Dialects of English

Dr. C. George Boeree

English is actually an unusual language.  Already a blend of early Frisian and Saxon, it absorbed Danish and Norman French, and later added many Latin and Greek technical terms.  In the US, Canada, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere, it absorbed terms for indigenous plants, animals, foodstuffs, clothing, housing, and other items from native and immigrant languages.  Plus, the various dialects, from Cockney to Jamaican, and innumerable sources of slang, from Polari to hip hop, continue to add novel terms and expressions to the mix.  It is no surprise to hear from people learning English what a student once told me:  English just has too many words!

Pronunciation (for our purposes):

  • i: as in beet
  • i as in bit
  • ei as in bait
  • e as in bet
  • æ as in bat
  • a: as in father
  • å as in pot (RP)
  • o as in paw
  • ou as in coat
  • u as in cook
  • u: as in kook
  • œ as in but
  • ' as in ago
  • yu: as in cute
  • ai as in kite
  • oi as in coy
  • au as in cow
  • c as in church
  • j as in judge
  • th as in thin
  • dh as in then
  • sh as in shush
  • zh as in azure
  • ng as in ring
  • hw as in whale
  • hy as in huge
  • ü as in German
  • ö as in French
  • kh as in Scottish loch (lokh)
  • gh as in Dutch
  • ñ as in Spanish
  • ? as t in Cockney bottle (bo?'l)

British English

Map from Pictures of England (http://www.picturesofengland.com)


Southern English engages in r-dropping, that is, r's are not pronounced after vowels, unless followed by another vowel.  Instead, vowels are lengthened or have an /'/ off-glide, so fire becomes /fai'/, far becomes /fa:/, and so on.
The English of well-bred Londoners, especially graduates of the public schools (e.g. Eton and Harrow) and "Oxbridge" universities, was the origin of "the Queen's English," also known as Received Pronunciation (RP), BBC, or "posh."

Originally the dialect of the working class of East End London.
  • initial h is dropped, so house becomes /aus/ (or even /a:s/).
  • /th/ and /dh/ become /f/ and /v/ respectively: think > /fingk/, brother > /brœv'/.
  • t between vowels becomes a glottal stop: water > /wo?'/.
  • diphthongs change, sometimes dramatically: time > /toim/, brave > /braiv/, etc.
Besides the accent, it includes a large number of slang words, including the famous rhyming slang:
  • have a butchers -- take a look [from butcher's hook = look]
  • north and south -- mouth
  • plates -- feet [from plates of meat = feet]
  • boat race --  face
  • skin and blister -- sister
  • trouble --  wife [from trouble and strife = wife]
  • dustbin lids -- kids / children
  • whistle -- suit [from whistle and flute = suit]
  • oily rag -- fag = cigarette
  • jam jar -- car
  • mince pies -- eyes
  • pen and ink -- stink
  • porkies -- lies [from pork pies = lies]
  • titfer -- hat [from tit for tat = hat]
  • apples and pears -- stairs
  • Jimmy --  urinate [from Jimmy Riddle = piddle]
  • Bertie Woofter --  gay man [from Bertie Woofter = poofter]
  • China --  mate / friend  [from China plate = mate]
  • Khyber --  buttocks [from Khyber Pass = ass]
  • rabbit and pork --  talk
  • tea leaf  --  thief
  • taters -- cold  [from potato mold  = cold]
  • dog and bone -- phone
  • loaf  --  head  [from loaf of bread = head]
  • brown bread --  dead
  • elbows and knees -- trees
  • gold watch  --  Scotch
  • pride and joy --  boy
  • current bun --  Sun
  • dicky --  shirt [from dicky dirt = shirt]
  • pots and pans -- hands
  • jugs  --  ears [from jugs of beers = ears]
  • ones and twos -- shoes
  • daisies  --  boots [from daisy roots = boots]
  • bird --  prison [from bird lime = time, as in doing time]
(from Kryss Katsiavriades at http://www.krysstal.com/cockney.html)

Estuary English

From London down the Thames and into Essex, Sussex, and even Kent, a new working and middle class dialect has evolved and is rapidly become "the" southern dialect.  It combines some of the characteristics of Cockney with RP, but makes much less use of Cockney slang.
East Anglian

This dialect is very similar to the Southern:
East Midlands

The dialect of the East Midlands, once filled with interesting variations from county to county, is now predominantly RP.  R's are dropped, but h's are pronounced.  The only signs that differentiate it from RP:
The West Country
West Midlands

This is the dialect of Ozzie Osbourne!  While pronunciation is not that different from RP, some of the vocabulary is:
Brummie is the version of West Midlands spoken in Birmingham.

