Understanding British English: Dialects, Spelling, and More

A street sign reading Borough High Street - London Borough of Southwark

If you already speak English, getting around London shouldn’t be too difficult. Just remember that Southwark is pronounced “SUTH-uck!” Photo © David Howard, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

For the most part our shared media means that we already tend to understand each other’s words and idioms. You probably already know that lift means elevator or that football is soccer. Yet it will probably take you a while to become familiar with all of the variations between our two versions of English, especially if you consider slang, pronunciation, and regional variations. At least our shared language means that we can quickly pick up British terminology and idioms. More importantly, you will have the English to say “I’m confused, what do you mean?” or “Can you say it again please?” even if it is a bit embarrassing.

Just be sure to remember that Southwark is pronounced “SUTH-uck”; they won’t know what you mean if you pronounce it as it is spelled.

One Americanism that the British do not like is the use of “what,” when you have not heard or understood someone. In these circumstances “what” is considered ill-mannered. Instead you should try to remember to say “pardon” or “I’m sorry.” It might seem a minor offense to say “what” rather than “pardon,” but I would say that this is one word commonly used by Americans that really grates on the British. I, on the other hand, shudder when they use “have got,” when “have” is all they need…so I guess it is just “horses for courses” (as they say here). We each have our own foibles, which we will just have to accommodate.

Regional Dialects

If you aren’t that familiar with Britain, you may believe that everyone here speaks like Roger Moore and Helen Mirren…or even Kiera Knightley and Hugh Grant—but you would be sadly mistaken. Britain has an enormous range of regional accents, from Welsh to Brummie (from Birmingham), Geordie (from Newcastle), and Glaswegian, to name but a few. To get a sense of Britain’s regional accents, think of Michael Caine with his London Cockney accent, Russell Brand with his Essex twang, or Robbie Coltrane with a Scottish accent. Given that it is geographically small in comparison to the United States, it is odd that there are such pronounced regional dialects in Britain—many more than we have in the States. Until you become used to them, these regional accents can occasionally be incomprehensible—especially on the phone. It is also worth bearing in mind that in England someone’s accent can be a sign of their background, with the middle and upper classes tending to have a less regionally pronounced accent. Thankfully, London accents are fairly easy to grasp, although you may struggle with the accents of some of the city’s immigrant population. At least you don’t have to learn a whole new language to get around in London, even if you do encounter the occasional confusing dialogue. Just be sure to remember that Southwark is pronounced “SUTH-uck”; they won’t know what you mean if you pronounce it as it is spelled.

British Spelling

The Americans and the British don’t just use different words—they also use different spellings and even syntax. The obvious spelling differences are the adding of “u” to words that end in “or” (colour, favour) and the changing of “er” endings to “re” (theatre, centre). But there are numerous other ones, such as “programme”—in Britain, “program” is only correct when referring to a computer program. The really odd one is “gaol” for jail, although this seems to be a bit archaic these days. The easiest way to deal with British spelling will be to just switch your computer’s spell-checker to UK English, which should catch any anomalies.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in London.

Leave a Reply