For such a small country, the United Kingdom has an incredible diversity of regional dialects, many specific to individual cities. Some of these are melodious and pleasing to the ear. Some are bizarre, some sound awkward and guttural, and some – to non-natives – seem completely incomprehensible (many English people have great difficulty understanding Glaswegian, for example – a very strong Scottish accent). Of all the dialects spoken in the British Isles, however, the one which seems to attract the most scorn is that spoken in and around the city of Birmingham.
Quite why this should be the case may at first seem unclear. The Birmingham accent – nicknamed ‘Brummie’ – is neither guttural nor difficult to understand. Unlike other UK dialects (Geordie1 or Glaswegian, for example) Brummie does not have a large collection of specifically local words which might alienate non-Birmingham people. And of course there is nothing specific in the character or behaviour of the average citizen of Birmingham to cause any offence. What seems to irritate the hell out of everyone is simply the sound of the thing.
The most important reason for this is probably intonation. A peculiarity of the Brummie accent is the use of a downward intonation at the end of most sentences. This means lowering the pitch of the voice and allowing the sound simply to fade away. This is in contrast to the nearby Scouse accent (orLiverpudlian) which tends towards an upward intonation. In other accents, both endings are used in equal measure, with upward intonation usually reserved for ‘question’ sentences. In Scouse the increase in pitch adds a vibrancy to the accent which gives it an extra appeal. In Brummie, the lowering suggests despondency and makes it less attractive to the listener. In both cases, the lack of variation quickly begins to grate.
In Brummie, this problem extends beyond the end of the sentence to the whole rhythm of the spoken word. In a melodic accent, such as Cardiff Welsh, there is considerable fluidity throughout. The Birmingham accent hits one note – usually a low one – and sticks to it no matter what. It is this lack of aural variation that is the principle cause of irritation for others. It is also the source of the stereotype of the unimaginative Brummie. The accent stays the same and never varies, and so subconsciously people assume the same must be true of the speaker.
In most other respects, Brummie is little different from other Midlands dialects (although folk from the Black Country may beg to differ). It contains most of the same vowel changes from Southern English, and has several familiar consonants.
In order to outline the precise differences, it is necessary to introduce a base-line, for comparison. In British English, the standard base-line is Received Pronunciation (RP). This is not an accent that exists in the real world, though some people, through extensive travelling/television viewing speak with an accent very close to it. It is really only used by actors in period dramas and, until recently, BBC announcers2. Using RP is considered preferable to using, say, Estuary English – which is now the standard form of South Eastern British English – in order that no single spoken accent is perceived to be superior to any other. In the case of Estuary English (named after the Thames Estuary and a muted off-spring of East London ‘Cockney‘) notions of superiority are sadly misplaced.
Using RP as our guide (think ‘BBC English’ if it helps) let us see what differences there are between it and the Brummie dialect.
- The vowel sounds are often the key. In Brummie, ‘oy‘ is used instead of ‘i‘. For example: ‘Oy kwoyt loik it’ (I quite like it). This sound is similar to the ‘oy’ employed in most Irish dialects.
- The ‘u‘ as in ‘hut’ is lengthened to become ‘oo‘ as in ‘took’.
- The ‘o‘ and ‘a‘ sounds as in ‘go’ and ‘day’ are lazy3 and under-articulated. They are not dissimilar to Cockney.
- ‘ar‘ as in ‘star’ is also lazy. In some forms, the vowel shortens and becomes ‘a‘ as in ‘cap’.
- The ‘i‘ as in ‘pit’ becomes ‘ee‘ as in ‘feet’.
- In stronger versions, ‘you‘ becomes ‘yow‘ and a ‘y‘ at the end of a word becomes ‘ay‘.
- Brummie employs a mild form of the stereotypical Spanish ‘r‘. This is a rolled variant, formed by vibrating the tongue at the top of the mouth4. Not every written ‘r’ is articulated. Here, the Birmingham accent mirrors RP quite closely. With a word like ‘Centre’, the ‘r’ sound is completely ignored. This differs from standard North American English, where every ‘r’ is pronounced if it appears in the written word.
- The ‘g‘ in an ‘ng‘ formation is over-articulated. At the end of a word, or when followed by a vowel, it is effectively pronounced twice.
- ‘H‘s are dropped wherever they occur, except when emphasis is required. The word ‘Birmingham’ therefore, has a silent ‘h’. It also has a strong ‘g’, and the ‘r’ is not pronounced at all.
- ‘T‘s are occasionally omitted from the end of words.
In order to make use of the above, the student must be prepared to practise5. To do this, it is often helpful to memorise a suitable passage of written English, annotated for the Brummie accent, and to speak it out loud as often as possible. The following paragraph, therefore, is written out with the appropriate phonetic translation6.
Birmingham is one of the largest cities in the United Kingdom. It is
berminggum is wun uv the Larges citays in the u-nyted kingdem. It is
probably most famous for the Bull Ring and Spaghetti Junction, but it has
pRRobebLay moest faymus fer the buLLRRingg und spegettee jungshun, but ittas
a lot more to offer. The National Exhibition Centre is a great source of
eLo- mor to offa. The nashnel eksibishun senta is a gRRayt sawss uv
pride to the local inhabitants and steps have been taken in recent years to
pRRoid te the lowkel in-abitents und steps av bin tayken in RResunt yeers to
improve the appearance of the city.
impRRoov the appeeRents uv the citay.
Don’t forget to roll the ‘r’s and try not to vary the tone too much.
It often helps, as well, to have a ‘hook’ sentence, to help you slide into the accent whenever required. This can be anything you like:
I quite like it, I’ll give it five.
Oi quoit loik it, oil giv it foiv.
Of course, the best way to ensure your accent is one hundred per cent authentic is to listen to a native Brummie speaker. Record them as they talk and try to emulate the flow of their speech. Often the rhythm of an accent can be just as important as the vowel changes.
And whatever you do, don’t forget that downward intonation at the end of the sentence. This, more than anything, is the mark of a true Brummie.
1 A dialect centred around the city of Newcastle.
2 Received Pronunciation was actually developed by the BBC, in order to clear up confusion over the pronunciation of different words; notably the word ‘pronunciation’.
3 The lips do not tighten to clarify the sound as in RP.
4 This is distinct from the French ‘r’ sound, which is produced at the back of the throat and is far more difficult for native English speakers.
5 An anecdote that the late great Welsh actor Richard Burton used to love telling concerned fellow thespian, Laurence Olivier, and his attempt to master the Birmingham accent that a forthcoming theatre role required of him. Such was Olivier’s serious ‘method acting’ approach to learning the Midlands regional accent, he decided to live in the area for a short period of time to absorb the dialect at source. Finally confident of having learned it off pat, he walked into a local newsagent, ‘incognito’, and in his best Brummie tones, asked the proprietor for a copy of the day’s newspaper, to which the proprietor replied, ‘Certainly, sir. And how long have you been in the country, sir?’
6 This does not make use of the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is a more accurate means of recording sound, as many of the symbols employed would be unfamiliar to the lay reader.