English is spoken throughout the UK, although there are parts of major cities where a variety of languages are also spoken due to immigration. English spoken in the UK has many accents and dialects, some of which may include words unknown to other English speakers. It is quite common for a Southerner and a Northerner not to understand each other straight away; don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat themselves. To illustrate the variety of accents, it is easy to distinguish the English of a person from Northern Ireland from that of a person from the Republic of Ireland, or even to determine the origin of a person from a particular city in a county, such as Leeds or Whitby (both in Yorkshire, England). In Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is relatively easy to speak English. The different dialects can be extremely different in both pronunciation and vocabulary.
When you emigrate to the UK, you are likely to meet people from all over the UK and beyond wherever you go. It is rare to find a place where all adults have the same accent or dialect.
There is an old joke that people in the United Kingdom and the United States are “separated by a common language”. Travellers from English-speaking countries outside the UK may have difficulty understanding certain words with a strong regional accent, but there should be no major difficulties in communicating. The British understand English spoken with a foreign accent, and visitors who speak English as a second language should not be afraid to make mistakes. You may have a slightly blank look on your face for just a few seconds after finishing a sentence while they “decode” it internally. Most British people will not criticise or correct your speech, although some are very keen to promote British over American usage when speaking to people whose first language is not British.
Some examples of regional words that foreign visitors may not know:
- Yes – yes (parts of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northern England)
- Cymru (pronounced “Cum-ree”) – Wales (Wales)
- Dale / glen – valley (or the north of England and Scotland)
- Fell – Mountain (Northern England, especially the Lake District)
- Loch – Lake (Scotland)
- Lough – Lake (Northern Ireland)
- Kirk – Church (Scotland and North East England)
- Poke – ice cream served in a waffle cone (Northern Ireland); a paper cone, especially one containing crisps or sweets (Scotland).
- Wee – small (Scotland, Northern Ireland, some northern English), can also mean urinate (England)
In the world of politics, there are also some very common words that you can hear:
- Downing Street – used to refer to the government (similar to “the White House” which refers to the President of the United States). “Buckingham Palace” is similarly used to refer to the monarchy.
- MP – or Member of Parliament, not to be confused with “PM” – the Prime Minister
- Westminster – used to refer to Parliament and the political system in general. “Stormont”, “Holyrood” and “Cardiff” refer respectively to the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Free slang is not a language but a collection of terms, some of them local and temporary, others so permanent that they are used by many people who do not know that they are naughty slang. An example of the latter is “raspberry” for the mocking sound called “Bronx cheer” in the United States – derived from “fraspberry tart”, which rhymes with “fart”.
The British have always been very tolerant of swear words when used in context. It is considered much less offensive to say taboo words like “cunt” or “twat” than in America, and can even be an expression of affection depending on the situation. Tourists should get used to hearing the word “mate” (and to a lesser extent “boss” or “bruv” in London) used in informal (often male-only) interactions between strangers and friends, and is akin to calling someone “buddy” or “pal”. The use of affectionate terms between the sexes such as ‘darling’, ‘love’ or ‘darling’ (or even ‘lover’ in some parts of Cornwall) is common between strangers and is not done in a sexist or patronising way. Also, the British tend to apologise for the smallest things, much to the amusement of some, and it can be considered rude not to do so. An example such as “I bumped into you” warrants a “sorry” and sounds more like a “pardon” or “excuse me”.
Other native languages
British Sign Language (BSL) is the main sign language of the United Kingdom. When interpreters are present at public events, they use BSL. In Northern Ireland, both BSL and Irish Sign Language (ISL) are used, and contact between the two gives rise to Northern Ireland Sign Language, or NISL. Users of Auslan or NISL can understand BSL because these languages are derived from BSL and share much of the vocabulary and the same two-handed hand alphabet. On the other hand, users of French Sign Language and related languages – such as ISL and American Sign Language – will not be able to understand BSL because they differ significantly in syntax and vocabulary and also use a one-handed hand alphabet.
Welsh (Cymraeg) is widely spoken in Wales, especially in the north and west. The number of Welsh speakers has increased in recent years, partly due to the promotion of the language in schools, but this bilingual population still only accounts for about 30% of the total population of Wales. Government departments whose remit includes Wales use bilingual (English and Welsh) documentation – see, for example, the Welsh version of the central government website. Street signs in Wales are bilingual. Even the non-Welsh majority in Wales know how to pronounce place names in Welsh. Once you know how to pronounce a name, try not to be offended!
Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) can be heard in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, but there are only 60,000 native speakers.
The ancient Cornish language (Kernowek) of Cornwall, in the far south-west, was revived in the 20th century, but is not always passed down from parents to children, as is the case with Welsh and Gaelic. Be aware, however, that there are place names in Cornish that are quite difficult for non-natives to pronounce!
Irish (Gaeilge) is spoken in some parts of Northern Ireland, especially in the border areas.
Scottish has many similarities with English and can be heard to varying degrees in parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland (where it is known as Ulster Scots). It can be difficult to understand, so don’t hesitate to ask someone to repeat themselves or speak more slowly. Standard English is likely to be used with foreigners.
All speakers of these minority languages are fluent or almost fluent in Standard English, but respond well if you are interested in their mother tongue and culture. Wikivoyage has phrasebooks for Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx Gaelic.
British students often learn a European language at school, although they do not usually go beyond basic level. In general, people in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland speak only English, although French, German and Spanish are the most widely spoken and understood foreign languages.
The UK is a popular destination for migrants from all over the world, so many parts of the major cities are home to migrant communities speaking a variety of languages from around the world, including Turkish, Polish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Punjabi, Cantonese and many others.