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Table of Contents


1 Pronunciation Differences between British English and American English
2 Rhotic Accent
3 Differences in Vowel Pronunciation
3.1 Change of Diphthong [əʊ] to [oʊ]
3.2 Change of Vowel [ɒ]
3.2.1 The Main Changes
3.2.2 Changes to [oʊ] and [ʌ]
3.3 Change of [æ]
3.4 Change from [ju:] to [u:]
3.5 Minor Changes
3.5.1 Change of [ɪ] and [aɪ]
3.5.2 Changes of [i:] and [e]
4 Differences in Consonant Pronunciation
4.1 Pronunciation of Letter t
5 Change of Stress
5.1 French Loanwords
5.2 Ending -ate
5.3 Suffixes -ary, -ory, -berry, and -mony
6 Changes in Articulation
7 Notes

1 Pronunciation Differences between British English
and American English

One of the main difficulties a foreigner student may face when learning English pronunciation is the remarkable variety of accents. Like many other languages spoken in such a vast territory and by so many people, spoken English presents wide variation in pronunciation. In spite of that wide variation, three standard pronunciations are distinguished: (1) The Received Pronunciation, also called Oxford English or BBC English, is the standard pronunciation of British English; (2) The General American is the accent considered as standard in North America, and as such it is the pronunciation heard in most of American films, TV series, and national news; (3) The General Australian is the English spoken in Australia. However, this three main accents should be interpreted as broad categories, for the English language has a great and rich diversity of varieties (see [Wak08]).

Many students are confused as to appreciate the difference between accents, and they often speak with a mixed of accents perplexing somewhat a native speaker. The purpose of this article is to study the main differences between British English, as represented by Received Pronunciation (RP), and American English, as represented by General American (GA). This study should help students to correct their pronunciation, be consistent with their accent, and acquire a new pronunciation with fewer traces of their native language. Although our standpoint here is primarily phonetic, British and American English have also been studied from a social and historical standpoint (see [HTW05], [WSE05], and the references therein).

In this article IPA symbols to describe sounds will be used. We chose the IPA symbols because they are a standard in sound description and ensure accuracy. If the reader is not familiar with the IPA symbols and their meaning, consult [Wik11b] or the article English Phonetics [Gom09]. Phonetic transcriptions will be enclosed in square brackets and letter names will be in Roman typeface.

Returning to the main differences between British English and American English, they can be summarized as follows.

  1. The presence of rhotic accent.
  2. Differences in vowel pronunciation. The most relevant ones are change of diphthong [əʊ], change of [ɒ], change of [æ], and change of [ju:].
  3. Differences in consonant pronunciation. This mainly involves the different pronunciations of letter t.
  4. Change of stress. This comprises the change of stress in French loanwords, and certain suffixes such as -ate and -atory.
  5. Differences in articulation. American English has a clear tendency to pronounce unstressed syllables where British English does not show such a disposition.

2 Rhotic Accent

The presence of the rhotic accent is one of the most noticeable differences between British and American English. Except for New York City and the area of Boston, American English is rhotic. British English is largely non-rhotic, save for Scotland and Ireland. Rhotic accent refers to the manner letter r is pronounced after a vowel within a syllable [Wik11c], [Wel00], as in words such as hard, borne, or here. Sometimes, it is also called post-vocalic [r] [Wik11c], or r-coloring [AE92], a term highlighting the timbre features of the sound. In English, rhotic accent is produced as a retroflex approximant [Wel00]. The following words have rhotic accent: York, quarter, four, born, door, water, later, hers, heard, hurt, university, were, birth, thirty, ear, nearly, air, where.

Let us describe now how the rhotic accent, the retroflex approximant, is produced. First, the tongue approaches the gum and the tip is then curled back towards the roof of the mouth. This movement makes the tongue to be pulled back in the mouth. This accounts for the retroflexion part of the consonant. Furthermore, the tip of the tongue does not touch the gum at all, and thus no friction is caused. The vocal tract remains open throughout. This justifies the term approximant; in other sounds, like the stop [d], the tongue actually touches the gum. The phonetic symbol for the retroflex approximant is [ɻ]. Apart from sound [ɻ], responsible for the rhotic accent of American English, letter r can be pronounced in other two ways.

The alveolar flap [ɾ] only occurs in American English, while the alveolar approximant [ɹ] is found in both accents.

For the sake of simplicity, we will use the symbol [r] for the three allophones (variants) of letter r, and the rules drawn up below will make the context unambiguous. In most dictionaries, the three sounds are also indicated by [r]. For example, in the Oxford English Dictionary [Pre09] we find hard[hɑ:d] and hard[hɑ:rd], the former being the British version and the latter its American counterpart.

Returning to rhotic accent, it can be found associated with the following sounds:

Furthermore, rhotic accent is produced according to the following circumstances.

