British English is the broad term used to distinguish the forms of the English language used in the United Kingdom from forms used elsewhere in the Anglophone world.[1] British English encompasses the varieties of English used within the UK, including those in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and to some extent, those spoken in the former British Empire. Some may also use the term more widely, to include other forms such as Hiberno-English (spoken in Ireland).[2]

Most Britons – the majority of whom speak English as either a first or a second language – consider that they just speak "English", rather than "British English". The term "British English" is used only by non-British people when necessary to distinguish it from other forms of English. British people, especially the English, would normally distinguish by naming the country (e.g. "Canadian") or region (e.g. "American") of the version of English.

There are slight regional variations in formal written English in the United Kingdom (for example, although the words wee and little are interchangeable in some contexts, one is more likely to see wee written by a Scottish or Northern Irish person than by someone from Southern England or Wales). Nevertheless, there is a meaningful degree of uniformity in written English within the United Kingdom, and this could be described as "British English". The forms of spoken English, however, vary considerably more than in most other areas of the world where English is spoken and a uniform concept of "British English" is therefore more difficult to apply to the spoken language. According to Tom McArthur in the Oxford Guide to World English (p. 45), the phrase British English shares "all the ambiguities and tensions in the word British, and as a result can be used and interpreted in two ways, more broadly or more narrowly, within a range of blurring and ambiguity".

History Edit

The widespread use of English worldwide is largely attributable to the power of the former British Empire, and this is reflected in the continued use of the language in both its successor (the Commonwealth of Nations) and many other countries. In the days before radio and television, most communication across the English-speaking world was by the written word. This helped to preserve a degree of global uniformity of the written language. However, due to the vast separation distances involved, variations in the spoken language began to arise. This was also aided by émigrés to the empire encountering other, non-British cultures. In some cases, resulting variations in the spoken language have led to these being reflected in minor variations in written language usage, grammar and spellings in other countries.


Dialects and accents vary not only amongst the nations of Britain, but also within the countries themselves. There are also differences in the English spoken by different socio-economic groups in any particular region.

The major divisions are normally classified as English English (or English as spoken in England, which comprises Southern English dialects, Midlands English dialects and Northern English dialects), Welsh English, Scottish English and the closely related dialects of the Scots language. The various British dialects also differ in the words that they have borrowed from other languages. The Scottish and Northern English dialects include many words originally borrowed from Old Norse and a few borrowed from Gaelic.

Following its last major survey of English Dialects (1950–1961), the University of Leeds has started work on a new project. In May 2007 the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded a grant to a team led by Sally Johnson, Professor of Linguistics and Phonetics at Leeds University to study British regional dialects.

Johnson's team are sifting through a large collection of examples of regional slang words and phrases turned up by the "Voices project" run by the BBC, in which the BBC invited the public to send in examples of English still spoken throughout the country. The BBC Voices project also collected hundreds of news articles about how the British speak English from swearing through to items on language schools. This information will also be collated and analysed by the Johnson's team both for content and for where it was reported. "Perhaps the most remarkable finding in the Voices study is that the English language is as diverse as ever, despite our increased mobility and constant exposure to other accents and dialects through TV and radio."


The most common form of English used by the British ruling class is that originating from southeast England (the area around the capital, London, and the ancient English university towns of Oxford and Cambridge). This form of the language is known as the "Received Standard", and its accent is called Received Pronunciation (RP), which is improperly regarded by many people outside the UK as "the British accent". Earlier it was held as better than other accents and referred to as the King's (or Queen's) English, or even "BBC English". Originally, this was the form of English used by radio and television. However, there is now much more tolerance of variation than there was in the past; for several decades other accents have been accepted and are frequently heard, although stereotypes about the BBC persist. English spoken with a mild Scottish accent has a reputation for being especially easy to understand.[citation needed] Moreover, only approximately two percent of Britons speak RP[6], and it has evolved quite markedly over the last 40 years.

Even in the south east there are significantly different accents; the local inner east London accent called Cockney is strikingly different from RP and can be difficult for outsiders to understand.

There is a new form of accent called Estuary English that has been gaining prominence in recent decades: it has some features of Received Pronunciation and some of Cockney. In London itself, the broad local accent is still changing, partly influenced by Caribbean speech. Londoners speak with a mixture of these accents, depending on class, age, upbringing, and so on.

Since the mass immigration to Northamptonshire in the 1940s and its close accent borders, it has become a source of various accent developments. There, nowadays, one finds an accent known locally as the Kettering accent, which is a mixture of many different local accents, including East Midlands, East Anglian, Scottish, and Cockney. This accent is found as far North as Melton Mowbray, and as far south as Bedford. In addition, found in the town of Corby five miles north, one can find Corbyite, which unlike the Kettering accent, is largely based on Scottish. This is due to the influx of Scottish steelworkers, which is a major industry in the town.

Although some of the stronger regional accents may sometimes be difficult for some English-speakers from outside Britain to understand, almost all 'British English' accents are mutually intelligible amongst the British themselves, with only occasional difficulty between very diverse accents. However, modern communications and mass media have reduced these differences significantly. In addition, most British people can to some degree temporarily 'swing' their accent (and particularly vocabulary) towards a more neutral form of 'standard' English at will, to reduce difficulty where very different accents are involved, or when speaking to foreigners. This phenomenon is known in linguistics as code shifting.

Standardisation Edit

As with English around the world, the English language as used in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland is governed by convention rather than formal code: there is no equivalent body to the Académie française or the Real Academia Española, and the authoritative dictionaries (for example, Oxford English Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Chambers Dictionary, Collins Dictionary) record usage rather than prescribe it. In addition, vocabulary and usage change with time; words are freely borrowed from other languages and other strains of English, and neologisms are frequent.

For historical reasons dating back to the rise of London in the 9th century, the form of language spoken in London and the East Midlands became standard English within the Court, and ultimately became the basis for generally accepted use in the law, government, literature and education within Britain. Largely, modern British spelling was standardised in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), although previous writers had also played a significant role in this and much has changed since 1755. Scotland, which underwent parliamentary union with England only in 1707, still has a few independent aspects of standardisation, especially within its autonomous legal system.

The form of English taught across Europe is mainly that used in England and the subject is simply called "English". Should a pupil spell something the US or Australian way (or any other version) in an exam, it would be marked as erroneous. [1]

The European Commission does not specify any specific English in its list of official languages but the English used in the member state The United Kingdom is what is assumed and used. [2]


  • McArthur, Tom (2002). Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866248-3 hardback, ISBN 0-19-860771-7 paperback.
  • Bragg, Melvyn (2004). The Adventure of English, London: Sceptre. ISBN 0-340-82993-1
  • Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62181-X.
  • Simpson, John (ed.) (1989). Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.