This dialect, spoken north and east of Liverpool, has the southern habit of dropping r's.  Other features:
Scouse is the very distinctive Liverpool accent, a version of the Lancashire dialect, that the Beatles made famous.
  • the tongue is drawn back.
  • /th/ and /dh/ > /t/ and /d/ respectively.
  • final k sounds like the Arabic q.
  • for is pronounced to rhyme with fur.

The Yorkshire dialect is known for its sing-song quality, a little like Swedish, and retains its r's.

The Northern dialect closely resembles the southern-most Scottish dialects.  It retains many old Scandinavian words, such as bairn for child, and not only keeps its r's, but often rolls them.  The most outstanding version is Geordie, the dialect of the Newcastle area.


Welsh English is characterized by a sing-song quality and lightly rolled r's.  It has been strongly influenced by the Welsh language, although it is increasingly influenced today by standard English, due to the large number of English people vacationing and retiring there.


Scotland actually has more variation in dialects than England!  The variations do have a few things in common, though, besides a large particularly Scottish vocabulary:
There are several "layers" of Scottish English.  Most people today speak standard English with little more than the changes just mentioned, plus a few particular words that they themselves view as normal English, such as to jag (to prick) and burn (brook).  In rural areas, many older words and grammatical forms, as well as further phonetic variations, still survive, but are being rapidly replaced with more standard forms.  But when a Scotsman (or woman) wants to show his pride in his heritage, he may resort to quite a few traditional variations in his speech.  First, the phonetics:
Plus, the grammar:
And finally, the many unique words:  lass, bairn (child), kirk (church), big (build), bonny, greet (weep), ingle (household fire), aye (yes), hame (home)...  As you can see, Scottish English in its original glory is as near to being different language as one can get, rather than simply another dialect of English.  See Clive P L Young's Scots Haunbuik at http://www.electricscotland.com/tourist/sh_gram.htm for more detail.

There are also several urban dialects, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  The thick dialect of the working class of Edinburgh can be heard in the movie Trainspotting.

In the Highlands, especially the Western Islands, English is often people's second language, the first being Scottish Gaelic.  Highland English is pronounced in a lilting fashion with pure vowels.  It is, actually, one of the prettiest varieties of English I have ever heard.


English was imposed upon the Irish, but they have made it their own and have contributed some of our finest literature.  Irish English is strongly influenced by Irish Gaelic:
The sentence structure of Irish English often borrows from the Gaelic:
As with the English of the Scottish Highlands, the English of the west coast of Ireland, where Gaelic is still spoken, is lilting, with pure vowels.  It, too, is particularly pretty.

Australian English

Australian English is predominantly British English, and especially from the London area.  R’s are dropped after vowels, but are often inserted between two words ending and beginning with vowels.

The vowels reflect a strong “Cockney” influence:  The long a (/ei/) tends towards a long i (/ai/), so pay sounds like pie to an American ear. The long i (/ai/), in turn, tends towards oi, so cry sounds like croy.  Ow sounds like it starts with a short a (/æ/).  Other vowels are less dramatically shifted.

Even some rhyming slang has survived into Australlian English:  Butcher’s means look (butcher’s hook); hit and miss means piss; loaf means head (loaf of bread); Noah’s ark means shark; Richard the third means turd, and so on.

Like American English has absorbed numerous American Indian words, Australian English has absorbed many Aboriginal words:
...not to mention such ubiquitous words as kangaroo, boomerang, and koala!

Aborigine and colonialist myths blended easily, and there are a number of fearsome creatures.  For example, the bunyip lives near bilibongs and eats children. Also living in bilibongs is the mindi, a hairy snake.  A yowie is the Australian version of Sasquatch.  And the min-min light is their version of a will-o-the-wisp.

