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Accents in Sherlock


An introduction to the rich variety of British accents and an analysis of accents used in Sherlock.  I explore the distinctive regional accents and of course the ubiquitous BBC pronunciation, what the accents can tell us about the characters.

A short, not too serious guide by someone who has no linguistics expertise.

Islands of Contrast

An accent for the purposes of this essay is a manner of pronunciation that is particular to an individual, community or location.

The British Isles contains are geographically small but the accents that have evolved are incredibly diverse. I grew up in the North West of England where, even though the motorway links are brilliant, travelling a mere 60 miles or so will completely change the accents that you hear.

The most ubiquitous accent in the UK is BBC pronunciation. It used to be called “Received Pronunciation” but that term has fallen out of favour. If you’ve ever watched BBC New or listened to the English programs on the BBC World Service that is the accent I am referring to. This is not a regional accent – although it is more common in South of England. When people in the UK say that someone doesn’t have an accent, they really mean the person uses BBC pronunciation.

I personally like to think of BBC pronunciation as a “non-accent”. It can tell us relatively little about the bearer.

In terms of accents in the media, the clue is in the name. In most BBC programs, unless there is a specific reason, the characters/presenters all pretty much have BBC pronunciation. Other channels follow suit although most TV channels have tried hard to include presenters with regional accents in recent times.

It is important to remember that everyone has their own individual way of speaking. We all have our quirks in pronunciation and the pitch, tone, rhythm of our speech will influence how our accents are perceived by others. People can have accents to different degrees – some people have very thick accents whilst other only have some features of a particularly accent.

Mycroft Holmes


Many fans have identified Mycroft Holmes’ accent as “posh”. There is not an official “posh accent” – and even if there was Mycroft Holmes does not have it.

Posh is a very subjective description. Where I grew up anyone who didn’t have a regional accent was “posh”. After coming to University in the South, I have realised that BBC pronunciation is not considered “posh” but “standard”. Posh was defined as the rather over-exaggerated accent people often use to pantomime the rich. There are a small minority of people who have that stereotypical accent but “posh” on its own is not a very good way of describing anyone’s accent.

If we are going to talk about poshness – I believe it’s better to view it as a “gradation of poshness” which is superimposed on BBC pronunciation, rather than a distinct “posh accent”.

BBC pronunciation and the “gradation of poshness” are not good reflectors of social status in today’s society.

Traditionally BBC pronunciation was considered the preserve of the middle classes. It was something that set you apart from the common masses with their regional accents. I wouldn’t say that class has no role in today’s society, but BBC pronunciation itself has become less of a hallmark of class. Many people who would identify themselves as working class do not have a regional accent, whilst the middle-classes are more accepting of regional accents. The BBC has worked hard to introduce presenters with regional accents onto prime time television.  Therefore it is hard to judge the social status of a person purely based on how “posh” they sound. Their accent will not always match your expectations of their material circumstances.

Mycroft's accent is very much on the lower end of the "poshness gradation" because his speech is fairly close to BBC pronunciation. Deviations from Mycroft’s accent are usually due to Mark Gatiss’ own accent subconsciously creeping in.

Mark Gatiss comes from near Durham, in the North East. It’s a beautiful little city just 20 minutes train journey away from the main metropolis, Newcastle. Newcastle is the capital of the Geordie accent, a very distinctive accent that may have evolved from the influence of Norwegian sailors and fisherman who used to dock and trade at the port. The residents of Durham, despite being so close, have a softer accent which is slightly closer in nature to BBC pronunciation.

Mark Gatiss himself has spent enough time in London that I think perhaps his regional accent has become “lighter”.

If you want to hear Mark Gatiss talking about his accent: http://vimeo.com/39766685

Back to Mycroft: as I’ve said before BBC pronunciation can tell us relatively little about the person bearing it. What I can say about Mycroft's accent is not uncommon. It certainly fits in with the people who he would socialise with: politicians, senior civil servants etc.

David Cameron, our PM and his various public school educated lackeys all have Mycroft’s kind of “slightly-posh-but-close-enough-to BBC pronunciation” accent. I personally think some of them have made a great deal of effort to dampen down on their “poshness” to make themselves more appealing to the middle classes.