It is documented that up to 1776, when the American Revolution broke out, there was no such thing as British and American accents. Both were indistinguishable, as attested to by the following paragraph from the book of Algeo [Alg01] (on page 71).

“Received Pronunciation developed at the end of the eighteenth century, during the period of the American Revolution. At that time there was no pronunciation by which people in America could be distinguished from people in England (Burchfield 36, Marckward and Quirk 61). In the impressment controversies of the 1790s, naval officers on both sides found it so difficult to tell whether sailors were British or American that the American government considered providing certificates of citizenship (D. Simpson 108).”

Towards the end of 18th century the upper classes of Southern England started to remove the rhotic accent as a way of marking class distinction. Gradually, the new accent took off and middle classes adopted it as well. Scotland and Ireland, where the population was mainly composed of lower working classes, did not take on the change of accent, and at the present time both remains rhotic. In America there are two notable exceptions, namely, New York and New England areas. It has been hypothesized that those areas kept the non-rhotic accent because of their strong links with the British.

 

3 Differences in Vowel Pronunciation

3.1 Change of Diphthong [əʊ] to [oʊ]

The shift from the British diphthong [əʊ] to [oʊ] is also very distinguishing. The shift consisted in the change of the mid central unrounded vowel [ə] to the close-mid back rounded vowel [o] in the first vowel of the diphthong. This shift is considered to be systematic. In Table 1 several examples of this shift are shown.

Table 1: Change of diphthong [əʊ] to [oʊ]

3.2 Change of Vowel [ɒ]

3.2.1 The Main Changes

Letter o is pronounced in many different ways in English. Here we have a few illustrative examples of such diversity: Hot[hɒt] in RP, but [hɑ:t] in GA; love[lʌv]; corn [kɔ:n] in RP, but [kɔ:rn] in GA; continue[kənˈtɪnju:]; moon[mu:n]; coast[kəʊst] in RP, but [koʊst] in GA; house[haʊs]. The so-called “short o”, which often appears in a stressed syllable with one letter o such as in dog or model, underwent a change in American English. In British English that sound is pronounced as an open back rounded short sound [ɒ], as in hot[hɒt], or possible [ˈpɒsəbl]. In American English it is pronounced either as an open back unrounded long sound [ɑ:], as in hot[hɑ:t], or as an open-mid back rounded long vowel [ɔ:], as in dog[dɔ:g]. Note that British English prefers a short sound as opposed to American English, which prefers a long sound in all cases. Table 2 shows several words in both pronunciations.

Table 2: Change of vowel [ɒ] to [ɑ:] and [ɔ:].

According to Wells [Wel00], in the areas of Eastern New England, such as the Boston accent, and New York City this change did not take place. This is coherent with the same theory explaining why speakers of those areas are non-rhotic.

This change is framed in the context of the many vowel transformations that occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries. The change of vowel [ɒ] to vowels [ɑ:] and [ɔ:] took place because of two phonological phenomena, namely, the father-bother merger and the lot-cloth split. A split is when a once identical sound happens to have a different pronunciation in some instances; usually both sounds coexist. A merger is the opposite, two sound that had formerly been contrastive become pronounced alike so they are no longer considered different [MA11]. A split can be viewed as the appearance of a new sound and a merger as the disappearance of an existing sound.

  1. The father-bother merger. This merger is responsible for the transformation of [ɒ] into [ɑ:]. Vowel [ɑ] underwent two main changes: first, it was lengthened to [ɒ:], and later it lost its roundedness becoming finally [ɑ:]. Roundedness is perhaps the most distinctive difference between [ɒ] and [ɑ:] in daily speech rather than vowel length. This change took off in all varieties of American English, except for the areas of Eastern New England. The merger was quite generalized and by the end of 19th century was completely consolidated [WLAB06]. Examples illustrating this merger are bother[bɑ:ər], doss[dɑ:s], top[tɑ:p], lot[lɑ:t], model[mɑ:dl], problem[prɑ:bləm], rock[rɑ:k], slot[slɑ:t].
  2. The lot-cloth split. This split came about at the end of 17th century. The sound [ɒ] was first lengthened to [ɒ:] and later raised to [ɔ:]. In principle, the split took place before voiceless fricatives [f], [ɵ], [s], but later it was extended to velars like [k], [g], and [ɳ]. Thus, in GA we find loft[lɔ:ft], cloth[klɔ:ɵ], lost[lɔ:st], chocolate[ʧɔ:klət],
    dog[d ɔ:g], and long[lɔ:ɳ] are pronounced as [ɔ:], whereas in RP they are systematically pronounced as [ɒ].