Many common words refer to the traditions of the bushman or bushie -- the early explorers and settlers of the outback (wilderness).  You can find many of these in Australia’s national song, Waltzing Matilda.
Colorful expressions also abound:
Another characteristic of Australian English is abbreviated words, often ending in -y, -ie, or -o:
And, of course, there are those peculiarly Australian words and expressions, such as g’day (guhdoy to American ears), crikey, fair dinkum, no worries, Oz, Pavlova, and Vegemite!

New Zealand

New Zealand English is heard by Americans as "Ozzie Light." The characteristics of Australian English are there to some degree, but not as intensely.  The effect for Americans is uncertainty as to whether the person is from England or Australia.  One clue is that New Zealand English sounds "flatter" (less modulated) than either Australian or British English and more like western American English.

South Africa

South African English is close to RP but often with a Dutch influence.  English as spoken by Afrikaaners is more clearly influenced by Dutch pronunciation.  Just like Australian and American English, there are numberous words adopted from the surrounding African languages, especially for native species of animals and plants.  As spoken by black South Africans for whom it is not their first language, it often reflects the pronunciation of their Bantu languages, with purer vowels.  Listen, for example, to Nelson Mandela or Bishop Tutu.

Alan Millar of South Africa wrote me with some additional information:
Dialects also varies slightly from east to west:  In Natal (in western South Africa), /ai/ is pronounced /a:/, so that why is pronounced /wa:/.

On top of all this, the dialects of the ethnic group referred to in South Africa as "Coloured" (i.e. of mixed racial backgrounds) have a dialect quite distinct from the dialects of "white" South Africans.

Alan also suggests that South African has a "flatter" (less modulated) sound, similar to that of New Zealand as contrasted with Australian English.


Canadian English is generally similar to northern and western American English.  The one outstanding characteristic is called Canadian rising:
Americans can listen to the newscaster Peter Jennings -- one of the best voices on the telly! -- for these sounds.

One unusual characteristic found in much Canadian casual speech is the use of sentence final "eh?" even in declarative sentences.

Most Canadians retain r's after vowels, but in the Maritimes, they drop their r's, just like their New England neighbors to the south.

Newfoundland has a very different dialect, called Newfie, that seems to be strongly influenced by Irish immigrants:

American English

American English derives from 17th century British English.  Virginia and Massachusetts, the “original” colonies, were settled mostly by people from the south of England, especially London.  The mid Atlantic area -- Pennsylvania in particular -- was settled by people from the north and west of England and by the Scots-Irish (descendents of Scottish people who settled in Northern Ireland).  These sources resulted in three dialect areas -- northern, southern, and midland.  Over time, further dialects would develop.

The Boston area and the Richmond and Charleston areas maintained strong commercial -- and cultural -- ties to England, and looked to London for guidance as to what was “class” and what was not.  So, as the London dialect of the upper classes changed, so did the dialects of the upper class Americans in these areas.  For example, in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, r-dropping spread from London to much of southern England, and to places like Boston and Virginia.  New Yorkers, who looked to Boston for the latest fashion trends, adopted it early, and in the south, it spread to wherever the plantation system was.  On the other hand, in Pennsylvania, the Scots-Irish, and the Germans as well, kept their heavy r’s.

On the other hand, vocabulary in America was much more open to change than back in the old country.  From the Indians, we got the names for many North American animals and plants, and thousands of place names.  Here is a partial list (from an exhaustive list compiled by Mark Rosenfelder (http://www.zompist.com/indianwd.html):
The slave trade brought many new words from the Caribbean:
From the Indians of Mexico, we adopted many other words, some through Spanish and others directly: 
From slaves, we got another set of words, all the way from Africa:
Speaking of slaves, southern speech in particular was influenced by slave speech habits, which in turn were based in part on original African languages and in part on the creoles which spread from the African coast and the West Indies.  When southerners say “I done lost it,” they are using a slave creole construction.

More willing immigrants added to other dialects.  The Germans and the Irish had a huge impact on the colonies and early states.  The dialects of central Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and the Dakotas were strongly influenced by the Germans, while the city dialects of the north were influenced by the Irish.

New York City became the door to the United States in the 1800’s, and we see the impact of other immigrants, such as Jews and Italians:  words such as spaghetti, pasta, pizza, nosh, schlemiel, yenta; expressions such as wattsamatta and I should live so long.  The absence of the th sounds in the original Dutch of NYC, as well as in Italian and Yiddish and the English dialect of the Irish, led to the distinctive dese and dose of New York -- only now starting to diminish.