Mycroft is not a public figure - he does not do interviews or face the cameras at Prime Minister's question time. He socialises with the political elite behind the scenes. However this is not mean he hasn't also consciously modulated his accent to a certain extent. Not all MPs, political advisors and civil servants come from quite as privileged backgrounds as our current PM. In fact the opposition party: Labour, is being led by state school educated Ed Milliband, who is much less "posh" than David Cameron without even having to try. Toning down the "poshness" of his accent, is possibly one way Mycroft puts the people he has to work with more at ease. It may also be one way of publicly distancing himself from certain Lords who fulfil all the stereotypes of upper class privilege.

What Mycroft actually sounded like as a child would mostly likely to be closer to what we hear from Sherlock.

Sherlock Holmes


Again, Sherlock has the same general non-accent as his brother but Benedict Cumberbatch does not have a regional accent. Sherlock’s accent is basically how Benedict Cumberbatch usually speaks.

On the “gradation of poshness” he’s slightly higher than Mycroft but I think that has much more to do with Benedict’s public school education than any conscious effort on the actor’s part.

My in-universe explanation for the discrepancy is that Sherlock has no reason to modulate his accent. He is not interested in how it affects his image in the eyes of other people. We tend to learn pronunciation from our families at an early age. Some people can "lose" their accents but others have accents that stay with them for life. The way Sherlock speaks is probably a good reflection of the entire Holmes family and his public school education (A Good Old Fashioned Education).

John Watson

John had me rather puzzled but my conclusion is that his accent qualifies as BBC pronunciation but unlike Mycroft or Sherlock, he has not superimposed any of those “upper class” vowels on his pronunciation. For example his “a” vowel sounds are much shorter as evidenced in words such as “pass”. John is a much better presentation of what a great number of people in the UK actually sound like.

Here is an amusing map of how the “a” vowel varies in pronunciation between different geographic areas:

John fits in very much with the blue group. His rendition of the “a” vowel is still correct and technically BBC pronunciation. However it is considered less “posh” than pronouncing the “a” vowel as “ah”.

His rhythm of speech and accentuations within words may contribute to the overall impression that his accent is different to Sherlock’s. This is true because Sherlock doesn’t have exact BBC pronunciation and neither does John. Though they deviate in different ways I would say their accents overall qualify as BBC pronunciation. It is certainly hard to pinpoint a location for the original of John’s accent.

There are times when I think I can hear something else mixed in with his generally non-descript accent.

stakeaclaim has pointed out that John's accent may be a product of his career in the armed forces. I assume that in the sealed existence of military life, John's accent might have been influenced and changed. I think in the armed forces there is a tendency for accents to regress to the mean and the mean in this case is BBC pronunciation because it is such a common accent. This does not apply to certain regiments that recruit from specific areas like Wales or Scotland. However the RAMC recruits from all over the UK so I assume that John's BBC pronunciation may have something to do with the time he spent in the army.

Greg Lestrade

Lestrade’s accent is what I would call “Mockney” – an imitation cockney accent. However he doesn't quite do the accent as well as Phil Davis (the cab drive in ASIP). The cab driver's accent has all the hallmarks of a true cockney accent whereas Lestrade's accent does not.

“Cockney” was first used to describe accents in London way back in the 16th hundreds. The word “cockney” is said to originate from “coken ey” which is Middle English for cock’s egg. It was a derogatory term to describe how strange and unnatural the accent was.

London today has experienced so much immigration that Cockney is no longer the dominant accent. After the first and second world wars, many East End slums were cleared and their residents re-housed in purpose built settlements in Essex. Many towns on the outskirts of London saw massive expansion including South-end on Sea. Now it is more common to hear a derivative of the Cockney accent in Essex than it is in London.

Rupert Graves comes from Weston-Super-Mare near Bristol. From TV interviews: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-UXf4GGAqs, he doesn’t speak in the same way as Lestrade does in Sherlock. Lestrade’s accent is definitely not Bristol or West Country. Rupert himself has a slight regional accent.

Back to Lestrade: I personally thought Rupert was trying to do a "light" sort-of-cockney accent but then as two commenters have pointed out: Lestrade's accent is closer to Estuary than cockney. Estuary is the accent heard mainly in Essex and the Eastern outskirts of London. It sounds (in the grand scheme of regional accents) quite close to cockney. Certainly closer than scouse is to the manchunian. So perhaps my ears are deceiving me and Lestrade is really supposed to be an Essex boy.

Jim Moriarty

I am nowhere near an expert on Irish accents. Jim has an Irish accent, most likely Dublin as I have a few friends from there who speak very much like Moriarty.

Andrew Scott himself is from Dublin so this might fit rather nicely – he didn’t even have to put on a performance in terms of his accent.

