Upon moving to London as an expat, you will find that the English accent is more varied than what’s typically represented in American film or television (much like television news anchors speak a universal American accent). Case in point: My friend visited me a few months after I made my own London relocation, and we went to see Billy Elliot. She couldn’t understand a word. That same friend nonetheless took her mother to see it in Chicago, and she understood it just fine. My theory? True, she could have understood it better because she’d already seen it and knew the story, but if I were a bettin’ man (if, indeed, a man at all), I’d like to bet that those Chicago actors were speaking a more generic British accent as opposed to the distinctive one actually spoken by those who live in County Durham, where the play takes place. Chicagoans wouldn’t know any different. Londoners would. The accent in northern England is quite different from what you hear in the south, east, west, and middle; heck, I’m convinced the British can tell what block you grew up on by virtue of your dialect, Professor Higgins-style (see “Why Can’t the English?” from My Fair Lady to know what I’m talking about).
Another case in point: American audiences have been listening to talent-show judges like Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan for ages and understanding them just fine, but all of a sudden, egad! Cheryl Cole?! If you haven’t been following the US X Factor controversy (which I blissfully didn’t hop into until the very end), you can catch up with Metro.co.uk’s succinct timeline here. There were other issues involved in the decision to sack her as a US judge, but don’t think Cheryl’s accent didn’t play any part in it. Sounds ridiculous, I know—I mean the situation, not her accent! But yes, it is tough to understand as an American. Her particular dialect is called “Geordie,” the accent of England’s northeast, which would include, if I’m not mistaken, County Durham; hence, the very accent that threw my friend for a loop during Billy Elliot and took me quite a while to adjust to as well. This region borders Scotland, so it understandably shares a bit of that incomprehensible brogue.
Another diversion from the “typical” English accent that Americans are perhaps more familiar with is “Cockney,” the east London dialect spoken by Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Bert in Mary Poppins, and championed by Guy Ritchie in his films like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (I think Snatch is the one that actually has a guide to Cockney rhyming slang and offers English subtitles, ha!). It’s the dialect that always makes me hear Conan O’Brien say, “‘Allo, guvna!”—a lot of ‘H‘s and consonants get dropped out of that one (“Bluh-ee ‘ell!).
But as you can see from the map I’ve attached here, British accents are more numerous than what I can relate in a wee blog post. Clicking the image will take you to The Economist‘s article, “England’s regional accents: Geordie’s still alreet,” where you can read more on their variety and how they’re trending throughout the England over time. Accents can denote class as well as region, with the royals seeming to have a distinct accent of their own (though apparently the Queen has started to slum it: see “Queen’s speech ‘less posh’“). I also found a page on the British Library’s site that discusses England’s regional voices and enables you to listen to samples of them: “Sounds Familiar? Accents and Dialects of the UK.”
Now, every time I go home, someone usually asks if I’m picking up a British accent myself. Well, the fact is, when I live in my apartment with my American husband and we still watch a lot of American shows on the telly, I don’t see that happenin’, so you probably won’t either in that situation unless your spouse is British and you’re here longer term. Even in the workplace, the diversity may present you many international accents from outside of the UK, so you’ll never be exposed to a single one long enough to pick it up yourself. What you will do, though, is grow more accustomed to the differences in spoken English, understand the British-English terms better and discern the dialects better. So don’t worry that you won’t understand a word when you move to London—check out our blog’s “Language Barriers” category and just be a good listener!