American and British Pronunciation Differences

"New Yawkas don’t have an axent, da rest of da country does."

Three old ladies sitting in a bus shelter:

1st lady: "Windy, en’it?"
2nd lady: "No it’s not, it’s Thursday."
3rd lady: "So am I. Let’s go and ’ave a drink!"

This section focuses on specific phonemes. (Dialects and Accents are discussed in the previous section.) The noticeable pronunciation differences between American English and British English are:

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The differences discussed really only apply to ‘General American’ (most of the west and heartland) and RP (‘Received Pronunciation’), which is close to ‘BBC English’ - the kind spoken by British newscasters. They are not at all universal. For instance, although American is rhotic and English is non-rhotic, there are non-rhotic areas in America and much of Britain is rhotic.

There is a brief description of the cardinal vowel system appended to this section, to provide an additional perspective on the vowel sounds during the following discussions. Also, refer to the pronunciation key – this shows the pronunciation symbols as used throughout this dictionary, alongside the equivalent IPA symbols, which are enclosed in square brackets where used (mostly just in this section).

Pronunciation of o

In Britain, the ‘o’ vowel, [ɒ], in words like dog, hod, pot, is pronounced with rounded lips and the tongue back in the mouth. Americans do not have this vowel, instead pronouncing the same words using the ‘ah’ vowel, [ɑ], with the lips unrounded and the tongue back but more relaxed. This is the same vowel in card or bard. In some cases in the US the ‘o’ is pronounced using the ‘or’ vowel in words like long (Central East Coast) and horrid (especially in the western US).

The ‘plummy’ quality of some RP speakers is probably due to an exaggeration of this ‘o’ vowel, and other vowels, by pushing the tongue as far back as possible, accomplished by speaking whilst imagining a mouth full of plums.

The ‘or’ vowel [ɔ] (or the ‘aw’ vowel)

This is the vowel in oar, law, Borg, Bork, pork and so on. If I was American, I would have called it the ‘aw’ vowel, but I think American ‘aw’ varies more regionally, and English ‘or’ is more consistently closer to [ɔ] (as long as you don’t pronounce the r).

Many ‘or’ words in Britain such as paw, saw, talk, all, bought, launch, taught, port are pronounced in America using the ‘ah’ vowel, [ɑ]. I’ve even heard ‘awesome possum’ rhyme perfectly [ɑsəm pɑsəm]. But many words in American retain the ‘or’ vowel, such as poor, such that the British homophones poor paw are pronounced differently in American. In the Central US East Coast the ‘or’ vowel occurs in most of the same words as British, but it is slightly shorter, [ɔ] rather than [ɔ:]. In American, ‘dawg’, as written in cartoons and such, uses the ‘or’ vowel, and the spelling emphasizes the pronunciation as unusual. Oddly enough, quark, correctly pronounced to rhyme with quart by most Americans is often pronounced to rhyme with dark by most British people.

Pronunciation of a

The British have the ‘a’ vowel, [æ] (cat, hat) and the ‘ah’ vowel [ɑ], as do Americans, but often in different places. Trudgill notes that words with ‘a’ followed by [f] [θ] [s] [nt] [ns] [ntʃ] [nd] [mp] (laugh, path, grass, plant, dance, branch, demand, sample) have [æ] in American and [ɑ:] in southern British. Northern British bends a’s pretty flat in general compared to Southern English, and is generally the same as American, but there are exceptions like banana, can’t, half, where the a is more like in the south.

In Britain, words like what are pronounced using the same vowel [ɒ] as in dog, above, and so is phonetically spelled wot rather than wat. Perhaps this is why baloney (nonsense) is so spelled in American dictionaries, but primarily as boloney in some British ones.

