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.


Silent r

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.”

 

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  /hɜːd/ /hɜrd/
bar  /bɑː/  /bɑr/
caught  /kɔːt/ /kɑt/
need   /niːd/  /nid/
shoe  /ʃuː/  /ʃu/

 

Consonant Sounds

Consonant sounds are largely similar in American and British with just a few key differences:

/t/

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.”

 

/r/

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.”

 

Word Stress

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.”

 

Intonation

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. 

 



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By | 2018-05-19T11:54:12+00:00 May 18th, 2018|Accents, Pronunciation|9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Leviticus Bennett February 15, 2017 at 3:36 pm - Reply

    It’s fascinating how languages can evolve over so little time. My grandmother is from New Zealand where their accent is similar to the British accent in some ways. I’m used to her pronouncing things like “garage” differently. Thanks for pointing out some of the key differences here.

  2. Myriam Paulos May 19, 2018 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Excellent, concise.examples for those students who are asked to be consistent but are not taught these differences, except for the /r/sound. Thank you, Joseph.

  3. Abdulbaki A Ahmad May 19, 2018 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Diving into the differences between English accents is one thing I enjoy. Great work Hudson and your team!

  4. Ligia May 19, 2018 at 7:44 pm - Reply

    Great, very interesting and useful. Thanks a lot.

  5. Asif May 22, 2018 at 1:03 am - Reply

    GA n GB accents in a nut shell wow ! None can be more interesting n valuable than this for me . Thank you so much dear teacher

  6. Pascal May 23, 2018 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    The last note about intonation blew my mind. I never quite made the connection between AE/BE being the reason for that difference.

  7. Pamela May 23, 2018 at 10:44 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this! As a Canadian it is interesting to note how many things are similar to American speech, but our accents here are still different than American and influenced by British. The ‘upspeak’ is not something I hear Canadians doing very much, and in fact I was taught in voice classes that it is incorrect for a declarative sentence. But I think all of these depend factors very much on region, education, your 1st language, and other factors. If you heard someone from Canada’s east coast speaking a sentence and then had someone from the American South speak the same sentence, you might not recognize it as the same language.

  8. Unmade May 30, 2018 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    1. The TRAP vowel is noticeably higher in American English even when it’s not tensed (æ-tensing), which happens before nasals and additional environments, depending on the region and accent. In British English it’s closer to IPA [a] rather than [æ].

    2. The GOOSE vowel tends to be further back in American English. In BE it is central [ʉ] rather than [u]. Same for the FOOT vowel [ɵ] rather than [ʊ]. There may be Americans with more central pronunciations though.

    3. American English has dark L in all environments. Or their light L’s are darker than those in British English.

    4. Why the insistence on calling the SQUARE vowel a diphthong when even the following sound samples are clearly monophthongs?

  9. Patrick August 29, 2018 at 8:44 am - Reply

    Great stuff….there is no such thing a standard accent though! Standard language is codified written language and is a complete misnomer when referring to accent! There are ‘prestige accents; however and although people may balk at the use of something that may be controversial, it is a much more accurate than the seemingly harmless ‘general’, which tells us nothing really!

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