Several people from Dublin have pointed out that Moriarty does have a Dublin accent but it is an exaggerated middle class south Dublin accent. It is locally known as the “D4 accent” after a postcode in south Dublin.

This particularly accent suggests Moriarty was born to a middle class family or he was educated in an establishment frequented by the well heeled middle classes. I personally think that some of Moriarty's pathos comes from a sense of inadequacy (Jim Moriarty...Hiiiii) which may have been fostered if he came from a working class family and won a scholarship to a prestigious academy. Alternatively, Jim's family immigrated to Brighton (where he presumably met Carl Powers) and was bullied by the local boys for his accent.

Irene Adler

I was quite surprised when BBC Sherlock decided to cast Irene as British – she was in fact an American in the original story.

Irene’s accent is pretty much BBC pronunciation with a few elongated vowels thrown in at random to take her up the “gradation of poshness” to a place suited to the ears of her impressive clientele.  Otherwise I personally cannot detect any hint of a regional accent.

For how Lara Pulver actually talks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3hh-zFA478

List of Other Metas


( 53 comments — Leave a comment )
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Mar. 12th, 2013 04:48 pm (UTC)
Moriarty has a Dublin accent, but there are several distinct Dublin accents! It's an exaggerated middle class south Dublin accent, often called a Roadwatch accent (it's very noticeable in radio presenters of the AA Roadwatch traffic reports.) "Ow" becomes "i", "I" become "oy" and "t" is far crisper than in a standard Dublin accent (where it often disappears.) The give-away word is "roundabout" as "rind-e-bite." Andrew Scott's own accent is a posher middle class Dublin accent, usually called a D4 accent after the postcode.
Mar. 12th, 2013 04:54 pm (UTC)
Oh thank you for this information. Mind if I put it up on the meta - all credit will go to you.
(no subject) - gurrier - Mar. 13th, 2013 01:59 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2013 07:08 pm (UTC)
I loved this meta! you do such interesting points here!

Character wise this is very important!

Because surely Mycroft tempered a little his accent because he is private school educated as Sherlock, but as public servant he has to less pronounced, sherlock and benedict haven't that problem!

Lestrade is not a londoner by birth but he is now a detective inspector in the city this talk a lot about him and even his false accent could be trying to get out of it and be more londoner in his pov as a character.

And Moriarty what gurrier said is really important too! So Moriarty born low class and rise from there to power! That's why he price so much his suit in TBG for sherlock suits are only cloths, so he can bury in lime and he can be worry about the chase after in disconfort, but never about his suit! Maybe only for his coat, because really he loves his coat!

Also John is always more complex that it seems at simple first glance!

Edited at 2013-03-12 07:09 pm (UTC)
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:37 pm (UTC)
You raise some good points. I don't think Lestrade's accent is supposed to be "Mockney" it's supposed to be pure cockney and Rupert tries rather admirably. I think we are supposed to see Lestrade as a straight talking East End cockney from a long distinguished line of working class cockneys.

I also think the Jim Moriarty's accent might be more of a product of his education rather than birth. Some of his pathos is probably rooted in a sense of inadequacy.
(no subject) - certainetymolo - Mar. 14th, 2013 04:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - wellingtongoose - Mar. 14th, 2013 08:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elfbert - Mar. 14th, 2013 10:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2013 07:33 pm (UTC)
Really interesting and I think you've hit them all pretty much spot-on. Just one note on the Durham accent (having lived there for 4 years) - I'd say it's pretty close to Geordie, and a lot of the locals would probably describe it as a Geordie accent. It is a bit softer, as you say - and some people I met had what sounded to me like a bit of a North Yorkshire twang. The trick, as a local once told me, is the vowels - Geordies often trip on these, even if they speak 'BBC'. Must go listen to see if I can spot Gatiss doing this now :-)
Mar. 12th, 2013 08:34 pm (UTC)
Hi thanks for the info. The Durham people I have met emphatically deny that they are geordie - maybe that's why they are no longer in Durham?

