you would like to hear more examples of accents, this website has sound clips of accents arranged by location on an interactive map. Also, for a more general look at accents, Wired’s YouTube series Technique Critic has some interesting videos breaking down a number of accents used by actors in movies. Happy listening!


Scobbie, James M, Gordeeva, Olga B, Matthews, Benjamin. “Acquisition of Scottish English phonology: an overview.” QMU Speech Science Research Centre Working Papers, WP-7, 2006.

Hickey, Raymond. “The Phonology of Irish English.” Handbook of Varieties of English, Volume 1: Phonology, edited by Bernd Kortman, Mouton De Gruyter, 2004, pp. 68–97.

Núñez Busto, Maite. “Welsh English: A ‘Mystery’ for the Kingdom.” Universidad del País Vasco, Departamento De Filología Inglesa y Alemana, 2016, pp. 1–35.


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