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Ignoring English outside England for the moment, does English have more variation in its accents than other languages do?

To put this practically but unscientifically, is it more difficult for someone from Cornwall to understand someone from Northumbria, than it is for someone from Brittany to understand someone from Marseilles?

Speaking as an English person, my fellow countrymen seem sure that our regional accents are uber-diverse, which I think is the narcissism of minor differences, considering that German and French were barely even unified languages 150 years ago.

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    To get a realistic answer to that question, you'd hafta resolve a lot of political problems, like: Is lowland Scots (Lollans) a dialect or a separate language? Ditto several Northern dialects. For France, the status of Provençal, for Spain the status of Catalonian, etc, are all issues that need resolving. Then there's the matter of how many dialects there are and how you count them. The last question has a simple answer: you pay a lot of sociolinguists a lot of money to get an empirical study of the dialectology of each area, then you compare results. Other than that, everything is anecdotal. – jlawler May 4 '15 at 23:58
  • Maybe narcissism of minor differences, more likely simply ignorance of the diversity of other languages. People aren't very good at knowing what they don't know. – brass tacks May 5 '15 at 1:10
  • French has a rigid history and maybe only a few dialects (relatively). It had an active language policy as international language, and colonial language. More comparable is German that has a large number of dialects. As to accents: people trying to talk neutral "standard" language will have a regional accent, whether it is English, German or the small Dutch. Caused by the in-trained music of a regional dialect. Probably the diversity of dialects are normative; regional pride vs. nationalism. – Joop Eggen Jun 5 '15 at 12:29
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One problem with this question is that when dialects become too different, they may be called separate languages (subject also to political factors, of course). To make sense of this question, I think we should also include all languages inside the dialect continuum as dialects, though not minority languages that are not part of the continuum at all, such as Welsh (for English), Breton (for French) or Sorbian (for German).

Now if we ignore English outside England, this means cutting off the dialect continuum at a political border. So we should do the same for French, German and any other languages we might want to consider.

With these clarifications, it is my understanding that English, French, German and Italian are roughly comparable in the variation of their accents and dialects. What differs between them is primarily the status and penetration of the standard language and the extent to which non-standard accents and dialects are used and the status they have. But for each of these languages, if you take pure dialect speakers from distant regions, they will have a very hard time understanding each other without resorting to some degree to the common standard language. And in each case, a distant dialect becomes relatively easy to understand after only a small amount of exposure.

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This is essentially a question of perception and politics. Simply counting 'named' accents or doing mutual comprehension studies will get you certain numbers but will not answer the real question: What do accents, dialects, varieties and related 'minority' languages mean in the area you're studying.

You will find some broad similarities such as the creation of prestige levels, standards and historical change. But you will also find a lot of differences in how the prestige is managed (e.g. what do you hear on TV, how pejorative names are used to label accents, how accents are recognized as being part of an identity vs. poor learning, how standards are established, etc.)

I would suspect that the difference between English (in England) and other major European languages is that the current English standard is relatively weak and the the formerly high-prestige accent is relatively low prestige now. You also have a lot of political resurgence of local identities which has led to a relative increase in accent prestige (though not uniformly and not all). You also have relatively high awareness of accents which is broadly reflected in popular literature (My Fair Lady, etc.)

My fleeting impression is that in French and German, the standard is relatively strong but is not necessarily as strongly associated with class. Both French and German have many very diverse 'dialects' some of which may have their own literary forms. Contrast that to Russian where accents are not very strongly linked to local identities - perhaps with the exception of Moscow. The language where I can make observations on the same level as English is Czech which has a very strong standard which is much more strongly differentiated from non-standard based on morphology than accent. The only two widely recognized accents are Moravian (with a strong subset of Ostrava region and Brno) which is strongly linked to identity and Prague which is very weakly linked to identity. While there are other regional varieties, they are much weaker both in recognition and identity. The levels of mutual intelligibility vary from almost full to relatively low.

So looking from the perspective of Czech (1/5 of the speakers), UK English will seem much more diverse and the networks of decisions speaker and listeners have to make when assessing someone's identity based on their speech much more complex. This whether or not the actual number of varieties per area or population would vary. I would estimate that coming from Russian, you'd get a similar perspective but would not dare to guess at what English would look like coming from French, German, Spanish or Italian.

  • Nice answer. I've got a question on "the current English standard is relatively weak and the the formerly high-prestige accent is relatively low prestige now" - Do you think you could elaborate on this? Are you suggesting what was formerly the standard accent is now perceived as non-standard (e.g. working class)? – robert May 5 '15 at 10:31
  • Re weakness of the English standard: There is no central institution maintaining and adjudicating the standard (particularly in pronunciation) and it is not enforced as strongly in schools. It is maintained mostly through the genre requirements of various written contexts. Re low prestige of 'high prestige' accent: This is really associated with class and education. Since the prestige of the high class and privately educated is quite variable and context bound, a 'public school' accent is no longer aspirational and many of its speakers try to reduce its prominence or apologize for it. – Dominik Lukes May 7 '15 at 7:22

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