The visuals of Game of Thrones may be fading from your memory now that Season 7 is in the rear-view mirror (also now that Season 8 isn’t likely to hit until early 2019). But we’re willing to bet the show’s sounds will stick in your brain for a lot longer.
We’re not talking about the theme music or the sound effects of dragon fire or cracking ice — it’s all about the accents, darling.
Let’s be real: almost everyone in the world outside the U.K. is enamored with the accents of Game of Thrones. Yet few know what those accents are even called, let alone their geographic origins. Certainly, nobody has revealed the fact that the show’s most predominant accent, Yorkshire, is now being spoken entirely by non-native speakers; even Brits don’t realize that.
To save the blushes of less qualified imitators, it’s also important to call out which other accents are fake, and which characters’ colloquial perambulations have wandered all over the shop (Tyrion and Littlefinger, we’re looking at you).
Your resident expat Brit nerd is here to explain all. Make yourself a nice cuppa [tea], grab the biscuits [cookies], pull up a pew [siddown] and we’ll dig into the seven accents of Game of Thrones — starting with the one you hear most frequently.
Who talks this way: Ned Stark, Robert Baratheon, Robb Stark, Jon Snow, Theon Greyjoy, Bronn, Lyanna Mormont, all of the Northern lords, Mance Rayder and all of the wildlings.
You will often see American news outlets describe the main Game of Thrones accent as “Northern English.” This description is not only wrong, it is laughably imprecise. There are a good half-dozen accents in the North of England, distinct enough that you could also call them dialects. Each has a whole culture behind it that is as distinct as wildlings compared to the Winterfell-born.
Yorkshire is the name of the dialect, the accent and the largest county in the North of England. The people who speak it are called Yorkshiremen or women. But the most important thing you need to know is this: there is nowt [nothing] as full of craggy Northern gravitas as a Yorkshire accent.
Not for this rural county the flashy, fast-paced style of the Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle accents (known as Scouse, Mancunian and Geordie respectively). Nor the lyrical style of their long-time enemies in Lancashire, who often sound suspiciously cheery.
No, Yorkshire is an accent full of grit and quiet determination, which is what makes it perfect for the Starks. By ancient laws carved into the stones of York Minster, anyone speaking in this accent shall forever be relating a tale of sturdiness in times of woe, accompanied by a brass band and/or the whistling of the wind over t’ moors.
Northern lad and Blade Runner director Ridley Scott demonstrated this best in 1973 when he directed what is consistently voted Britain’s favorite ad, despite the fact that its Yorkshire voiceover seems weirdly mangled.
There is also nowt in t’ world as funny as British people from outside Yorkshire imitating a Yorkshire accent, because anything non-serious spoken with that stone-faced gravitas is hilarious.
Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner revealed that recently by playing their favorite Game of Thrones game on Carpool Karaoke — imitating Sean Bean, the show’s ur-Yorkshireman. And even Turner had trouble with the proper pronunciation of “butt.” Don’t try Yorkshire accents at home, kids.
Yorkshire accents are used by Game of Thrones’ greatest heroes (the Starks, the Snow). This has made more of the world aware of the accent than any other piece of entertainment (with Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch as its only serious competitor).
The accent now stands for unshakeable morality and doomed heroism, which is pretty much the slot Yorkshire would hope to occupy in the cultural consciousness of the world. If this kind of exposure goes on much longer, Yorkshiremen and women may even crack a smile.
“I need you, Ned. You’re the only other real bloody Yorkshireman on the show.”
“I need you, Ned. You’re the only other real bloody Yorkshireman on the show.”
Game of Thrones’ showrunners didn’t have some sort of secret plan for Yorkshire domination; it just grew from storytelling necessity. Mark Addy (King Robert Baratheon) is from York. Sean Bean (Lord Eddard Stark) is from Yorkshire’s industrial center, Sheffield — home of The Full Monty, which also happened to be Addy’s breakthrough movie.
