American vs British Pronunciation
With Prince Hairy gedding merried (that’s ‘Prince Harry getting married’ in British English) to an American lady, it’s a great time to take a look at the difference between British and American accents.
British audio in this article is in black type, American is in blue. And please note that we are talking about standard accents – General British (GB) and General American (GA), there is, of course, huge variety on both sides of the pond.
The most obvious difference between standard American (GA) and standard British (GB) is the omission of ‘r’ in GB: you only pronounce a written < r > if there is a vowel sound after it, so we don’t say it in PARK /pɑːk/, HORSE /hɔːs/ or FURTHER /ˈfɜːðə/. In American, though, we pronounce every written /r/ so /pɑrk/, /hɔrs/ & /ˈfɜrðər/.
“Roast dinner will be pork, carrots and turnips.”
(1st British, 2nd American)
Vowel Sound Changes
Many of the 19 vowel sounds are very similar in American and British, however, there are 8 sounds that significantly change as follows:
/ɒ/ to /ɑ/
In British (GB) we use back rounded open sound /ɒ/ for words like SHOP /ʃɒp/, LOST /lɒst/ and WANT /wɒnt/. In American (GA) we don’t round the lips, so it’s: /ʃɑp/, /lɑst/ & /wɑnt/.
“John wants a stop watch.”
/æ/ to /e/
The pronunciation and usage of /æ/ is fairly similar in American and British; words like CAT and MAD are very similar. There is a group of words, however, containing the spelling ARR, which change from /æ/ to /e/ in American. CARRY /kæri/ is /keri/ EMBARRASS /ɪmˈbærɪs/ is /ɪmˈberəs/ and HARRY /ˈhæri/ is /ˈheri/, giving the name the same pronunciation as HAIRY in American . MARRY, MERRY and MARY would all be the same too in American English, but different in British: /ˈmæri/, /ˈmeri/ & /ˈmeəri/
“I’ll carry your bags, Harry.”
/ɜː/ to /ɜr/
The British thinking sound /ɜː/, found in words like HEARD /hɜːd/, FIRST /fɜːst/ and WORST /wɜːst/, is pronounced differently – with the tongue raised and a /r/ quality in American, /hɜrd/, /fɜrst/ & /wɜrst/. This sound nearly always has an ‘r’ in its spelling, but even when it doesn’t, American speakers say one, like in the word COLONEL /ˈkɜrnəl/, which is /ˈkɜːnəl/ in British English.
“The early bird murders the worm.”
/ɔː/ to /ɔr/ & /ɑ/
Long back rounded /ɔː/ as in SWORD /sɔːd/, FORCE /fɔːs/, THOUGHT /θɔːt/ & LAW /lɔː/ is pronounced in 2 ways in American. /ɔr/ for words with ‘r’ so SWORD /sɔrd/ & FORCE /fɔrs/, and /ɑ/ for words without /r/ so THOUGHT /θɑt/ & LAW /lɑ/. This means that for many American speakers, COT /kɑt/and CAUGHT /kɑt/ are the same, though COURT /kɔrt/ would be different. In British English CAUGHT /kɔːt/ and COURT would be the same, COT /kɒt/ would be different.
“I caught four walkers talking Norse.”
/ɑː/ to /ɑr/ & /æ/
Long back unrounded /ɑː/ like in CAR /kɑː/, START /stɑːt/, AFTER /ɑːftə/ & HALF /hɑːf/ is pronounced /ɑr/ in American if there’s an ‘r’ in the spelling so CAR /kɑr/ & START /stɑrt/. Most of those words that don’t have an ‘r’ in GB are pronounced /æ/ in American so AFTER /ˈæftər/ & HALF /hæf/.
“Pass these parts to master Carter.”
/eə/ to /er/
The diphthong /eə/ in HAIR /heə/, BEAR /beə/ & WHERE /weə/ is always spelt with an ‘r’ so it’s pronounced /er/ in American English HAIR /her/, BEAR /ber/, WHERE /wer/. This makes FAIRY /ˈferi/ and FERRY the same in American, but different in British /ˈfeəri/ & /ˈferi/.
