English Tower of Babel

You say you speak English. But what English…? This seemingly easy question is rather difficult to answer. It is estimated that besides the four main dialects used in the United Kingdom, there are about fifty minor ones spoken there. This number is even greater when we take into account variations of English spoken all over the world: from New Zealand, through South Africa to the United States. There is a good chance that even when you speak well a standard language (e.g. American General or Standard English), you will not be able to communicate with every native speaker of English.

English has never been a static language. It developed rapidly under the influence of successive invaders (Vikings, Roman and Normans) and population movements to and from the British Isles. Early Modern English emerged around the 15th century. It is this version of English in which Shakespeare wrote his works and which we use nowadays. Early Modern English has evolved into a number of varieties and dialects which we would like to present to you.

What dialects can be identified in contemporary British English?

In the Old English, there were two dialects: Kentish and West-Saxon. As regards those used nowadays, four main dialects can be identified: Cockney, Geordie, Llanito and Scouse. It must be noted, however, that these are the most widely used dialects. Apart from them, linguists divide the United Kingdom into twelve regions in which about fifty minor dialects are spoken.


The dialect referred to nowadays as Cockey emerged in the 16th century in London. Although in its early days, it was used mainly by those representing lower social classes, it is now widespread among inhabitants of the capital of the UK.

How can we know that someone speaks Cockney? A distinctive feature of this dialect is a silent “h”. A word like “half” will be pronounced like “alf”. What is more, the pronoun “my” is replaced with “me”. Listening to Cockney, you will rather not hear a negation with don’t/doesn’t, as “ain’t” is used much more often instead.

What is the most interesting phenomenon in Cockney is cockney rhyme slang, which involves replacing certain words with rhymes to words associated with those words. Those unfamiliar with this dialect are bound to find this complicated. To illustrate this phenomenon a sentence praising the beauty of a woman’s legs is used. Instead of saying “She has very nice legs”, a Cockey (as this name stands not only for the dialect but also a person using it) will say “She has very nice bacons”. Are you wondering how it is possible to switch from legs to bacon? Well, in accordance with the cockney rhyme slang rules, “legs” rhymes with “eggs”, which are in turn associated with bacon.


Geordie is a linguistic phenomenon formed in the early 20th century. Some of you may associate Geordie with Geordie Shore – a popular program on MTV, showing the life of a group of young people from Newcastle, focused on parties and entertainment. These associations are somehow right. Geordie is a term which denoted the dialect which originated in Newcastle and a person speaking it. Interestingly, one of the British newspapers conducted a study among its readers, whose results revealed that Georgie is the most attractive accent in the English language.

This dialect would probably win also in a contest for the dialect which is the most difficult to understand. The first contact with English in Newcastle may be quite a shock for a layman: “house” sounds more like a “hoose” and the –ow and –ar endings turn in a simple “a”. Although increasingly more often used in the media, the Georgie accent yet until quite recently posed serious problems for those using it – Cheryl Crow, the singer, lost her job as a juror in the American X-Factor, as the audience could not understand her.


Llanito is a dialect used by those living in Gibraltar. Its most distinctive feature is a great deal of borrowings from Spanish, and – more specifically – from its Andalusia dialect. Besides Spanish influences, one can find in it words of Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese or even Maltese origins.

Gibraltarians themselves are unable to decide whether Llanito is still a dialect or maybe already a language. They emphasize, however, that given the unusual geopolitical situation of Gibraltar, Llanito plays a very important role as a source of the cultural identity of inhabitants of this overseas UK territory. Those who would like to learn more about the history of Gibraltar and the Llanito dialect itself, are recommended to see a documentary entitled: “People of the rock: The Llanitos of Gibraltar”.


The last of the dialects discussed here – Scouse – derives from Liverpool. A Scouser is a colloquial name for a resident of this city. Besides a distinctive accent, Scouse is characterized also by specific vocabulary which may be quite surprising for laymen. For example, by saying “boss”, those living in Liverpool do not think about a boss but want to emphasize a positive feature of a given object or person. “Boss” means there “great” or “good”. By adding “dead”, they emphasize the message – “dead boss meal” will thus mean a very good meal, while saying “I’m dead hungry”, you will communicate that you are really hungry. And one more culinary curiosity: food in the city of The Beatles is referred to simply as “butty”.

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