The fact that Ned and Robert talked exactly alike established their friendship right from the start of in the story; the fact that nobody else in King’s Landing talked like them established how isolated they were.
Never mind that the two characters technically hailed from two kingdoms that were thousands of miles apart in Westeros. As we’ll see, the show’s seven accents do not map to its seven kingdoms in any way.
The actors playing grown Stark men, bastards and wards adopted the Sean Bean accent — Bran, Sansa and Arya did not, but we’ll get to them. Robb (Richard Madden, Scottish), Theon (Alfie Allen, Londoner), Jon (Kit Harrington, posh Londoner) all managed very convincing Yorkshire accents for the rest of their time on the show. You’d never know Jon Snow was a public (ie. private) school kid in real life.
Soon it became clear to the showrunners and directors that to establish a character as a downtrodden hero, nowt worked better than a Yorkshire accent. Bronn uses it, even though we met him in the Riverlands (and though Jerome Flynn hails from the very posh county of Kent).
Ygritte the wildling helped establish her hot forbidden connection with Jon Snow by speaking like him — even though Rose Leslie is Scottish and speaks with a very posh accent (she grew up in a castle and is a descendant of King Charles II).
By the time Jon and Sansa were rounding up Northern lords to fight with them at the Battle of the Bastards, the whole bloody North seemed filled with Yorkshiremen and women. None of the actors were from Yorkshire — with the possible exception of Bella Ramsay, aka scene- and heart-stealer Lady Lyanna Mormont.
Queen of the Yorkshire accent.
We asked HBO, but they were unable to discover whether Bella was born in Yorkshire because she doesn’t seem to have an agent. That fact in itself suggests an aversion to pretentiousness, which is about as Yorkshire a trait as it gets.
Ye gannin’ doon the toon, Ser Davos?
Who talks this way: Ser Davos Seaworth
Geordie is another, more extreme northern English accent. No, it isn’t the second most important accent on Game of Thrones. Only one character uses it, and we’ve no idea why.
Ser Davos is supposed to come from Flea Bottom, in King’s Landing, in the South. But nobody else in Westeros — not even fellow Flea Bottom resident Gendry — speaks like him. Maybe the Onion Knight picked it up on one of his smuggling trips to some mysterious Geordie island?
Still, the accent is worth noting because Irishman Liam Cunningham does such a good job that you’d never know he isn’t Geordie. It is a much, much harder accent to imitate than Yorkshire.
Most British actors dare not try it, because if you get it even slightly wrong it sounds embarrassingly awful and it’s not even funny. (I once had to tell the great John Cleese that his Geordie accent sounded Scottish, and I still haven’t recovered.)
Geordie — which, with many words still in use from Viking days, is definitely more of a dialect — centers on the city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Newcastle is once said to have boasted to an army of rebellious Scots that its citizens were “King George’s men,” hence the name. Geordie has spread itself like a comfortable wooly blanket across the former coal-mining counties to the north (Northumberland) and south (Durham, where this writer was raised).
There’s also an accent called Mackem, from the nearby rival city of Sunderland; it sounds just like Geordie to non-speakers, but my part-Mackem wife would beat me up if I didn’t at least mention it. Point is: to the southern English, both Geordies and Mackems might as well be speaking a foreign language.
Geordie isn’t considered funny the way Yorkshire is, but rather guttural. The only widely-known Geordie phrase is “howay the lads,” a gesture of support for the Newcastle United football team that was once attempted by a visiting American president:
The last time Geordie was heard across the world was in 2000, when the movie Billy Elliot — set in a coal-mining town in Durham — was a hit. So even though his usage of the accent is geographically bizarre and arguably appropriational, let us say: Howay Ser Davos.
