Wizards, royalty, and TV villains: Auditions that need British accents are everywhere. That makes an accurate accent a useful tool to have. From the different types of British accents to how to perform one, if you want to learn how to speak in a British accent, we’ve got you covered.
Helena Bonham Carter in “Sweeney Todd” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
There are many different dialects in the U.K., but even great actors sometimes make the mistake of mixing them together. Exposure to a range of these regional accents can make learning an authentic British dialect much harder, often resulting in something that can sound inconsistent and fake. Practicing just a few techniques can make your British accent consistent and convincing. Here are a few of the most commonly used accents in popular culture:
Received Pronunciation: Received Pronunciation, or RP, is the poshest British accent, used by the upper class, news readers, and many classical theater actors. RP is known for clear, precise pronunciation, and no regional features, glottal stops, or dropped consonants.
Cockney: The Cockney dialect is famous for its rhyming slang, highly recognizable pronunciation, and association with the working-class and criminal life. Simply summon your best Helena Bonham Carter in “Sweeney Todd” and include heavy glottal stops, drop your H sounds, and rhyme away.
Geordie: This accent hailing from Newcastle and surrounding regions has roots in Angle settlers, making it similar to modern Danish. The dialect has distinct “g” and “k” sounds, replaces “what” with “why,” and uses recognizable connected speech processes.
Scouse: Spoken in Liverpool and surrounding areas, the Scouse dialect is highly melodic, similar to the Irish accent. Speakers replace the “t” sound with a full glottal stop and often use the word “la” to convey affection.
West Country: West Country is spoken in Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset. The dialect is characterized by its rolled “r” sound and its heavy Saxon influence on verb grammar—speakers say “I be” instead of “I am.”
Standard British: The Standard British accent is one of the most common dialects in the South of England. It’s a more modern, slightly relaxed version of Received Pronunciation (RP), and is the most-used British accent in film and TV. Here’s how to do it.
Peter Dinklage on “Game of Thrones” Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO
Drop your jaw: This is the foundation of speaking with a good Standard British accent. You’ll need to drop your jaw about twice as much as when you’re doing a General American accent. It’s going to feel unnatural at first, partly because it’s a completely new movement. A lot of us have a ton of tension in our jaws, which doesn’t help. I would definitely recommend incorporating exercises that ease jaw tightness into your dialect practice routine.
Bring your lip corners forward: Much like dropping your jaw, this technique contributes to the darker timbre of the dialect. The British accent tends to be narrower and longer, while American accents tend to be wider and shallower. That’s reflected in the shapes your mouth makes in each accent. Again, this technique may feel extreme. I always tell my students that the shape they need to make for this sound is almost like a kissing face. Doing it right will make a big difference to the pronunciation of the “aw” sound such as in the words law, draw, and floor.
Take out the Rs: In most accents, Brits take the “r” sounds out of words and replace them with an “ah,” “eh” or “uh” sound, depending on the vowel that precedes the “r.” Whenever this happens, extend that preceding vowel. This rule only applies at the end of words or syllables when the next word or syllable begins with a consonant.
For example, the “r” in hardly would be replaced with “ah” so it would be pronounced “hah-dly,” whereas the “r” in Harry would be pronounced “Ha-ry.”
If a word or syllable ends with the “r” sound and is followed by a word or syllable that begins with a vowel, it is pronounced and is used as a link between words. The words almost blend into each other. For example: “Where are you?” should be said “wheh-rah-you?”
Use the liquid U: In a British accent, a liquid “u” sound, as said in the word you, is used in places where an American accent would pronounce “oo.” Common examples are words such as stupid (to be pronounced “stew-pid” rather than “stoo-pid”) and duty (“dew-ty” instead of “doo-ty”).
Pay more attention to consonants: In a Standard British accent, consonants should be pronounced a little more precisely than in an American accent. This change particularly applies to “t” sounds. For example, the word battle should be said “bat-ul” rather than “ba-dul.” This rule should also be applied to the suffix “-ing,” where the “g” on the suffix should be pronounced fully but subtly. A word of caution: don’t take this too far. Hitting consonants too hard makes everything sound very choppy and very quickly makes an accent sound fake.
Exchange “A” for “Ah”: This is a very important sound change—but unfortunately, it’s inconsistent. There is no rule determining when an “a” sound is pronounced in the same way as it would be in a General American accent and when it’s a darker “ah” sound, but using the wrong one can instantly spoil an accent. Luckily, you can look up the “Ask–Dance” list to see which words use which sounds. It should be noted that there will be a slight difference in the way the “a” sounds in this British accent. That comes naturally from the dropping of the jaw. The “a” versus “ah” sound also varies widely based on where in the U.K. an accent is from. Referring to that list will help you stick closely to a Standard British accent.
These guidelines should help you with your dialect work, whether you’re refreshing your British accent or learning it from scratch.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott on “Fleabag” Courtesy Amazon Studios
1. Study British accents: Watch British TV shows and films such as “Skins,” “Good Omens,” “Fleabag,” “Doctor Who,” and “The Office” UK. Listen to British patterns, inflections, and patterns from people you know in real life, TV presenters, and the International Accents of English Archive.
2. Go slow: Taking on a new accent can be difficult. Aim for steady but consistent practice using a memorized passage from your favorite film, TV show, or play. Once you feel comfortable with these sound changes, practice your British accent in everyday conversation until it feels more natural. Have a chat with a barista or bartender in your new accent so you can use it without feeling self-conscious, since you’ll probably never see them again!
3. Use the accent pre-audition: Dialect coaches recommend using an accent throughout the day leading up to an audition so that your mouth, lips, and throat are prepared to make the right movements.
4. Persevere: Casting directors care more about consistency than perfection when it comes to performing an accent, so don’t let a minor fumble turn into a major foible—keep calm and carry on.