It should be noted that in America the ‘ah’ vowel (father, bard, calm) is usually shorter and sometimes sounds a little closer to the ‘u’ vowel in cup. So the long, firm [ɑ:] in Britain really stands out in bath and dance where Americans have the short [æ] mentioned above. Even this southern English accent, with the long ‘a’ [ɑ:] in words like father and bath, is not consistent. Only a small group would put a long ‘a’ in a surveyor’s transit, as did Hugh Grant in the movie The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain.

American vowels becoming more neutral

Pronunciation can be used to distinguish social class, and social status. In Britain, where class structure is strong, people are more acute to vowel enunciation and, often unconsciously, preserve many pronunciations that would otherwise be unnecessary. Pronunciation of vowels also distinguishes meaning in words, but sometimes the pronunciation is unnecessary. Thus, in American, where nonessentials are more readily dropped, vowels are not always as sharp as in Britain. You get the impression that vowels are closer to neutral (schwa). It might be that in Britain vowels have become sharper (more distinct or enunciated) over the last few hundred years.

The main example of vowels becoming more neutral in American is in words with some vowel in front of an [r] that is also followed by another syllable, such as marry or hurry.

[æ] in marry ® [ɛ] in merry ® [ə]
[ei] in Mary ® [ɛ] in merry ® [ə]
[ɪ] in mirror and [i:] in nearer
[ʌ] in hurry ® [ə] in furry
[ɜ:] in furry ® [ə] in furry

Trudgill’s examples give [ei] and [ɛ] merging so that Mary and merry are pronounced identically, and [æ] and [ɛ] merging so that marry and merry sound identical. In cases where these both occur, marry merry Mary sounds like merry merry merry. Since these words are unambiguous in context, it’s easy for the [ɛ] to approach schwa [ə]. And where speakers have [æ] or [ei] approaching [ɛ] they all might approach schwa [ə].

The [ɜ:] in furry is shorter in the US [ɜ], which is closer to [ə], and in some places the [ʌ] in hurry goes towards [ɜ] (or even [ə]) such that hurry and furry are perfect rhymes.

I overheard a lady saying ‘hooking up the equipment’ pronouncing hooking as [həkən]; the vowels were completely tokens.

Vowel Shifts

Long vowels in Middle English were pronounced as they were in Latin but, during the 15th and 16th centuries, they changed to what we have in general today. This change is called the Great Vowel Shift. In major cities around the Great Lakes area, linguists have noted since the 1970s what they call the Northern Cities Chain Shift. On the West Coast you hear many vowel shifts, notably in younger people, and sometimes words are spelled to match (sense → since, pen → pin). My daughter growing up pronounced it MickDonalds.

like → lake
cook → kick
pen → pin
petting (pedding) → pədding
thank → think
hot (haht) → hat
jon (jahn) → jen
money → many
racket → rocket (rahket)

D’d t’s in American; glottal stops in British

In many areas the American ‘t’, when not the initial consonant in a word, is pronounced closer to a ‘d’, and in some cases can disappear altogether. Thus latter and butter sounds more like ladder and budder, and words like twenty and dentist can sound like twenny and Dennis.

Why do Americans pronounce t as d? Perhaps because to pronounce the frequent ‘r’s at the end of words ending in ‘-er’ it is easier to say ‘-der’ than ‘-ter’.

In Britain, ‘t’ is generally pronounced like a ‘t’, but there are areas the glottal stop is very well known. This is the sound in between the two vowels in uh-oh, or the initial consonant in honest. In these two examples, and others like them, the glottal stop occurs as much in America as in Britain. But the glottal stop that replaces the ‘t’ in the Cockney and Glasgow dialects is much stronger; imagine bracing for a punch in the belly when you make the sound. Words like butter become [bʌʔə].

As an interesting side note, Americans sometimes replace the ‘d’ in a British word with a ‘t’, as if hypercorrecting ‘d’ back into the more ‘correct’ ‘t’. I’ve heard ‘Wimbleton’ on American TV, found that spelling in a major American encyclopedia, and whilst looking, even found cases of ‘Wimpleton’. This confusion is borne out by Americans trying to imitate a Cockney accent by putting a glottal stop in place of ‘d’ instead of ‘t’ (bloody [blʌʔɪ]), which sounds quite odd to an English person.

