A Brief History of British Accents

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You may not be aware of the fact that accents come in a huge variety in the British Isles. Now, I don’t know what is the proper name of the accents (perhaps a British friend of mine can tell me), other than I’ve experienced that both in person and on TV (or, in films, and, in theatre productions). All this can be explained historically. So, bear with me for a while. 😉

The British Isles in prehistoric and ancient times were made up of innumerable tribes and societies, with their dialects and languages. The invading Romans (1st to 5th Centuries), with their concept of Pax Romana, logically inspired the notion of Pax Britannia, which was eventually achieved. Now, the kingdom of England did not come into being until after the Romans had left, with the Anglo-Saxon kings (Alfred the Great). After them, the torch of *England* was inherited by the Normans (William I was invited to invade the realm by Edward the Confessor, who did not want the throne to go to Harold), the Angevins and the Plantagenets (which was a branch of the Angevins).

The Normans, the Angevins and the Plantagenets were essentially French. Thus, many French words entered the English language, such as “judge”, “justice”, “soldier” and so on. And, during these periods, the language spoken at the royal court was French (now, the origin of having French as the official diplomatic language started with Louis XIV, who came much later – of course, today, English replaced it, as it is the accepted universal language for commerce and many other things).

With the many different tribes and societies in prehistoric and ancient times, you’d expect different dialects and languages. Later, as larger societies came into being during early Medieval times (i.e. England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), there was no concensus for spellings (it was not an obsession with them). So, any given word came in many spellings. This makes life *interesting* for historians and linguists.

The Plantagenets met their demise at the end of the 14th Century (all due to the stubborn Richard II). Then, England plunged into a long series of strifes. These are famously known as the Wars of the Roses. The two main branches of the Plantagenets went at each other, the House of Lancaster and the House of York; and, their emblems were stylized roses. This is the reason that the Tudor rose combined the two. Henry VII, who was of Lancastrian descent, married a Yorkist lady (who became the mother of the lengendary Henry VIII), hence the combination-emblem. The Tudor period saw the stabilization of England. England gradually became wealthy through due diligence. Wars were avoided when-ever possible. So, when James I came to the throne (who was also James VI of Scotland), Pax Britannia was achieved.

English language also came into its own during the Tudor period (the English Bible was first printed under Henry VIII, though he persecuted this practice early on (it was strictly in Latin, as England was up till then under the umbrella of Roman Catholicism), before he made the break with Rome, as he needed to divorce his first wife. Now, the consensus of spelling as such (as we know it today) did not start until later, from mid-17th Century onwards and throughout the 18th Century. It was during these times that the first English language dictionaries were conceived.

As Britain became a colonial power, starting in the 17th Century, the English language absorbed a huge number of words from many places in the world. For example, the word “serendipity” originated in Sri Lanka. Naturally, with the many regions throughout the British Isles, you’d expect to hear different accents from different places.

–          Text courtesy of  Andrew Lee


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