American vs British Pronunciation
English learners worldwide often follow either a British or American pronunciation model in their lessons. Today, we’ll be looking at the key differences between them.
British audio in this article is in black type, American is in blue, italic text is firstly in British, then in American. 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.”
Many of the 20 vowel sounds are very similar in American and British pronunciation, however, there are 8 sounds that significantly change:
/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.”
/a/ to /ɛ/
The pronunciation and usage of /a/ 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 /a/ to /ɛ/ in American. CARRY /kari/ is /kɛri/ EMBARRASS /ɪmˈbarɪs/ is /ɪmˈbɛrəs/ and HARRY /ˈhari/ is /ˈhɛri/, 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: /ˈmari/, /ˈmɛri/ & /ˈmɛːri/
“I’ll carry your bags, Harry.”
/əː/ to /ɜr/
The British thinking sound /əː/, found in words like HEARD /həːd/, FIRST /fəːst/ and WORST /wəːst/, is pronounced differently – with the tongue raised and a /r/ quality in American, /hərd/, /fərst/ & /wərst/. 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 /ˈkərnəl/, which is /ˈkəːnəl/ 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/ & /a/
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 /a/ in American so AFTER /ˈaftər/ & HALF /haf/.
“Pass these parts to master Carter.”
/ɛː/ to /ɛr/
The long vowel /ɛː/ in HAIR /hɛː/, BEAR /bɛː/ & WHERE /wɛː/ is always spelt with an ‘r’ so it’s pronounced /ɛr/ in American English HAIR /hɛr/, BEAR /bɛr/, WHERE /wɛr/. This makes FAIRY /ˈfɛri/ and FERRY the same in American, but different in British /ˈfɛːri/ & /ˈfɛri/.
“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.
“Don’t throw stones over the road.”
/ː/ Vowel Length
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 /həːd/ /hərd/
bar /bɑː/ /bɑr/
caught /kɔːt/ /kɑt/
need /niːd/ /nid/
shoe /ʃuː/ /ʃu/
Consonant are similar in British and American pronunciation, but you will hear the following variations:
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.”
Stress & Intonation
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.”
This article was updated on 15th October 2021.