01 March 2022

Tuning In to Different English Dialects


Doing business globally means that you may have invested in training your staff in different cultural behaviour, sent them on business trips to offices abroad and encouraged them to become fluent in languages useful to corporate relationships. And English could well be at the top of your list as the language of global business. But unfortunately for the English language learner, not everyone speaks like the Queen in the clear, ‘standard’ English accent known as ‘received pronunciation’, which can lead to some minor language-learning stumbles for the uninitiated. It can also reveal some of the most fascinating turns of phrase – the kind that can deepen your cultural understanding of different local regions.

Depending on what part of the British Isles you do most business with – from the East End of London to the Yorkshire Dales – you may encounter some surprising new dialects full of wonderful but unfamiliar terms. They may also confuse English language learners in particular, especially if it starts to feel like you are learning several languages at once! In this article, we eavesdrop on a few of the most common dialects in the UK.

Defining Dialects

First up, it is probably helpful to clarify what exactly we mean by a dialect. Whereas an accent is derived from the tone and modulation of a voice, a dialect is a form of a language that is peculiar to a particular geographical area (from the accent through to the vocabulary). If you feel like really immersing yourself in the huge variety of local dialects, you can listen to some audio clips – the British Library has samples of different dialects from 70 different locations across the UK.

The North/South Divide

We recently explored 10 must-know colloquial expressions when learning English, with phrases often steeped in the history of the ‘industrial’ North or ‘academic’ South. Generally speaking, southern dialects tend to have more of a drawl than northern dialects, with long vowels – southerners would pronounce the words ‘bath’ and ‘grass’ as ‘bahth’ and ‘grahs’, while northerners would pronounce them with short vowels, like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’. Southerners would pronounce ‘bus’ with a long ‘uh’, whereas northerners would use a clipped ‘u’ sound like the one in ‘foot’.

Northern Lights

The North is home to a plethora of diverse dialects – with Scouse (spoken by people from Liverpool), Geordie (Newcastle) and Mackem (Sunderland), among the most recognisable. These cities are important centres of industry in the UK, and many of these dialects have evolved through the influence of local trades, such as mining and shipbuilding – so you may even encounter new dialect terms relating to your industry. And if a colleague calls you ‘lid’, ‘pet’ or ‘marra’, you can be assured that these are friendly terms!

Yorkshire dialects are well known from the many TV shows and films exported around the world – so if a colleague answers the phone with ‘Ow do’ or an ‘Ey up’, hopefully you can guess that they are saying ‘hello’! Other words you may hear from Yorkshire colleagues are ‘gander’ for look, ‘nowt’ for nothing, ‘butty’ for sandwich and ‘brew’ for a cup of tea. The Yorkshire dialect is also famous for dropping the ‘o’ in ‘to’ and usually not including the ‘the’ at all in many sentences. So, instead of ‘I’m going to the office’, you might hear ‘I’m going t’office’.

Listening to the Cockney Dialect

London is a melting pot of many different nationalities, languages, accents and dialects. But if you do business with someone born and bred in London, they may have a ‘Cockney’ dialect (although a true Cockney would tell you that they were born in the East End of London, within earshot of the church bells of St Mary-le-Bow!). Speaking Cockney means dropping your ‘h’s (‘ouse’ instead of ‘house’), changing ‘er’ sounds to ‘ah’ (so ‘doctor’ becomes ‘doctah’) and changing ‘th’ sounds in the middle of words to ‘v’ (mother and father become ‘muvvah’ and ‘fahvvah’). Watch a Michael Caine or Jason Statham film if you want to tune into the Cockney dialect – but do not take any tips from Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins!

Of course, the Cockney dialect is synonymous with rhyming slang, which is still in common use – you may well hear someone say ‘use your loaf’ (‘loaf of bread’ for ‘head’), ‘you’re robbing me, you tea leaf!’ (‘tea leaf’ for ‘thief’) and ‘would you Adam and Eve it?’ (‘Adam and Eve’ for ‘believe’). If you do business with a friendly Londoner, do not be surprised if they call you ‘mate’ – even if you have only just met them!

Head here for the ultimate guide to Cockney rhyming slang.

Learning English – or polishing your business English – can be a rewarding process, but it definitely has its challenges. However, there are ways to both overcome the confusion of unexpected local dialects and map these dialects into your understanding of the rich fabric of the English language. If you would like friendly, professional training for your staff learning English, please contact us today to see how we can help.

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