4 London English accents: how to understand what a native speaker is saying

Linguists note that there are about 160 different accents of English in the world. And each of them has its own peculiarities of the pronunciation of words.

Almost every city in Britain speaks slightly differently. Even within the same locality, it often happens that there is no single accent. In London, for example, there are four accents.

Let’s see what kind of accents are in use in London and how to learn to distinguish and understand them.

Received Pronunciation – Classic British

Standard British, which is considered one of the main accents of the English language. It is also called “Queen English” and “BBC English”. Can you guess why?

Because RP is spoken by the royal family and the aristocracy, and it is also the official emphasis of the British media.

If you turn on the news on any major UK channel, it will have a standard accent. Also, from all British dictionaries, transcriptions of words are served just for RP.

The term “Received Pronunciation” itself was coined by Daniel Jones, a famous British linguist and phonetician. And the word “received” itself should be understood as “preferred”, not “received”.

The sound of Standard English is known to almost all students who learn this language as a second. Even those who learn American English. But let’s dwell a little on the peculiarities of pronunciation. Let’s take one of the BBC news bulletins as an example.

One of the most noticeable differences from the American accent is the pronunciation of the sound [a:] in syllables with stress. Grass, pass, bath sounds long [a:] – the vowel sound is born near the root of the language. In American English, the front is pronounced [æ]…

This is one of the biggest RP rigs for a beginner. Pronunciation of the word “can’t”. In standard English, it sounds like [kɑːnt], with a long vowel. But if you do not stretch it out, but say it briefly, then “I cannot” will turn into one of the most rude English curses.

True, most native speakers are generally loyal to such pronunciation errors – in other words, they just laugh at it.

There are no such situations in American English because “can’t” is pronounced like [kænt] – nothing to do with [kʌnt]…

One of the main advantages of Standard English is that it is understood everywhere. Even if you find yourself somewhere in the village of Wales, then you and your RP will be understood. True, it is not a fact that you will understand the interlocutor, but it is still better than nothing. Even if the speaker has some other native accent, in the frame he will still speak the standard one.

There are many RP opponents in Britain who are trying to maintain their local accents. They look disdainfully at “posh english” – “aristocratic English.” But they live mainly in the provinces, and in London RP understand and accept everything with rare exceptions.

Cockney – a working class accent

Cockney is a very old dialect of English spoken in London’s East End, the part of the city east of the City Wall. The eastern part of the city has historically been an industrial center and opposed to the “elite” West End.

Historically, the East End has been home to poor workers and immigrants. Such a closed society in this part of the city has developed its own accent – the Cockney.

Previously, one of its main features was rhymed slang. When the original word in the language was replaced by a phrase that rhymes with it.

Bees and Honey – Money (Bees and honey are money)
Loaf of Bread – Head (Loaf of bread – head)
Mince Pies – Eyes (Fruit Pie – Eyes)
Weasel and Stoat – Coat (Weasel and Ermine – Coat)

Nowadays, rhymed Cockney is not used in real speech. As a joke or banter – maybe. But to talk like that all the time – this is no longer there.

Moreover, the accent itself is still widespread. Under the influence of globalization, it gradually begins to smooth out, but many media people have some particular pronunciation features.

Take Adele, for example. The popular singer was born in Tottenham and has a variety of Cockney phonetic characteristics in her speech.

Pay attention to how the sound sounds [θ] in the words “everything” and “thing”. Adele pronounces it like [f]… I.e, [ˈevrifɪŋ] and [fɪŋk]… This feature is common to almost all Cockney – and is the easiest way to recognize this accent. By the same principle, sound [ð] turns into [v]…

Sound [h] in the word “have” and other words with it at the beginning drops out. In RP, you can clearly hear it:

Adele pronounces “have” as [’əv]… In Cockney, most unstressed syllables sound [h] disappears completely or is replaced by a laryngeal jumper.

And one more feature that Adele manifests itself over and over again. In a Cockney accent, the word “my” is often pronounced “me”. That is, the phrase “my mom” will sound like “me mom”.

Otherwise, Cockney vowels are pronounced wider than RP. But pure Cockney can be found only among the old residents of the East End. Young people mostly use only a small part of the accent features.

By the way, in the films “The Lord of the Rings” British accents are played very interestingly. Cockney went to the orcs. Moreover, not only in the Tolkien universe. The orcs in Warhammer 40,000 also speak Cockney. Of course, this can be explained by the fact that the protruding lower canines interfere with the articulation of some sounds, but the solution is still interesting in terms of specifically choosing an accent.

