There is no question that a great variety of accents (forms of pronunciation) and dialects (forms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation) are spoken in the United States. However, it might be difficult to know that based on what we hear on American television. You might detect a specific accent when a certain type of character is called for but more often, it seems the idea is to present a homogeneous, middle-of-the-road American accent that viewers from all over the country can relate to. Law and Order can be good about showcasing a variety of regional and socioeconomic dialects but how realistic was it that the only recognizable Boston accent on Cheers was Cliff Clavin’s?
On British televison, quite a few programs are set in London, and just like in any large city in the world, you will encounter a diverse assortment of people and their accents. You might hear more of the RP accent http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Received_Pronunciation on shows like My Family, Men Behaving Badly, and Spooks (or MI-5). But if you encounter an Irish bicycle messenger like Tyres O’Flaherty from Spaced or Scottish lasses, Mary and Molly Gilcrist from William and Mary, they employ the appropriate accent.
And when a series ventures away from the southern part of England, the actors’ accents become even more important. If a series is set in the Cornwall area, like Doc Martin, then the locals have a West Country accent. Residents of Manchester in shows such as Shameless and The Royale Family use the Mancunian vernacular. And while I am by no means a linguist, the Yorkshire accent is the most recognizable for me. I started watching series one of Fat Friends recently and within a minute I’d identified a Yorkshire dialect before they mentioned they were in Leeds. Frequent use of “nowt”, “summat”, and omitting the words “a” and “the” from sentences (e.g. I saw it in paper) are all big tip offs for me.
I appreciate the attention to detail that goes into honoring the appropriate accents. I would imagine it helps the actors relate to their alter egos more and I marvel at the subtle linguistic talents of many actors in the UK. Even though at times I have to turn on the closed captioning, I think I get a better feel for the characters’ backgrounds and circumstances.
Please enjoy the youtube video below for an entertaining, if not entirely accurate, tutorial on various British accents from Mr. worldaccordingtodunk.