The term accent has various meanings, but in speaking, an accent is an identifiable style of pronunciation, often varying regionally or even socioeconomically.
It can be contrasted with a person's dialect, which includes regional vocabulary. "Standard English has nothing to do with pronunciation," wrote Peter Trudgill ("Dialects." Routledge, 2004). "In fact, most people who speak Standard English do so with some sort of regional pronunciation, so that you can tell where they come from much more by their accent than by their grammar or vocabulary."
George Mason University holds a speech accent archive, where people have been recorded reading the same English passage, for linguists to study, for example, what makes accents distinct from one another.
More on Dialects Versus Accents
"A dialect is a verbal departure from standard language. Dialects are characteristic of a particular group of speakers and have their own charm as well. 'Y'all' in the South, 'Yah' in Minnesota, 'Eh?' in Canada. The regional dialects of Brooklyn, the rural South, New England, and Appalachia, not to mention the greater contributions of Canada and Britain, and those of various ethnic cultures, have certainly enriched the English language. An accent is a particular way of pronouncing a language. 'Warsh' for wash in Cajun Louisiana, 'New Yawk' for New York among native New Yorkers, 'aboot' for about in Canada. The appeal of dialects and accents comes from our appreciation of their musical intonations, imaginative word choices, and emotive speech rhythms."
(James Thomas, "Script Analysis for Actors, Directors, and Designers." Focal Press, 2009)
Regional and Social Accents
Accents are not just regional but sometimes contain information about a person's ethnicity, such as in the case of nonnative English speakers; education; or economic status.
"Within each national variety of English the standard dialect is relatively homogeneous in grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation. Pronunciation is a different matter, since there is no equivalent standard accent (type of pronunciation). For each national variety, there are regional accents, related to geographical area, and social accents, related to the educational, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds of the speakers."
(Tom McArthur, "The English Languages." Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Phonetic and Phonological Differences
Even though pronunciation differs, meanings of the same words often remain the same, such as around North America or between Britain and Australia.
"Differences between accents are of two main sorts: phonetic and phonological. When two accents differ from each other only phonetically, we find the same set of phonemes in both accents, but some or all of the phonemes are realised differently. There may also be differences in stress and intonation, but not such as would cause a change in meaning. As an example of phonetic differences at the segmental level, it is said that Australian English has the same set of phonemes and phonemic contrasts as BBC pronunciation, yet Australian pronunciation is so different from that accent that it is easily recognized.
"Many accents of English also differ noticeably in intonations without the difference being such as would cause a difference in meaning; some Welsh accents, for example, have a tendency for unstressed syllables to be higher in pitch than stressed syllables. Such a difference is, again, a phonetic one…
"Phonological differences are of various types… Within the area of segmental phonology the most obvious type of difference is where one accent has a different number of phonemes (and hence of phonemic contrasts) from another."
(Peter Roach, "English Phonetics and Phonology: A Practical Course," 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Why So Many British Accents?
Though Britain is a relatively small place, English spoken there can sound quite different from one end of the country to another.
"There are more accents per square mile in Britain than in any other part of the English-speaking world.
"This is because of the hugely diverse history of English in the British Isles, with the originally Germanic dialects of Europe mixing with the Norse accents of the Vikings, the French accents of the Normans, and wave after wave of immigration from the Middle Ages down to the present day.
"But it's also because of the rise of 'mixed' accents, as people move house around the country and pick up features of the accent wherever they find themselves."
(David Crystal and Ben Crystal, "Revealed: Why the Brummie Accent Is Loved Everywhere but Britain." "Daily Mail," October 3, 2014)
The Lighter Side
"I sometimes wonder if Americans aren't fooled by our British accent into detecting brilliance that may not really be there."
"You know, Fez, unfortunately there are some people in this world that are going to judge you on the color of your skin or your funny accent or that girly little way you run. But you know what? You're not alone. Why do you think the Martians won't land here? Because they're green, and they know people are going to make fun of them!"
(Ashton Kutcher as Michael Kelso in "Bring It on Home." "That 70s Show," 2003)
"Yankees are pretty much like Southerners-except with worse manners, of course, and terrible accents."
(Margaret Mitchell, "Gone With the Wind," 1936)