There are many different accents and dialects throughout England and people are often very proud of their local accent or dialect. However, accents and dialects also highlight social class differences, rivalries or other associated prejudices—as illustrated by George Bernard Shaw's comment:
||It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.
As well as pride in one's accent, there is also stigma placed on many traditional working class dialects. In his work on the dialect of Bolton, Graham Shorrocks wrote
||I have personally known those who would avoid, or could never enjoy, a conversation with a stranger, because they were literally too ashamed to open their mouths. It has been drummed into people—often in school, and certainly in society at large—that dialect speech is incorrect, impure, vulgar, clumsy, ugly, careless, shoddy, ignorant, and altogether inferior. Furthermore, the particularly close link in recent English society between speech, especially accents, and social class and values has made local dialect a hindrance to upward social mobility."
The three largest recognisable dialect groups in England are Southern English dialects, Midlands English dialects and Northern English dialects. The most prominent isogloss is the , which runs roughly from mid-Shropshire (on the Welsh border) to south of Birmingham and then to the Wash. South of the isogloss (the Midlands and Southern dialects), the Middle English phoneme /ʊ/ split into /ʌ/ (as in cut, strut) and /ʊ/ (put, foot); this change did not occur north of the Isogloss.
The accent of English English best known outside the United Kingdom is that of Received Pronunciation (RP), though it is used by only a small minority of speakers in England. Until recently, RP was widely considered to be more typical of educated speakers than other accents. It was referred to by some as the Queen's (or King's) English, an 'Oxford accent' or even 'BBC English' (because for many years of broadcasting it was rare to hear any other accent on the BBC). These terms, however, do not refer only to accent features but also to grammar and vocabulary, as explained in Received Pronunciation. Since the 1960s regional accents have become increasingly accepted in mainstream media, and are frequently heard on radio and television. The Oxford English Dictionary gives RP pronunciations for each word, as do most other English dictionaries published in Britain.
Most native English speakers can tell the general region in England that a speaker comes from, and experts or locals may be able to narrow this down to within a few miles. Historically, such differences could be a major impediment to understanding between people from different areas. There are also many cases where a large city has a very different accent from the rural area around it (e.g. Bristol and Avon, Hull and the East Riding, Liverpool and Lancashire). But modern communications and mass media have reduced these differences in some parts of the country. Speakers may also change their pronunciation and vocabulary, particularly towards Received Pronunciation and Standard English when in public.
British Isles varieties of English, including English English, are discussed in John C. Wells (1982). Some of the features of English English are that:
- Most versions of this dialect have non-rhotic pronunciation, meaning that [r] is not pronounced in syllable coda position. Non-rhoticity is also found elsewhere in the English-speaking world, including in Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English, New England English, New York City English, and older dialects of Southern American English, as well as most non-native varieties spoken throughout the Commonwealth of Nations. Rhotic accents exist in the West Country, parts of Lancashire, the far north of England and in the town of Corby, both of which have a large Scottish influence on their speech.
- As noted above, Northern versions of the dialect lack the , so that there is no distinction between /ʊ/ and /ʌ/, making put and putt homophones as /pʊt/.
- In the Southern varieties, words like bath, cast, dance, fast, after, castle, grass etc. are pronounced with the long vowel found in calm (that is, [ɑː] or a similar vowel) while in the Midlands and Northern varieties they are pronounced with the same vowel as trap or cat, usually [a]. For more details see Trap–bath split. There are some areas of the West Country that use [aː] in both the TRAP and BATH sets. The Bristol area, although in the south of England, uses the short [a] in BATH.
- Many varieties undergo h-dropping, making harm and arm homophones. This is a feature of working-class accents across most of England, but was traditionally stigmatised (a fact the comedy musical My Fair Lady was quick to exploit) but less so now. This was geographically widespread, but the linguist A.C.Gimson stated that it did not extend to the far north, nor to East Anglia, Essex, Wiltshire or Somerset. In the past, working-class people were often unsure where an h ought to be pronounced, and, when attempting to speak "properly", would often preface any word that began with a vowel with an h (e.g. "henormous" instead of enormous, "hicicles" instead of icicles); this was referred to as the "hypercorrect h" in the Survey of English Dialects, and is also referenced in literature (e.g. the policeman in Danny the Champion of the World).
- A glottal stop for intervocalic /t/ is now common amongst younger speakers across the country; it was originally confined to some areas of the south-east and East Anglia.
- The /hw/ in wine and whine is lost, "wh" being pronounced consistently as /w/.
- Most varieties have the horse–hoarse merger. However some northern accents retain the distinction, pronouncing pairs of words like for/four, horse/hoarse and morning/mourning differently.
- The consonant clusters /sj/, /zj/, and /lj/ in suit, Zeus, and lute are preserved by some.
- Many Southern varieties have the bad–lad split, so that bad /bæːd/ and lad /læd/ do not rhyme.
- In most of the eastern half of England, plurals and past participle endings which are pronounced /ɪz/ and /ɪd/ (with the vowel of kit) in RP may be pronounced with a schwa /ə/. This can be found as far north as Wakefield and as far south as Essex. This is unusual in being an east-west division in pronunciation when English dialects generally divide between north and south. Another east-west division involves the rhotic [r]; it can be heard in the speech of country folk (particularly the elder), more or less west of the course of the Roman era road known as Watling Street (the modern A5), which at one time divided King Alfred's Wessex and English Mercia from the Danish kingdoms in the east. The rhotic [r] is rarely found in the east.
- Sporadically, miscellaneous items of generally obsolete vocabulary survive: come in the past tense rather than came; the use of thou and/or ye for you.