In Britain, the glottal stop occurs in informal speech in many areas, although with Estuary English, perhaps not informal anymore. The association of the glottal stop with lower classes or Cockneys typically also includes dropping of ‘h’s (thus hooter becomes [ooʔə]), and dropping the g in -ing words (/woʔ thi el ə yə dooin/ "what the hell are you doing?").

Rhotic r in American, non-rhotic r in British

Rhotic speakers will pronounce the r in barn, park, cart, fart, whereas non-rhotic speakers won’t, making no distinction between barn and (auto)bahn. Most of America is rhotic, with the notable exception of the Boston area and New York City. SE Britain is apparently the source of non-rhotic. England is non-rhotic, apart from the SW and some ever-diminishing northern areas. Scotland and Ireland are rhotic. In the movie The Princess Bride, the bishop (Peter Cook) over-emphasized the non-rhotic accent by loudly announcing ‘mawidge’ (marriage), and Americans often joke about eastern New Englanders who ‘pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd’.

In Britain, the non-rhotic accent gives rise to linking ‘r’s, where an otherwise unpronounced ‘r’, in ‘clear’, is pronounced if followed by a vowel, ‘clear away’. An intrusive ‘r’ is an ‘r’ added in such a situation where none actually exists, so ‘law and order’ becomes ‘law ran order’. In some cases, there is even hypercorrection, such as adding an ‘r’ (Louisa ® Louiser), especially when a non-rhotic person moves to a rhotic area. But if Clair hears the ‘r’ she’ll correct you.

In contrast, in the North and Scotland, r’s roll stronger. Even d’s can be r’d. I’ve been called a /bluhreeiree?/ (bloody idiot) a few times.

‘Yoo’ words losing the y in American (tune: tyoon ® toon)

There are many less words in American that pronounce a ‘y’ in front of a ‘u’ than in British (as in mule, mute). Most American words don’t: assume, new, nude, tune, student, duke, due. In England most of these words are pronounced with a ‘y’ in front of the ‘u’. Amongst older speakers, this is true for words like suit and lute, and sometimes even in words like Susan and super.

I have noticed that my natural (SE English) way of saying tune, tuna, Tuesday, sand dune is ‘choon, choona, choosday, san June’, and that ‘tyoon, tyoona, tyoosday, sand dyoon’ sounds a little formal. I imagine this to be regional. Americans generally say ‘toon, toona, toosday, san doon’. This also applies to words like perpetual and situation.

Particular words

Although there are relatively few words pronounced completely differently, many are well known. This list shows some of these, but the examples are not restrictive – leisure is pronounced both leezhure and lezhure in the US, but leezhure is prevalent.

word US UK
aluminium aluminum aluminium
apricot a-pricot ay-pricot
β bayda beeta
charade char-ay-d char-ah-d
cordial corjul cordee-al
fillet filay filit
herb ’erb herb
leisure leezhure lezhure
lever l-e-ver leever
privacy pry-vacy priv-acy
route rout root
schedule skedule shedule
semi sem-eye sem-ee
strychnine strich-9 strich-neen
θ thayta theeta
tomato tom-ay-do tom-ah-to
vase vayz vahz
vitamin vie-tamin vit-amin

Stress & reductions

Stress differences, although minor, stand out. Britons stress the first vowel in ballet, cafe (& other borrowed French words), Americans the second, but they often stress the first vowel in cigarette, police, and research. There are many place names in Britain that also occur in the US, especially on the eastern seaboard. British towns ending in –ham, -wich, -cester, -mouth are fully pronounced in America but reduced in Britain to -[əm] -[ɪdʒ], -[stə], -[məθ] (e.g. Birmingham, Norwich, Gloucester, Portsmouth). Similar reductions are found in British personal names, for instance Raleigh is raylee in the US but ralee in Britain.