“The spare chair is there, by the stairs.”
/ɪə/ to /ɪr/
British English /ɪə/ in words like STEER /stɪə/, CLEAR /klɪə/ & CHEER /tʃɪə/ is pronounced /ɪr/ in American so /stɪr/, /klɪr/ & /tʃɪr/.
“I fear the deer’s near here.”
/əʊ/ to /oʊ/
In standard GB English the diphthong /əʊ/ starts in the centre of the mouth GO, NO & SHOW, whereas in American it starts to the back /oʊ/: GO /goʊ/, NO /noʊ/, SHOW /ʃoʊ/. There is great variance on both sides of the Atlantic for this sound with old fashioned posh British speakers like the Queen for example, starting at the front [ɛʊ] GO, NO, SHOW.
“Don’t throw stones over the road.”
There is a greater difference in British English between the length of vowel sounds, with some being pronounced significantly longer than their American counterparts. Some of this is owing to the additional pronunciation of ‘r’ in many American vowel sounds as seen above. Most phonemic charts reflect this by showing five or six English vowel sounds with two triangular dots, whereas most charts do not offer this for American.
heard /hɜːd/ /hɜrd/
bar /bɑː/ /bɑr/
caught /kɔːt/ /kɑt/
need /niːd/ /nid/
shoe /ʃuː/ /ʃu/
Consonant sounds are largely similar in American and British with just a few key differences:
When /t/ appears after a stressed vowel and before a weak vowel, American speakers often make a voiced flap – a bit like a very fast /d/: WATER, FIGHTER, GOT IT. In Standard British this would be pronounced as a normal /t/ WATER, FIGHTER, GOT IT, though in regional British accents, most famously cockney, this would be a glottal stop: WATER, FIGHTER, GOT IT.
“My daughter bought a motorbike.”
Apart from the higher number of /r/ sounds in American English, there is also a small but significant difference in the way they are pronounced. In American, the tongue curls back further, giving it a slightly muffled quality – RIGHT, ARROW. Whereas in British the tongue is flatter and further forward RIGHT, ARROW.
“These red roses are for Rachel.”
Yod (/j/) Dropping
In British English where /j/ appears after /t, d, n, l, s, z/ (the alveolar consonants) it is omitted in American: /t/ TUNE /tjuːn, tun/, /d/ DUTY /ˈdjuːti, ˈduti/, /n/ NEW /njuː, nu/, /l/ LEWD /ljuːd, lud/, /s/ SUIT /sjuːt, sut/ /z/ EXUDE /ɪgˈzjuːd, ɪgˈzud/. This is often referred to as ‘yod dropping’.
“On Tuesday, tune into the news.”
Some words are stressed differently in American English, particularly those of French origin where American keeps the last syllable stress and British goes for first syllable (audio is British then American): GARAGE, GOURMET, BALLET, BROCHURE, though this is reversed in the words ADDRESS and MOUSTACHE.
“Here’s the address of the garage.”
The melody of British and American is quite different, though the structure of speech is very similar. The most obvious difference is the British tendency to use high falling intonation, hitting the main stress high and dropping down. Whereas in American rising tones are more common, so you go up from the main stress. This use of rising intonation on statements is sometimes referred to as ‘Upspeak’.
“I don’t really know what to do about it.”
NOTE: It is common for speakers of all accents to mix things up in their speech, so you can often hear an American speaker drop an ‘r’, or a British speaker use a flap for /t/ (Prince Harry does this all the time). So as with all things pronunciation, these are not rules, rather generalisations.
This article was updated on 18th May 2018.
This article uses IPA (phonetic) symbols – you can learn them in the free Pronunciation Studio Starter Pack containing pronunciation notes and diagrams for each sound with audio, and an English IPA chart.