Estuarine English is a cross between RP and Cockney

If the previous emphasis is gradually disappearing, then Estuarine English is gaining ground in London and Britain as a whole.

Formally, Estuary English is not even a distinctive accent, but a mix of some features of other pronunciations. Most of all he took from the Cockney. Estuarine English is considered by some linguists to be a transitional link between RP and Cockney.

He lacks the polish that many working class people dislike in RP. And now the estuarine accent is in many ways opposed to standard English.

But at the same time, EE has long since left the “industrial zone”. Many British businessmen use this accent to highlight the class divide between them and the aristocrats. Many people take pride in their simple origins, so they basically don’t want to use RP.

Estuarine English is a highly flexible system. There are no common features of phonetics. But most often it includes the following features, which are also inherent in Cockney:

  • Sound pronunciation [l]… It sounds whatever, but not [l]… The word “milk”, for example, becomes “miwk”. “Sold” – like [sɔʊd], but not [səʊld]… And the phrase “girl out” is generally like [ɡɛo ˈæoʔ]…
  • Glottal stop. In fact, this is a kind of sound when the root of the tongue blocks the larynx. Almost one to one with the way you swallow saliva. So, it often replaces the sound [t]… The long-suffering “can’t” in estuarine sounds like [kɑːnʔ], and “better” generally turns into “beh-eh”.

Actor Ricky Gervais is the ultimate example of the EE accent. Pay attention to the phrase “It doesn’t get any better”. The word “better” turns into “beh-eh” with a glottal stop.

Just listen to how different this accent is from the standard one. Everything seems to be clear, but fast speech sounds very strange.

At the same time, EE does not use the most noticeable phonetic features from Cockney. Replacing “th” with “f” and “v” is rare – there was none before, but Estonian English continues to change. Sound dropouts [h] also no.

EE can be called a spoken version of the language spoken by many native speakers. For a student who teaches English as a foreign language, it will sound a little unusual, but generally no problem to understand.

Multicultural London English is the newest of accents

MLE is a very young accent that linguists began to pay attention to only at the end of the 20th century.

The majority of MLE carriers are people of different ethnicity and cultural backgrounds. The ESRC study offers a very interesting idea that the accent itself was influenced by newcomers who studied English as a second and naturalized in Britain.

To summarize, Multicultural London English has gathered softened accents of people for whom English is the second. That is, when you have learned English to a fluent conversational level and have lived for a year or two in Britain, you can say that you have an MLE accent – and this will not be far from the truth.

We do not touch upon grammatical features here, but they are in MLE. Because the sociolect (yes, that’s what they call it) allows a certain level of discrepancy with classical grammar.

Here are some of the most significant phonetic features of accent:

  • “Th” is often articulated as “t” or “d”. This is how “think” becomes [tɪŋk], “That” and [dæt]…
  • Sound [h] does not drop at all. This is the exact opposite of Cockney. In all words, it is articulated clearly.
  • Floating sounds [æ], [ʌ], [ɑ], [ɐ]… In fact, there is no clear enough articulation of the vowels. Therefore, front, middle, and back vowels can be used interchangeably. This is not entirely correct from the point of view of RP, but quite a reality today.

    British rapper Stormzy speaks with an MLE accent. And sometimes he also neglects correct grammar for the sake of speech speed. Listen to his interview:

By the way, not understanding how vowels are created in a language is one of the most common problems for students who learn English as a second. It is necessary to separately work out the understanding of where what sound is needed and how to extract it.

The accent itself is still young, so there are no general rules that could characterize it. Therefore, two different people may articulate sounds slightly differently. The emphasis is still young, so it is still changing under the influence of globalization and immigrants.

But among young people under 25, MLE is considered one of the most common accents.


Even in the capital of Great Britain, there is no single accent. But it normal. Language is a dynamic system that is constantly in motion.

In fact, distinguishing between these accents is not difficult. Much easier than understanding English with Chinese or Indian pronunciation. This is largely a matter of hearing. The brain gradually gets used to the sound of certain words and phrases, so some features of the accent cease to matter. Moreover, many newcomers begin to unconsciously imitate the accent of the environment they are in.

But for a student who is learning English as a second, RP is a must have. It is worth changing your accent already when you live in Britain and move in certain circles where a specific version of the accent is popular. Or you don’t have to bother at all and speak RP. After all, the main thing in language is to be understood. And there is an accent or not – this is the fifth thing.

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