Keeping Up Appearances, Stark edition
Who talks this way: Catelyn, Sansa, Arya and Bran Stark; Cersei, Joffrey and Tywin Lannister; Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen; Brienne of Tarth, Gendry, Varys and Missandei
You will sometimes hear this accent described as RP (Received Pronunciation) or BBC English (think of those cut-glass announcer voices). That doesn’t quite explain it. Nor does “the Queen’s English,” since the Royal Family has an extreme aristocratic accent all their own.
No, there’s a single word Brits will reach for first when describing this accent: it’s posh. That isn’t necessarily a negative term, although it is often said with a sneer by the non-posh; it’s just the fastest and easiest description.
Speaking posh doesn’t mean you’re upper class. Another name for posh is the University accent, because kids from working-class families used to adopt it when they went away to university, even if that university was in the North. That’s exactly what happened to both of my parents; they passed it on to me, which is why I don’t speak Geordie.
Fun fact: Britain is the only country in the world with a nationwide higher education accent.
It’s also a very middle England thing to do — to have a posh accent that you put on for special occasions the way you reserve the good china for visitors. British people of a certain age had a “telephone voice,” yet another synonym for posh.
The BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances features lower-middle-class striver Hyacinth Bucket (“Bouquet”), who irks her family with her put-on posh airs; this an extreme form of a real-life phenomenon.
That’s why it didn’t sound at all false to Brits that the Stark family accents would be a mixture of Yorkshire and posh. It seems intuitively obvious to us that Catelyn (played by Irish actress Michelle Fairley) was the Hyacinth Bucket of the family; she tried to bring her kids up to speak posh, and it took with Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon.
Robb, Jon and Theon all preferred to talk like Ned when they grew up. But if Catelyn had a phone instead of ravens, she’d probably answer it speaking extra posh.
Given the University accent phenomenon, there are slightly different brands of posh. The regional accent pokes through underneath. (How to tell if someone is from the North or South of England: Ask them to say the word “bath.” If they use a short “a” sound, the way Americans do, they’re from the North, regardless of how posh they sound otherwise; a long “ahhh” signals they’re from the South.)
So there still are some differences between posh Starks and the Lannisters, who are full-on Southern posh except for Jaimie and Tyrion. We’ll get to them.
Who talks this way: Stannis Baratheon and quite a few minor characters — guards, mostly
The working-class accent of Britain’s largest city, which is generally known as cockney, gets surprisingly short shrift in the show. And thank goodness for that.
Extremely posh Stephen Dillane, who hails from the extremely posh London borough of Kensington, put a slight cockney twist on Stannis Baratheon’s gruff voice. To British ears, Stannis sounds a little like a character from Eastenders. This is a long-running, hugely popular BBC soap opera about the east end of London, home of bruisers and gangsters who dispense rough justice — perfect for Stannis.
But now Stannis is gone, and the only time you’ll hear cockney on the show is when we encounter guards or soldiers. It usually signals that the character is an asshole who is getting in the way of one of our main characters and is very likely to be run through with a sword or bashed with a hammer (for example, the King’s Landing guards who accosted Gendry on his way out of the city in Season 7).
Sorry, London — but given the fact that you’ve dominated British media for decades, turnabout is fair play. Plus there are already far too many Americans who automatically reach for a bad cockney accent whenever they’re trying to imitate the British; it’s about time they were made aware of all the other working-class British variations out there.
His accent is gold, Jerry. Gold.
Who talks this way: Jaime, Melisandre, Jaqen H’ghar, Shae
The Dutch, German and Danish languages are historically linked — the word “Dutch” itself comes from Deutsch — and they’re surprisingly well-represented on Game of Thrones.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has come a long way since Season 1, in which you basically have to put the subtitles on to understand him. But our beloved Jaime Lannister still betrays his Danish origins: you can take the boy out of Rudkøbing, but you can’t take the Rudkøbing out of the boy.
Why would a Lannister talk like that? As with Davos, there’s no in-show explanation; we’re just supposed to go with it.