I have changed the wording to reflect that most local probably don't mind their accent being referred to as Geordie.
(no subject) - bopeepsheep - Mar. 14th, 2013 12:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - yalublyutebya - Mar. 14th, 2013 06:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 12th, 2013 09:20 pm (UTC)
as a non British non english speaker, this was very helpful, thanks =)
Mar. 13th, 2013 02:58 am (UTC)
This was very interesting, thanks!
Mar. 13th, 2013 07:04 am (UTC)
I find something of interest in all your metas and this is no exception. I've never really been very good at recognising accents only becoming conscious of mine now I live in New Zealand where the vowel sound is noticeably different and throws me now and again. :-)

PS sorry but my Brit pedantry is jumping up and down... it's programme not program. In Brit English program is only used for a computer program.
Mar. 13th, 2013 08:35 am (UTC)
Thanks for spotting the typo - my word sets itself to default US all the time when I restart the program so my writing is full of americanisms unless I try very hard to weed them out. Although word probably wouldn't have picked up on this had it been set correctly.
Mar. 13th, 2013 09:03 pm (UTC)
Thanks about the clarifications on accents. I find it very interesting that the RP had been adopted by the BBC as their official accent.

I think that the actors do try hard to emphasise the accents of the character as being reflective of their backgrounds and persona. I really love Sherlock's accent and Lestrade's they are both distinctive and the actors have gorgeous voices. XD

I am glad that you have pointed out that the longer vowel sounds and I assume the harsher consonant where Ps and Ts get almost spat out are signs of 'upper class' airs? (like in Harry Potter)

I have heard a couple speeches from the Queen and her accent seems very refined form of the BBC version...correct me if I am wrong.
Mar. 13th, 2013 11:09 pm (UTC)
Received pronunciation as far as I am aware was only made an official "accent" by the BBC. In the Victorian era accents were confined by social class and geography. There as no such thing as the "correct" or "official" way of pronouncing a word. The way in which you spoke was a denotion of social rank. With the advent of radio - people all around the country rich and poor were able to hear the same programmes.

If you ever have the chance to listen to the earliest broadcasts the accents of the broadcasters are completely different from broadcasts today. BBC pronunciation is an ever evolving accent. The current version which is deemed the "official way to speak English" is very much a fabrication of state broadcasting. However this faux accent is very influential: it permeates every home, everywhere in the country.

Only in the north and west of England, where there is a strong tradition of regional accents and a great pride in regional belonging, has the BBC pronunciation refused to take hold. In much of the south and south east BBC pronunciation is the norm.

The Queen's English is slightly different from today's BBC presenters. Her accent would have fitted right into BBC broadcasts of the 1920s which is when she was presumably learning to talk. Today her accent sounds somewhat archaic - you will notice none of our politicians talk like the Queen despite come from the upper classes.

As for harsher consonants are you think of Alan Rickman's Snape? He's not very posh at all - I would say Lucius Malfoy is probably the poshest character in Harry Potter - and even he fails to reach very far up the "gradation of poshness".

I think consonants are clearer the higher up you go on the "gradation of poshness". Learning to enunciate your consonants is one of the hallmarks of elocution lessons.

Edited at 2013-03-13 11:12 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - bootoye - Mar. 14th, 2013 01:24 am (UTC) - Expand
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Mar. 14th, 2013 10:47 am (UTC)
Here from sh_britglish

Just popped in to say thank you so much for the map of the pronunciation of "bath". I grew up (in Dorset, obvs) using the "aa" pronunciation and this is the first time in my entire life that I have seen any evidence that this isn't just me being weird.

I shall now see if I can track down the wikipedia article that picture comes from. Thanks again!
Mar. 14th, 2013 12:14 pm (UTC)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_English It's not actually the most obvious place to find that!

In my childhood/school-gates accent I have aa in BATH too, but with an intrusive R - baar'th! Most of the time I am more RP than that though.
Mar. 14th, 2013 02:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks a lot for that!

Doesn't Sherlock even use a distinctively "Mockney" pronounciation in "Scandal in Belgravia"? Just as he leaves Buckingham Palace, he says "laters" to Mycroft and Harry, and he pronounces it with a distinct glottal stop in the middle. He's such a troll.

As far as I know, the association of long, open "ah" with poshness and RP is actually a comparatively recent development (that is, late 19th century.) Words like "bath" and "glass" were originally pronounced with the short ae pretty much everywhere, so the northern dialects are conservative that way. The "ah"-sound was originally a regional, dialectal development and therefore stigmatized, until it spread into the general speech pattern of the London area, including that of the upper class and RP. But the history of English "a"-sounds in general is complicated as hell ;)

I think that when people call Mycrofts accent "posh" they might be referring his (speech) style in general. He speaks in a very controlled way, he enunciates clearly, his choice of words and his syntax impeccable... add to that the fact that he's never seen outside a three-piece suit and the impression you get of his speech is "posh", no matter the exact vowel quality.
Mar. 14th, 2013 05:54 pm (UTC)
I don't know when the elongated "ah" sound became the "proper" way to pronounce something like "bath". The earliest voice recordings showed the rich definitely did pronounce "bath" in that way but that was already towards the end of the 19th century. It is quite possible that the idea of a ubiquitous "posh" accent just didn't exist before the Victorian Era. People even the rich did not travel very long distances. The country gentry may have had regional accents different to their london counterparts.