There is a certain degree of overlap between both phenomena. For example, it is possible to find words with two pronunciations such as loft ([lɔ:ft] and [lɑ:ft]), chocolate ([ʧɔ:klət] and [ʧɑ:klət]), or long ([lɔ:ɳ] and [lɑ:ɳ]). However, the father-bother merger acted upon a larger number of words than the lot-cloth split did. See [WLAB06] and the references therein for further information on why and how these phonological phenomena occurred.

3.2.2 Changes to [oʊ] and [ʌ]

The most frequent changes are from [ɒ] to [ɑ:] and [ɔ:]. However, in a very few cases vowel [ɒ] is changed to [oʊ] and [ʌ]. Here we have a list with the main examples.

 

3.3 Change of [æ]

Around the American Revolutionary War vowel [æ] started to undergo a change in Southern English, the future seed of RP. This near-open front unrounded vowel [æ] is first lengthened to [æ:] and later lowered to the open back unrounded vowel [ɑ:]. However, the change did not take off in GA, bringing about a new difference between both accents.

The change of vowel occurs under certain conditions, but it is deemed to be inconsistent, as we will see in the examples below. Vowel [æ] becomes vowel [ɑ:] in RP when:

Here we give some examples to illustrate the above rules as well as a few exceptions.

It has been conjectured that the more common a word is, the more likely the change from [æ] to [ɑ:] is to occur. For more information on this change, see [WLAB06, Alg01].

 

3.4 Change from [ju:] to [u:]

Around the beginning of twentieth century several changes took place in the English vowels. One of them was the so-called yod-dropping, the omission of sound [j] before [u:]. The change is named after the Hebrew letter yod, which represents the sound [j]. Both RP and GA embraced the change, although GA extended the cases in which yod-dropping was applied.

Yod-dropping before [u:] takes place in RP and GA in the following cases.

Apart from this common corpus of words, in GA as well as in many other varieties of English we observe yod-dropping in further cases.

Notice that spellings eu, ue, ui, ew, and u followed by consonant plus vowel frequently correspond to sounds [ju:], or just [u:] if yod-dropping has taken effect. The lists above provide instances of this observation.

 

3.5 Minor Changes

Other changes took place, but they were in most cases inconsistent and without a clear phonological reason to happen.

 

3.5.1 Change of [ɪ] and [aɪ]

In some cases the pronunciation of lax vowel [ɪ] in RP becomes other vowels, mainly diphthong [aɪ] and [ə] in the suffix -ization.

 

3.5.2 Changes of [i:] and [e]

Sometimes, swaps between vowels [i:] and [e] are also found. Here we have a few instances.

 

4 Differences in Consonant Pronunciation

4.1 Pronunciation of Letter t

In American English letter t is pronounced in six different ways:

Both GA and RP have aspirated and de-aspirated [t] sounds, which, in a formal or simply careful enunciation, are the only two sounds corresponding to stop [t]. In colloquial and other registers, the other allophones may appear. In the RP the flap [t] is never used, but instead it is pronounced as a de-aspirated [t] or as a glottalized [t] (see [AE92] for a description of this sound). Glottal stops are common in both varieties of English and follow similar rules in general. The omission of the sound [t] in RP can also be found.

For more information on allophones and non-contrastive sounds in English the reader is referred to [AE92, Gie92, Wel00]

 

5 Change of Stress

So far major differences in pronunciation between British and American English have been described in terms of change of vowels and consonants. The change of stress, although not being as marked, also contributes to differentiate both accents. We will examine three areas where worth mentioning differences are found, namely, the French loanwords, the ending -ate, and the suffixes -ary, -ory, -berry, and -mony.

 

5.1 French Loanwords

In 1066 William of Normandy invaded England. That would mark the beginning of Norman rule of the England, which would last for about four hundred years, until the end of the Hundred Years War. In a first stage, the Norman took over the power and decided to change the language of government as well as impose new institutions inspired in the French ones. However, they let low- and middle-classes speak English. In this period, loanwords come from the domains of political, social and diplomatic activity. In a second stage, which could be dated at between 1250 and 1400, French started to be used by the population. The reason was that many Normans had to permanently settle in England as Normandy was bought by the French king in 1204, and many Normans migrated to England. The number of loanwords proliferated as the Normans -which now did include low- and middle-classes- brought new experiences and ways to name objects. In a third stage, from 1400 on, most of the loanwords are related to the domain of culture.

Loanwords from French were adapted by American English in a different way than there were by British English. Change of stress is the most noticeable difference. In GA French loanwords have a final-syllable stress, while RP stresses an earlier syllable. It seems that the American English phonology has respected the fixed accent of the French language, which in most cases falls on the last syllable. A few examples of this change of stress are the following.

 

5.2 Ending -ate

Words ending in -ate, mostly verbs, have a different stress pattern in both accents depending on the length of the word.

 

5.3 Suffixes -ary, -ory, -berry, and -mony

There are a few differences in pronunciation of suffixes -ary, -ory, -berry, and -mony between both accents.

