In the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion (My Fair Lady to those of you who saw the movie), the claim is made that you can tell where anyone in England is from by the way that they speak. The Professor in the play then goes on to try and prove that you can turn a commoner into royalty just by changing their accent.
In fact, there is more accentual variation in any 60-mile strip of the United Kingdom than there is in the whole of the United States! So, is there a Brighton accent? Yes, of course, there is.
But how do you tell that accent apart from the other British accents around you? That’s the six-million-dollar question and we’re going to try and help you answer it.
Accent Vs Dialect: What’s The Difference?
It might help if we begin with a quick refresher in how the English language works, because this can help you see why Brighton has an accent but that there is no “Brighton Dialect”.
What Is A Dialect?
A dialect varies from other forms of spoken English in three different ways:
- Vocabulary (though the technical term for this is “lexis”)
- Structure (which we all know as “grammar”)
- And pronunciation (which also has a technical name, “phonology”)
In general terms, a dialect sounds markedly different to speakers of other English dialects, but a dialect can usually be understood by all English speakers.
Except for the fact that there may be terms that speakers of other dialects are unfamiliar with within a different dialect. For example, in the Geordie dialect (which is used in Newcastle) you can find terms such as:
“Geet walla” which means very big or very large. So, someone might say, “There’s a geet walla line oot the door of the bank, gan to shop instead.”
“Gadgie” which just means “man”. As in, “See that gadgie ooer there by the bank?”
“Wey aye, man!” which simply means “Hello”.
At first listen, the Geordie dialect can sound like it’s English interspersed with softly spoken Martian, but it doesn’t take long, in practice, for an English speaker in Newcastle to get used to these new dialectal terms and start incorporating them into their own speech.
What Is An Accent?
An accent, on the other hand, offers no reference to the vocabulary and structure of the language and is only concerned with the way that things are pronounced.
So, a Geordie who arrived in Brighton might no longer use Geordie-specific terms but as soon as they spoke – you’d be able to identify them by the way they said anything.
Dialects of English are relatively rare. They’re not non-existent but they are rare. There’s no London dialect or Hampshire dialect, for example.
However, accents are very common, indeed. In fact, it’s impossible to speak without an accent. The “Queen’s English” is an accent. Almost every place in the UK has its own accent and even those trained not to speak with a regional accent are said to use “received pronunciation” (RP) which is an accent in its own right.
Side Note: Lexical Variation Does Exist Around The UK
A dialect involves a large amount of lexical variation (changes in word use) but smaller changes occur throughout the UK.
For example, if you ask someone in Brighton when they work, they’ll probably say “9 ‘til 5” or something similar. While someone in Huddersfield would say, “9 while 5”.
Someone in Brighton might order a “bread roll” but someone in Derby would order a “cob” instead.
These minute variations are very common throughout the British Isles but do not, by themselves, qualify a way of speaking as a “dialect”.
What’s Wrong With Having An Accent?
Anyone who is familiar with the UK will know that it is very much a “class-based” society. There have been many moves in the past few decades to try and eliminate the British obsession with class, but they have all failed in one way or another.
Sadly, this has often led to certain accents being associated with specific classes. The Queen’s English, as you might expect, is associated with being Upper Class. Lords, ladies, the Elite and the Royal Family use the Queen’s English.
Received pronunciation, on the other hand, is the product of Britain’s public-school system (which is a very cunning and very British way of saying “private school”). These schools consider a regional accent as something of a burden and they train the use of such language out of their pupils.
This is the reason why that for many years the majority of spoken English on TV and radio was RP-English. Public school graduates typically got the best jobs.
Regional accents were, for the longest of times, considered to be a burden because they were associated, wrongly, with a lack of intelligence, aggressiveness and worst of all, in British eyes, with being “common”.
While the British obsession with class may not, yet, have abated significantly. One area in which progress has actually been made is that of regional accents. Regional accents are now considered a marker of trustworthiness and many people are proud of their accents.
They should be too because a regional accent is a true expression of a person’s cultural identity and heritage within the UK. One of the joys of a voice that marks out where you are from is that it seals a bond between you and that place, one that can be recognized by a fellow Brit, wherever you are in the world.
How Many Accents Are There In The UK?
Well, that’s a hard question to answer. There are, officially, 37 different dialects within the UK but there are many thousands of accents.
If you’d like to see someone trying a few accents on for size, check out this entertaining clip on YouTube:
What is the Brighton Dialect?
Well, before we talk about the Brighton accent, we should take a few seconds to acknowledge the local dialect of English. This is the “Sussex dialect” if you’ve never heard of this, that’s no real surprise.
While there are a few people who still use the Sussex dialect to its full extent, it has mainly disappeared. The distinct “Sussex vocabulary” of the dialect has either been absorbed into everyday English or been discarded because it has little relevance in the modern era.
The origins of the dialect are in Anglo-Saxon (as with much of English) but also Middle-French, Old Dutch and a pinch of Scandinavian tongues too.
One of the peculiarities of the Sussex dialect was that it had an incredible number of different words for “mud”. This may be because of the prevalence of limestone mud on the shoreline of the country but it means that the folks of Sussex have nearly as many words for mud as the Eskimos do for snow!
These include: clodgy, gawm, gubber, ike, pug, slab, sleech, slob, slough, slub, slurry, smeery, stoach, stodge, stug and swank among others.
Our favourite word from the Sussex dialect has to be “goistering” which is a word that means “loud lady’s laughter!”
Peculiarly, more of the Sussex dialect survives in the dialect of New England in America than it does in the UK.
The Sussex dialect will very soon, likely be extinct in its ancestral home as a more general “South of London” dialect will take hold across much of the South of England.
What is the Brighton Accent?
Well, we think somebody had it nailed as “as long as you don’t say the ‘t’ in Brighton, you’re probably OK”. Yes, anyone who says Brighton rather than Brigh’on is marking themselves out as an outsider immediately in the seaside city.
The Brigh’on accent is very similar in sound to a Cockney accent though it is somewhat softer and less in your face. You’re not likely to feel that one of the Mitchell brothers is going to call you a “slag” when someone in Brigh’on speaks.
Some argue that the accent was imported from Gloucestershire because it lacks the flat vowel sounds so prevalent in “Estuary English”.
What’s certain is that there is a unique accent that is used in Brighton but that it changes and flows over the years as all accents tend to do.
One common feature we’ve noticed is the tendency to replace the “ee” sound in many words with “I” so that “seen” becomes “sin” and “been” becomes “bin”.
However, the easiest way to find out about an accent is to listen to it. So, check out this clip at YouTube which may help:
And if that doesn’t do it for you then maybe these street interviews in the city will clarify things a bit more?
Is there a Brighton accent? More like, is there a Brigh’on accent? But to either question, the answer is yes. Though there’s no real Brighton dialect. There are no rules to how accents work though and the only way to recognize a Brighton accent is to hear more of it.