Mycroft definitely gives off a "posh" vibe - his elocution is very good but not flawless. His actually accent though is really not that posh.
Mar. 14th, 2013 09:25 pm (UTC)
You don't think Irene's accent has more than a touch of Essex in it? That was my impression when I watched, but it has been quite a while.
Mar. 14th, 2013 09:43 pm (UTC)
Now that I've watched it again - I can see that there are a very small number of times when her accent could have a touch of Essex in but they go so quickly it's almost impossible to tell.
Mar. 16th, 2013 05:36 pm (UTC)
I always find discussions about accents fascinating because I can't hear them, except for a brief period the first time I hear someone speak. My brain just filters it all and I hear English even though I know that Person A speaks differently than Person B. It's even odder because my speech will pick up the patterns of the accents I'm not hearing and I don't even know that I'm doing it.
Mar. 16th, 2013 06:21 pm (UTC)
I have to wonder if John's having a standard accent with little bits of other slipping into it could be attributed to having a family that moved around a lot when he was younger plus a decade in the army. My own accent is fairly standard midwestern US, but there are times when hints of Baltimore or Boston creep in.
Mar. 16th, 2013 07:08 pm (UTC)
That is a very good point. I supposed having moved around a lot would give John an indiscernible accent. I grew up on the North West of England where just about everyone has a regional accent of some kind but because I moved away for university, I have now got the BBC "non-accent".
(no subject) - f_m_r_l - Mar. 16th, 2013 09:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 16th, 2013 06:28 pm (UTC)
Oh, this is lovely, thank you so much!

Um, it's understandable if you don't have an opinion on this, but is there anything you might say about Molly's and especially Sally's accents?
Mar. 16th, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)
In terms of Sally's accent - she doesn't say that much throughout the entire series. However I did pick up that she says "colleague" slightly differently to BBC pronunciation so she does have a hint of an accent. I'm not really sure which accent it is because the vast majority of the time she has BBC pronunciation. If I had to name an accent I'd say she has a hint of Estuary but obviously not nearly as much as Lestrade.

As for Molly - I think she pretty much also has standard BBC pronunciation.
Mar. 16th, 2013 10:30 pm (UTC)
That was fascinating!

Coming from Lincolnshire - I'm one of the "blue" people on the map with the short 'a' . . . and one moment that stood out for me was Sherlock's "mocking" of the 'further north' accent when he had to change his own pronunciation of the word that he would normally say as "Donc-ar-ster" to become "Donc-a-ster !!

This is a huge subject to tackle, but the points you've made had me nodding.
Mar. 18th, 2013 03:19 pm (UTC)

Thank you also for link to the Mark Gatiss interview - I've just listened to it - absolutely fascinating!!
Mar. 17th, 2013 12:02 am (UTC)
I loved this post and all its comments. Now I am saying 'bath bath' in my head. I wish I had a Northern accent because I love it (but also it doesn't exist as there is no place called 'North'...) I am German and just take on, chameleon-like, whatever accent is around me. Except I learned my English in Australia so a bit of that stays (yet another way of pronouncing the 'a'...)

I am not fantastic with British accents; I find them incredibly hard to memorise or detect. I still sometimes get Scots mixed up with Irish, and occasionally even some American accents. But in Germany I'm quite good at detecting regional origins. Maybe accents are one of the last things to be absorbed by the non-native speaker...?
Mar. 17th, 2013 04:07 pm (UTC)
I definitely cannot tell the difference between a Marseille accent and a Parisian accent even though to the French they sound completely different.

I also love the Australian accent and their wonderful way of say "a" as "ae". When I went there on elective the Australians used to joke that their ancestors all had cockney accents but spoke with their mouths open as little as possible to keep the flies out and this turned into the Australian accent!
(no subject) - lobelia321 - Mar. 19th, 2013 11:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lobelia321 - Mar. 19th, 2013 11:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
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