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British English (BrE) is a term used to distinguish the form of the English language used in the British Isles from forms used elsewhere. It includes all the varieties of English used within the Isles, including those found in England, Scotland, Wales, and the island of Ireland.
The widespread usage of English across the world is partly attributable to the former power of the British Empire, and this is reflected in the use of British written forms in many parts of the world.
While there is a meaningful degree of uniformity in formal written English in the UK and Ireland, the forms of spoken English used vary considerably more than in most other areas of the world where English is spoken; therefore, a uniform concept of "British English" is difficult to apply to the spoken language. For example, although the words wee and little are interchangeable in some contexts, one is more likely to see wee written by a Scottish or Northern Irish person than by an English person. Dialects and accents vary not only between the nations of the British Isles, for example in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, but also within these countries themselves. There are also differences in the English spoken by different socio-economic groups in any particular region.
The major divisions are normally classified as English English (or English as spoken in England, which comprises Southern English dialects, Midlands English dialects and Northern English dialects), Welsh English, Scottish English and the closely related dialects of the Scots language, and Hiberno-English.
The various British dialects also differ in the words which they have borrowed from other languages. The Scottish and Northern dialects include many words originally borrowed from Old Norse and a few borrowed from Gaelic.
All these differences can be a major impediment to understanding among the older dialects, generally found within the United Kingdom. However, modern communications and mass media have reduced these differences significantly. In addition, speakers of very different dialects may modify their speech, and particularly vocabulary, towards a "standard" English.
The most common form of English used by the British ruling class is that of south-east England (the area around the capital, London, and the ancient English university towns of Oxford and Cambridge). This form of the language is known as the "Received Standard", and its accent is called Received Pronunciation (RP), which is improperly regarded by many people outside the UK as "the British accent". Earlier it was held as better than other accents and referred to as the King's (or Queen's) English, or even "BBC English". Originally this was the form of English used by radio and television. However, there is now much more tolerance of variation than there was in the past; for several decades other accents have been accepted and are frequently heard, although stereotypes about the BBC persist. English spoken with a mild Scottish accent has a reputation for being especially easy to understand. Moreover, only approximately 5 percent of Britons speak RP[How to reference and link to summary or text], and it has evolved quite markedly over the last 40 years. Even in the south east there are significantly different accents; the local inner east London accent called Cockney is strikingly different from RP and can be difficult for outsiders to understand.
There is a new form of accent called Estuary English that has been gaining prominence in recent decades: it is has some features of Received Pronunciation and some of Cockney. In London itself, the broad local accent is still changing, partly influenced by Caribbean speech. Londoners speak with a mixture of these accents, depending on class, age, upbringing, and so on.
Outside the south east there are, in England alone, at least seven families of accents easily distinguished by natives:
- West Country (South West England)
- East Anglian
- Birmingham, Black Country and other industrial Midland accents
- Liverpool (Scouse)
- Manchester and other east Lancashire accents
- Newcastle (Geordie) and other north-east England accents
As with English around the world, the English language as used in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland is governed by convention rather than formal code: there is no equivalent body to the Académie française or the Real Academia Española, and the authoritative dictionaries (e.g. Oxford English Dictionary, Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Chambers Dictionary, Collins Dictionary) record usage rather than prescribe it. In addition, vocabulary and usage change with time; words are freely borrowed from other languages and other strains of English, and neologisms are frequent.
For historical reasons dating back to the rise of London in the 9th century, the form of language spoken in London and the East Midlands became standard English within the Court, and ultimately became the basis for generally accepted use in the law, government, literature and education within the British Isles. To a great extent, modern British spelling was standardised in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), although previous writers had also played a significant role in this and much has changed since 1755. Scotland, which only underwent parliamentary union in 1707, still has a few independent aspects of standardisation, especially within its autonomous legal system.
- Languages in the United Kingdom
- Scots language
- Scottish English
- Ulster Scots language
- American and British English differences
- British Isles (terminology)
- Bragg, M. (2004) 'The Adventure of English', Sceptre. ISBN 0-340-82993-1
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