At least with Melisandre the Red Lady (Dutch-born Carice van Houten), there’s a reason for her to have an exotic accent: she’s from far-off Asshai.
Same goes for the two basically German-accented characters who’ve appeared in the show, Braavos’ own Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha of Saxony) and Shae (Sibel Kekilli of Hamburg), who is from Lorath, a free city just south of Braavos. On the show their accents might just slot into the “vaguely Mediterranean” category below, but let’s go with their actual country of origin.
Given how often Britain was invaded by their ancestors, this seems somehow fitting. The Angles (as in “Anglo-Saxon,” not to mention “English”) came from modern-day Germany and Denmark and settled in Yorkshire and other parts of the North.
When George R.R. Martin invented the Andals, a race that invaded Westeros thousands of years in the past and became everyone’s common ancestors, the German-Danish-English connection was clearly his historical analogy.
6. Vaguely Mediterranean
Syrio Forel: water dancer, accent master.
Syrio Forel: water dancer, accent master.
Who talks this way: Everyone from Dorne and Essos, Syrio Forel, Salladhor Saan
There isn’t a great deal of directorial distinction made between non-English accents on Game of Thrones. So you could lump everyone into the previous category and this one together under the heading of “foreign,” which in itself would be a very British thing to do.
But there is a difference, albeit a slight one: the German-Dutch-Danish actors all actually talk that way off screen. Whereas everyone in this category is putting on an accent that sounds vaguely Mediterranean — sort of Spanish or Italian or Greek or North African, but not quite any of them.
If you were looking to write a paper on unconscious racism in Game of Thrones, this is where you’d start. All the swarthy-looking characters — the Dornish, the people of Slaver’s Bay and Qarth, the token black pirate (Salladhor Saan, who is still criminally under-utilized in the show) — have been given the same accent that has been used for the better part of a century to signal untrustworthiness or villainy in movies.
At least on the heroic side of the ledger there’s Syrio Forel, the “dancing master” who first taught Arya how to use a sword and may or may not have died saving her. One of the show’s most-missed characters, he is played by Miltos Yerolemou, who is the London-born son of Greek Cypriot parents — so you could call his accent vaguely genuine.
Blimey, Tyrion, what do we talk like?
Who talks this way: Tyrion Lannister, Lord Petyr Baelish
You can’t blame Peter Dinklage. (Who could possibly blame Peter Dinklage for anything?) The American actor’s accent for Tyrion is so wildly roaming, so not really anything real that, oddly enough, it’s kind of believable. Personally, I hear it as one part posh English mixed with French, as if Tyrion had been brought up spending six months of the year in a chateau in the Dordogne, which seems entirely appropriate for his character.
But then there’s Littlefinger, for whom we can blame Irish actor Aidan Gillen. Baelish’s accent literally wanders. Watch his scenes in Season 1 and he appears to be doing a bad London accent.
By Season 4, however he has slipped into something that sounds sort of like a Welsh accent. Or maybe it’s half English, half Irish. Either way, it’s 100% creepy whisper.
Bonus accent: Extreme Yorkshire
Who talks this way: Lord Jon ‘Greatjon’ Umber
Given the journey we’ve gone on, it’s only fair that the last word should go to a posh actor doing a Yorkshire accent. In this case, it’s Clive Mantle (a public school boy and Cambridge chorister) playing Lord Jon Umber, a Northern lord who stands up to Robb Stark at the end of Season 1 and has his fingers bitten off by Robb’s direwolf for his trouble.
Everything about Mantle’s performance and Umber’s accent is so insanely, off-the-charts Yorkshire that it deserves its own category. The gargling rage! The rough salt-and-pepper facial hair! The fact that he immediately represses the most hideous injury of his life! The use of the word “bloody!” The complaint about the food!
It simply doesn’t get more Yorkshire than that. And so, in a sense, no matter what happens in Season 8, Lord Jon Umber’s accent has already won the Game of Thrones.