A London Accent Across the Centuries.

Simon Roper’s YouTube video A London Accent from the 14th to the 21st Centuries does what it says on the tin; in less than 17 minutes he goes from 1346 to 2006 in approximately 60-year leaps, showing vowel charts with commentary on the screen. He writes:

If you’d like to read more about the history of south-eastern English pronunciation, I’d recommend the Cambridge History of the English Language series. I used volumes II and III extensively for this video, but if there are mistakes, they’re far more likely to be mine. The chapters on phonology are particularly interesting.

It’s a good idea and he carries it off well — I like his natural-sounding renditions — but I’m not sure why he used such anachronistic texts; e.g., under 1466 he has “He was spooked” (first OED citation 1935 E. Hemingway Green Hills Afr. i. i. 13 “We spooked one [kudu]”), under 1526 he has “We lived in the middle of nowhere,” and under 1886 he has “berks” (first citation in Green’s 1936 J. Curtis Gilt Kid 66: “‘The berk.’ Jealousy and savage contempt blended in the Gilt Kid’s tone”). But never mind, it’s fun and educational. Thanks, Michael!


  1. What’s his “natural” accent, exactly? There are a few words where his lax /i/ is surprisingly closed, i.e. more [i] than [ɪ], e.g. “sixty”.

  2. Yes, I’m hoping someone familiar with SE/Lunnun English will comment on that.

  3. Obliquely related: I’ve just watched the movie ‘The Dig’ with Ralph Feinnes playing a Suffolk native. Feinnes in fact grew up around Ipswich/not far from where the action is set — the discovery of Sutton Hoo’s burial mounds. I went to ‘varsity in Colchester, just over the border into Essex, and holidayed frequently in Norfolk as a kid.

    East Anglian accents are really difficult to mimic: definitely not East London/Cockney/Essex girl. They’re not North London accents, and not Midlands, but quite close to both.

    I thought I would be gritting my teeth, because Feinnes usually sounds ‘posh’. There’s one or two slips in the movie, but he is uniformly excellent. The minor players not too bad. (Carey Mulligan just has to be ‘upper’.)

  4. I was surprised by how modern his old(er) English sounded, then I realised, it IS modern English with (largely if not wholly) modern English grammar, syntax and vocabulary; just spoken in ‘ye olde’ pronunciation / phonology.

    If you are looking for a genuine attempt at how Middle English sounded, I’d recommend BBC Wales animated Canterbury Tales, produced in the 1990s.

  5. Andrej Bjelaković says


    Check out this recording from the tape accompanying John Wells’s Accents of English (1982):


  6. The Canterbury Tales are poetry. I think his “modern” feel comes from using the prosody of modern casual speech. I have no idea if or how much it has changed over the centuries.

  7. What’s his “natural” accent, exactly?

    (West Londoner speaking.) I’d say Inner South — somewhere like Croydon/Lewisham — but not influenced by the Caribbean influx there.

    I was surprised by how modern his old(er) English sounded,

    Yes. Specifically the first 3 samples I placed as Middlesborough/Teesside, not London at all. Would be interesting to compare to the recordings sent in by the guy posing as the Yorkshire Ripper — if those are available anywhere.

    I felt as the recordings progressed, we were going steadily southwards. The C16th ones I placed in Rotherham — South Yorkshire, but not strong like Sheffield or Holmfirth (Last of the Summer Wine country).

  8. @Andrej thanks!

    Yes I hope ‘Grahame’ (2 syllables) never did lose that bootiful Narfok accent.

  9. Andrej Bjelaković says

    According to his FB page, Simon is from Guildford.

  10. Guildford (the d, of course, is silent):

    The root of the first part may be the word ‘gold’ rather than Guild, a society or meeting of tradesmen: the only known 10th-century (Saxon) record uses Guldeford and in the 11th century Geldeford; both meaning gold and ford. Local historians with an interest in toponyms cite the lack of gold in the region’s sedimentary rocks and have suggested that the mention of ‘gold’ may refer to golden flowers found by the ford itself, or the golden sand; several older sources such as Lewis’s topological dictionary of 1848 prefer and give an unreferenced assertion there was a guild.

  11. A. D. Mills’ Oxford Dictionary of British Place-Names says “Probably ‘ford by the gold-coloured (i.e. sandy) hill’, from OE *gylde + ford.”

  12. The recording Andrej linked to also has a boy from Oxfordshire, where I grew up. I was struck that his pronunciation of ‘farmer’ veers toward a New England sound — non-rhotic but with a ‘harder’ (apologies for imprecision) long ‘a’ than I’m accustomed to.

    I didn’t develop a real Oxfordshire accent because my family was new to the area and we were townies.

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