British accents are widespread in popular culture, partly owing to the success of franchises like "Doctor Who" and "Harry Potter" and the tendency of American directors to cast foreign roles in American films with British actors. However, attempts by nonnatives to speak with British accents typically range from passable to laughably bad. Anyone making the attempt must first understand the differences between the various accents prevalent in Britain and the correct ways of enunciating each.
Varieties of Accents
Among the first mistakes that many people make in attempting a British accent is to assume that there exists a definitive "British" accent. In reality, there are dozens of different accents spoken by people in Britain, ranging from the Queen's English spoken by the Royal Family to the famous Cockney accent of East London to Estuary and West Country accents. Because "Britain" refers to the entire United Kingdom, Welsh, northern Irish and Scottish accents also technically qualify.
Often the first accent that comes to mind when people think of a British accent, Cockney is used in the historically lower-class districts of East London and was made famous by characters such as Bert the chimney sweep in "Mary Poppins" and the cast of "East Enders." Cockney dialect is distinguished by dropping the h at the beginning of words and prominent glottal stops. Glottal stops are words that cause speakers to fully close and reopen their vocal folds, such as "better" or "Scotland." Cockney speakers manage these words by dropping the harsh consonants while maintaining the pauses. For example, they might say, "I've gone 'ome to Sco'land to get be'er" Watch the 1964 film "My Fair Lady," in which a phonetics professor teaches a Cockney flower girl to speak the Queen's English, paying particular attention to the differences between the two dialects.
Primarily used in the coastal towns of Cornwall on the southwestern tip of England, West Country is the accent used by many pirates in classic movies since 1950. The West Country dialect is one of the few dialects left in Britain that is rhotic, meaning that speakers pronounce the 'r' sound after vowels like Americans do. This is why Hagrid in the "Harry Potter" films frequently pronounces his r's while other characters rarely do. Other distinguishing features of a West Country accent include saying "ye" or "yeh" instead of "you" and adding extra "do's" in sentences like, "We do go to the store on Sunday nights."
The Queen's English, also known as Received Pronunciation, emerged from the British aristocracy and in media and is typically used by characters who are wealthy, royal or cultured, such as Galadriel in "The Lord of the Rings," Scar in "The Lion King" and Inspector Morse in his eponymous long-running TV series. Practice RP by elongating the a's in words such as bath and can't, fully lowering your jaw as you enunciate the word. Slowly and carefully articulate the syllables in words you would normally be inclined to hurry over, words such as nuclear and particularly.
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