Other random anomalies

There are other differences, such as American, like southern Irish, being more nasally – many speakers push the sounds through the nose, to some extent. But in all, differences between American and British pronunciation of English can be put into three classes:

Firstly there are many miscellaneous words where one or more syllables are simply different. For instance: herb - Americans don’t pronounce the h, Britons do; Americans render tomato as tomayto (or tomaydo) rather than the British tomahto; both even spell aluminum/aluminium differently, as reflected in pronunciation. The list above, under particular words, is in this class.

Then there are classes of words where the vowel used is different. For instance Americans rhyme pa paw caw, whereas Britons rhyme poor paw caw, and even caws cause Coors. In some cases, patterns can be discerned, such as particular vowels following certain kinds of consonants. Most of the differences discussed above fall into this class.

And finally there are vowels and perhaps consonants that are peculiar to each. The British ‘o’ vowel [ɒ] in dog, is not found in America. Perhaps the distinction between schwa [ə] and the ‘er’ vowel [ɜ], found in British bird and furry, is lost in America. The British glottal stop is hardly realised in America.


	A young man named Chalmondley Colquhoun,
	Once kept for a pet a babolquhoun,
		His aunt said "Chalmondley!
		Do you think it quite Calmondley
	To feed a babolquhoun with a spolquhoun?"

	A lively young damsel named Menzies
	Inquired: "Do you know what this thenzies?"
		Her aunt, with a gasp,
		Replied: "It’s a wasp,
	And you’re holding the end where the stenzies."

References

The cardinal system for mapping vowels.

Vowels are made, during voicing, by changing the shape of the vocal tract with the tongue, lip position, and openness of the mouth. The tongue can be close to the roof of the mouth (tongue is high) or flat against the bottom of the mouth (tongue is low) (say "ahh"), or somewhere in between. Also, the tongue can be forward, or pressed back into the mouth, or somewhere in between. So in the following chart "ahh" would be somewhere in the bottom right corner, as the tongue is low and towards the back.

To get a feel for the tongue moving from front to back say ‘cat, cut, cot,’ ‘bed, bird, boat,’ ‘bee, -, boo.’ (Tongue was low, medium, then high). To get a feel for the tongue moving from high to low, say: ‘heed, hid, head, had,’ ‘boot, boat, bot.’ (Tongue was front, then back.) Since we are dealing with only vowels, another way to play with the sounds is to just hum them – instead if ‘bee, boo’, hum ‘ee-oo’. To determine the difference between [e] and [ɛ] say bay, eight ([ei]) and bed, ten ([ɛ]) but don’t finish the word – extend the first vowel indefinitely. (I don’t distinguish these vowels, but the method works great for the others.)

Cardinal Vowel System

American (Western) and British (RP) vowel systems

US UK US UK US UK
[i] [i:] [u] [u:]
bee bee boot boot
heed heed shoe shoe
very tour
[ɪ] [ʊ]
bid bid put put
mirror mirror [ou]
wanted boat
[ei] [ʌ]
bay bay cut cut
eight eight hurry hurry
Mary [ɔ] [ɔ:]
pair port port
[e] boring boring
bed, ten bed, ten horrid paw
merry merry [ə] hurry talk
[e :] [e :] about about saw
pair sofa sofa [ɔi]
Mary butter butter boy boy
[æ] bird [ɑ] [ɑ:]
bad bad furry balm balm
cat cat [ɜ:] calm calm
khaki marry bird bard bard
banana Datsun furry father father
path Milan pot dance
dance top half
half bomb khaki
[ai] long hard
ride buy cough banana
night Datsun
Milan
paw
talk
[ɑu]
bout
loud
tower
[ɒ]
cough
hod
horrid
long
pot
what

Last updated 31 December 1969 © Jeremy Smith 2014