It’s just barmy innit: The thickest accents in the English language that make you question if you know English

thickest accents
From 'Derry Girls' to 'Bridgerton', Irish actress Nicola Coughlan's mastery of her character's accents is one to be studied. Source: AFP

Some may say that how we speak English is the vocal equivalent of an international business card.

If we speak English in a way that doesn’t present us well to other people from different parts of the world, they may not want to converse with us. 

In 2014, the University of Glasgow produced a research paper on first impressions that still rings true today. Humans judge someone’s trustworthiness within the first 500 milliseconds of hearing their voice – which could result in unfortunate outcomes when some of the thickest accents in the world are often misconstrued as uncouth, undiplomatic, or even arrogant. 

Why does this matter? It’s a world of speech recognition applications now – Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, Teams and other voice-based interactions heavily rely on vocal communication.

Having a thick accent could potentially render one’s speech unintelligible.

However, in many countries, English is not a native language, and residents struggle with it because of their thick accents.

It’s common for non-native English speakers to be subjected to prejudice and stereotypes when it comes to securing professional opportunities or pursuing friendships and romantic relationships. 

We call it “linguistic profiling,” a term coined by John Baugh, Ph.D., the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor and director of African and African American Studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He produced a study on employers making racist or discriminatory comments through the phone at those with thick accents or dialects, rejecting their chance to be employed solely based on their voice. 

But where does all this hate come from?

thickest accents

Of course, the charismatic, classy man must have a British accent. Source: AFP

The media’s role in stereotypes 

It’s time to address the uncomfortable reality of accents and stereotypes. 

Society has made accents the bedrock of refinement. Half the time, certain accents are seen as attractive – sexy even. It’s hard to find someone who’s not a fan of Tom Hiddleston’s British accent, specifically an English Received Pronunciation (RP) accent, more commonly known as the “Standard British” accent used mostly in London and South East England and formal education and the media.

While European accents are considered sophisticated and elegant, other non-white accents are considered uncouth or crude. British accents are classy and desirable, while some accents, such as Latino, Indian, Asian, or African accents, are associated with the “working” or “lower” classes.

Ultimately, it is the latter that constantly faces mocking or impoliteness. 

Certainly, people may poke fun at British or Scottish accents, but they hardly do so with the intention of making it sound unrefined or have underlying hints of racism within. Those who grew up comfortable mocking one’s accent tend to cast judgment, make assumptions, and fall into stereotypes solely based on how a person speaks.

The media plays a strong – and perhaps unfortunate – role in creating stereotypes about certain accents, especially the thickest accents in the world. So often, we see the cowboy with the Texan accent, the mafia boss with the Russian accent, or the comical relief with the thick Indian accent. 

Look at the holiday movie classic “A Christmas Story.” There’s a scene where the child enters a Chinese restaurant for Christmas, where staff are singing “Deck the Harrs”, “Jingre Berrus” and going “fa ra ra ra.” 

In truth, even kids’ movies – perhaps unwittingly – encourage the association of accents from a young age.

Take “The Lion King,” for example. The heroes of the story, Simba and Mufasa, have American accents. Scar, the villain, has a British accent, and his incompetent minions, the hyenas, speak with Latino accents and African American Vernacular English.

Look at shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Kim’s Convenience.” Both shows highlight the first-generation immigrant experience in America from a humorous lens, but they simultaneously tackle the complexities of being American-born-Asian. 

In “Fresh Off the Boat,” based on Chef Eddie Huang’s best-selling memoir, the Huang family’s story centres around finding the American Dream. Louis, the father, moves to Orlando to open a western cowboy restaurant – aptly named Cattleman’s Ranch, complete with cowboy hats. What screams “American” more than a cowboy-themed steakhouse, right lads? 

Meanwhile, his son Eddie is happily assimilated into American culture and is a big fan of hip-hop and rap music. But despite that, he struggles in his new school where his schoolmates make fun of his lack of “white people food” – like Lunchables – and also call him a “chink.” Yikes.

Now look at shows like “Emily in Paris, where the main character, a white woman, traipses around Paris, encountering over-exaggerated clichés of wealth, fashion, and romantic affairs. If Emily had different coloured skin and spoke with a heavy accent, her experience may be vastly different. 