There is also a western dialect, which developed in the late 1800’s.  It is literally a blend of all the dialects, although it is most influenced by the northern midland dialect.  Although there are certainly differences between the dialects of, say, Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Denver, they are far less distinct than, for example, the differences between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh!

Out west, there were also the influences of non-English speaking people, notably the original Spanish speaking populations and the immigrant Chinese (mostly Cantonese).  Although they did not influence pronunciation or syntax, they provided a huge number of words.  In the domain of food alone, we find tacos, tamales, frijoles, and burritos, chow mein, lo mein, fu yung, and chop suey.  Many words from Mexico were actually already adopted from Mexican Indian languages:  tomato and coyote spring to mind.

The dialects of the United States (with approximate areas):
Southern and south midland:
Southern vs south midland:
Northern vs north midland:
Eastern New England, Boston area, NYC area
Eastern New England, Boston area, Virginia area
NYC and north midland, and spreading rapidly
A simplified way of differentiating the dialects is based on the words for two American favorites:  the submarine sandwich and the soft drink:

Submarine sandwich
Soft drink
(not to mention soda pop and soda water, and even coke in Rhode Island!)

The old cities of the eastern US each have their own peculiarities.  New York is famous for its addition of central off-glides:  pier becomes /pi:'/, pair becomes /pe'/, poor becomes /po'/.  The aw (/o/) sound is raised and has a central off-glide as well:  ball and coffee approach /bu'l/ and /cu'fi:/!  And her becomes /hö'/!

I live in south-central Pennsylvania, which is a great location for hearing various eastern accents.  There are actually five in Pennsylvania:  In the northern tier, near upstate New York, the accent is Northern.  In Pittsburgh and the surrounding area they say /stil/ and /mil/ instead of steel and meal.  In the south, near West Virginia, you hear Appalachian, and people still say you’uns and refer to their grandparents as Mammaw and Pappy!.  And, in the center of the state is what is called the Susquehanna accent, which is a variation on the Philadelphia area dialect, with a lot of German and Scots-Irish influences.  And we can't forget the Philadelphia accent itself:
(See Phillyspeak, by Jim Quinn, at http://www.citypaper.net/articles/081497/article008.shtml for more.)

In the Lancaster area (part of the Susquehanna dialect), the Pennsylvania German influence is obvious in some of the words and sentence structure:  We red up the room, outen the light, and throw the cow over the fence some hay.  We say that the peanut butter is all, the road is slippy, and I read that wunst (once).  A slide is a sliding board, sneakers are all Keds, vacuum cleaners are sweepers, little pieces are snibbles, and if you are looking a bit disheveled, you are furhuddled.  And at any local restaurant, they will ask you:  Can I get you coffee awhile?

Dialects typically vary in their status.  In the colonial and revolutionary times, a Boston, New York, or Virginia accent marked you as a gentleman or lady.  In the early part of the 1900’s, the accent of suburban New York was tops:  Listen to the recordings of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example.  Unlike "General American"  (the radio and television reporter’s accent), FDR dropped his r’s and drawled his vowels luxuriously.

General American is a rather innocuous blend of Northern and Northern Midland dialect, with none of the peculiar words or pronounciations of any particular area.  Today, the Western dialect has established itself, via the entertainment industry, as equal.  Even Southern and Southern Midland English, long scorned by Northerners, have reestablished their status, especially after the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Two dialects are still seen as being substandard by many Americans:  Appalachian and Black English.  Unlike other dialects, they have considerable grammatical differences that make them sound to the mainstream as simply horrible English.

In Appalachia, for example, they say us’ns and you’ns.  Both Appalachian dialect and Black English speakers often double negatives (he ain’t got none), double comparatives and superlatives (more bigger, most biggest, gooder, bestest), over-regularize the past tense (stoled or stealed), and over-regularize plurals (mouses, sheeps, childrens).

Although the prejudice against people from Appalachia is real enough, the long tradition of prejudice against black Americans has been very difficult to eliminate, and that includes the disrespect accorded Black English.  Despite some attempts to consider it another language (the Ebonics movement), it is in fact a variation on the Southern dialect, with input from Gullah and other slave creoles, plus the constant creation of slang, especially in northern urban areas ("the Ghetto").

© Copyright 2004, C. George Boeree