Some of these suffixes corresponding to adjectives, which in turn can be converted into adverbs by adding the suffix -ly. This change also implies a shift in stress in GA, which is not generally found in RP. In GA the stress in adverbs falls on the antepenultimate syllable, as in arbitrarily[ˈɑ:rbəˈtrerəli], contrarily[kənˈtrerɪli], momentarily[ˈmoʊmənˈterəli], or ordinarily[ˈɔ:rdnˈerəli]. When the word is long, a secondary stress normally appears on the first syllable of the word.

Other suffixes, such as -ery, essentially keep the same pronunciation in both accents.

 

6 Changes in Articulation

As stated at the outset, there some minor differences in articulation between British and American English. These differences do not compromise mutual understanding. American English is inclined to pronounce unstressed syllables. Examples illustrating this point can be drawn from Section 5. Darragh ([Dar00], on page 14) quotes Bernard Shaw, who stated, “he could once recognize an American because he accented the third syllable of necessary.” There is a certain jocular intention in his comment -we could not expect less from Shaw-, but it also acknowledges a fact about American English, the due emphasis given to each syllable. Thus, we hear necessary[ˈnesəsəri] in RP, but a more clearly articulated version in GA, necessary[ˈnesəseri], with two  stronger vowels in the same word.

 

7 Notes

The material collected in this article should be enough to acquire a basic understanding of the main differences between British and American English. Understanding those differences will equip the advanced student with an excellent tool for enhancing listening comprehension and achieving greater clarity of pronunciation. To that respect, the words of Sparkman [Spa26] are more than eloquent:

“A good pronunciation of any language is similar to being well dressed; it is the outward semblance of culture and refinement in matters of speech, and it should be a thing of pride to any one because it is one’s principal badge of honor and recommendation to the natives of that speech.

Without a good pronunciation one can never be accepted by foreign people; he is always an outsider and can never really know the people whose language he is butchering. All of us are cautious and a bit suspicious of one who cannot pronounce English well, but we tend to accept with open arms one who probably knows little English, provided he can pronounce that little in a creditable manner. If we bore people, they tend to dispense with our society, and I, personally, soon separate myself from one who antagonizes me with unaccustomed and foreign English sounds.”

Excellent, readable accounts of the pronunciation but also cultural differences are the books of Darragh [Dar00] and Davies [Dav05]. The Wikipedia web page American and British English pronunciation differences [Wik11a] provides many tabulated examples of pronunciation differences, but without examination of the causes and origins of such differences. Moreover, some of the differences described in [Wik11a] are not reflected in the phonetic transcriptions provided by some authoritative dictionaries.

Phonetic transcriptions given in this article have been taken from [Pre09, Pre11]. Pronunciations of endings were located with the help of [UU04, Dat11].

 

References

[AE92] Peter Avery and Susan Ehrlich. Teaching American English Pronunciation. Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers Series. Oxford University Press, 1992.

[Alg01] John Algeo.The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[Dar00] Glenn Darragh. A to Zed, A to Zee. Editorial Stanley, 2000.

[Dat11] Datamuse. Rhyme Zone. http://http://www.rhymezone.com/, accessed in 2011.

[Dav05] Christopher Davies. Divided by a Common Language. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. An earlier version of this book was published by Mayflower Press in 1977.

[Gie92] H. J. Giegerich. English Phonology. Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[Gom09] Paco Gomez. English Phonetics. http://webpgomez.com/, 2009. Paco Gomez web site. Section on English.

[HTW05] Arthur Hughes, Peter Trudgill, and Dominic Watt. English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles. Trans-Atlantic Publications, 2005.

[MA11] W. Maguire and McMahon A. Analysing Variation in English. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[Pre09] Oxford University Press. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. http://www.oup.com/oald-bin/web_getald7index1a.pl, 2009.

[Pre11] Oxford University Press. Oxford Advanced American Dictionary. http://oaadonline.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com, 2011.

[Spa26] Colley F. Sparkman. The value of phonetics in teaching a foreign language. The Modern Language Journal, 10(4):227–235, 1926.

[UU04] Clive Upton and Eben Upton. Oxford Rhyming Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2004.

[Wak08] Martyn Francis Wakelin. Discovering English Dialects. Oxford: Shire Publications, 2008. First published in 1978.

[Wel00] John C. Wells. Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. Longman, 2000.

[Wik11a] Wikipedia. American and British English pronunciation differences. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_pronunciation_differences, accessed in 2011.

[Wik11b] Wikipedia. International Phonetics Alphabet. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ipa, accessed in 2011.

[Wik11c] Wikipedia. Rhotic and Non-Rhotic Accents. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotic_and_non-rhotic_accents, accessed in 2011.

[WLAB06]W. William Labov, S. Ash, and C. Boberg. The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.

[WSE05] Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation (Language in Society). Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.