When these stereotypes are present in media, it’s inevitable that they come off the screen as well, creating issues for international students or migrant families that hail from certain countries. 

But let us remind you that it goes both ways. 

thickest accents

Despite all its beauty, New Zealand has one of the thickest English accents in the world. Source: AFP

The international student experience

Many are quick to assume that it’s hard to understand some international students, especially if they have a heavy accent.

Stereotypes are one thing, and they may commonly be misunderstood or feel self-conscious or insecure about speaking aloud like this Reddit user. This can lead to a reluctance to participate in class discussions, group work, and even social settings. 

Socialising can be especially hard for international students with the thickest accents in the world.

It’s hard to pick up on subtle cues in spoken language, leading them to miss out on humour or sarcasm. In the end, it may result in international students forcing themselves to change their accents just to fit in.

But native English speakers can be hard to understand too.

Try watching an episode of “Derry Girls” without subtitles – even a native English speaker would struggle with it. It doesn’t help that certain accents also come with their own slang; New Zealanders often say “curr” to mean thanks or cheers. 

International students can face certain challenges with accents as well, such as difficulty understanding their lecturers or peers.

Their English may be different in terms of pronunciation, slang, and even speed. Lessons may be particularly difficult if professors speak quickly, or use technical jargon and vocabulary that international students aren’t familiar with.

In conclusion, it goes both ways. That’s why it’s important to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for international students through language workshops, international student organisations, and events and to ensure educators are aware of the challenges faced by these students. 

The thickest accents in the English language

Understanding these accents varies by person and by their familiarity with that accent. For example, someone who grew up around American English their whole life will definitely find a Vietnamese accent confusing. It’s all about developing an ear for them.

Meanwhile, let’s take a look at some of the thickest accents in the English language, that even native speakers might struggle with understanding. 

  • New Zealand

“‘Chur, bro!”

The New Zealand accent, also known as Kiwi English, can be rather tricky. In the video above, one interviewee mishears “knackered” for “naked” and immediately displays discomfort until the interviewer explains that it’s his Kiwi accent. 

  • Scottish

“Ack! Lang may yer lum reek, and may a moose ne’er leave your girnal with a teardrop in his eye! Haste Ye Back, Me Lassie.” 

This baffling sentence is spoken by Merida, Disney’s Scottish princess in “Wreck-It Ralph 2.” Don’t worry, we dinnae hae a clue whit she said either. Just look at the clip above from the same movie. 

Scottish English employs lilting sounds and an array of unique words. Often, Scots use the sound “oo” instead of “ow.” So “house” sounds like “hoose,” and “about” sounds like “about.”

  • Appalachian 

“He whittled himself a purty nice walking stick down by the creek this mornin’.”

The dialect is derived from a combination of Scotch-Irish, German, and English communities. This Reddit thread discusses what people say about the Appalachian accent, with a user noting, “Not to mention the sheer number of times I hear “take me home, country roads” sung to me. That’s basically my average greeting.”

  • Cockney

“You in a spot of bother, then? You’d better get it sorted like, ain’t you?”

What’s interesting about the Cockney accent is that speakers often use rhyming slang, where everything rhymes with what it actually means. For example, “nuclear sub” means “pub,” and “Britney Spears” rhymes with “beers.”

So if you were to say, “Want to get a drink at the pub?” in a Cockney accent, it would probably be like, “Fancy a Britney down by the nuclear sub?” Just ask Adele, who has a native Cockney accent.

No, we don’t really get it, either. 

  • Geordie

“Divvint be daft, we can pick up a belta bottle of bairn juice on the way!”

Also known as Newcastle English, the Geordie accent originates from the Tyneside area of North East England. It has distinct vowel sounds, softened consonants, and a fast pace that can be tricky to follow. Words like “button” might sound like “bot-tdan” with a strong “oo” sound.

  •  Glaswegian

“The Glasgow accent was so strong you could have built a bridge with it and known it would outlast the civilisation that spawned it.” – Val McDermid, Scottish crime writer. 

While the Glaswegian accent shares words and speech patterns with some other Scottish accents, it’s still very distinct and easily recognisable with the use of the glottal stop where a “t” is dropped. “Bottle” is “bo’le” and “water” is “wa’er.”