It is commonly known among English speakers that there are some significant differences between British English and American English. In this paper I will compare these two varieties of English and discuss the systematic phonological differences between them. There are many other ways in which British and American English are different; such as, vocabulary, grammar, function etc. However, here we will only focus on pronunciation and stress. All phonetic symbols used here for transcriptions are IPA symbols. First of all we need to be clear on what is meant by British English and American English. There are many varieties in pronunciation within both the United Kingdom and the United States, however, I will compare only the two varieties with which I am most familiar for the purposes of this paper. Therefore, when I mention British English (BrE) I am referring to the variety known as RP or BBC English and when I mention American English (AmE) I am referring to the variety known as the northern midlands dialect which is spoken in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the Ohio Plains region.
This dialect has been referred to as General American (Boeree). It is also worth noting that these two varieties of English are ‘reference varieties’ meaning that other varieties are often compared to them. When someone is learning English as a foreign language it is usually one of these varieties that will be used as the standard (Melchers & Shaw 79). I will begin with one of the most well-known differences between BrE and AmE. AmE is rhotic while BrE is non-rhotic. Non-rhotic means that the phoneme /r/ is never pronounced unless it is immediately followed by a vowel. Therefore, BrE will pronounce farm as /fa:m/ and herd as /hɜ:d/. AmE,on the other hand,will pronounce those words /fa:rm/and /hərd/ respectively. In cases where /r/ is immediately followed by a vowel, both will pronounce it the same, as in red /red/ and teary /thiəri/. This rhotic versus non-rhotic difference also applies to the vowel sound in words like ‘force’. In BrE it is non-rhotic /fɔ:s/ whereas in AmE it is pronounced /fors/.
Another characteristic of non-rhotic speech is the intrusive R. This is found mostly in BrE. They will sometimes insert an /r/ even when it does not occur in spelling. An example of this would be the phrase ‘idea of it’ which you may hear pronounced as ‘the idea-r-of it’. (Wikipedia contributors “Differences…). This characteristic almost never occurs in AmE. AmE has fewer diphthongs than BrE. That is primarily because BrE is rhotic. For all the centering dipthongs in BrE, namely, ʊə, eə, and Iə, AmE will have the /r/ sound instead of the schwa (Melchers & Shaw 18). The long vowel in words like ‘boat’ and ‘home is also realized differently. BrE uses a dipthong with the phonetic symbol being /əʊ/. The actual pronunciation of this vowel in AmE may not be much different; however, in transcription it is represented with a monophthong.
The symbol used is /o:/ (Wikipedia contributors). Another systematic difference that can be quite easily detected is the vowel sound in words like ‘can’ and ‘fast’. AmE will use a front /æ/ sound while BrE uses a back /a:/ sound. This is the case whenever that vowel is followed by /n/ or by a labiodental, dental, or alveolar fricative. Some more examples would be words like ‘plant’, ‘path’, ‘laugh’, and ‘pass’ (Wikipedia contributors). A third difference is the use of a /t/ allophone. Whenever a /t/ sound occurs between two vowels, AmE usually pronounces it as an alveolar flap. ‘Better’ would therefore be pronounced /beɾər/. Most speakers of RP would perceive that sound to be a /d/. They, on the other hand, would use an unaspirated /t/ in the same context. Their pronunciation of ‘better’ would be /betə/ (Wikipedia contributors). The vowel sound in words like ‘cot’ and ‘stop’ in pronounced differently in BrE and AmE. The British pronunciation of this vowel is not quite fully back and falls between open and open-mid. The vowel is slightly rounded (Roach 16).
The phonetic symbol that is often used is /ɒ/. The AmE sound for the same vowel is more open. It has a quality almost exactly the same as /a:/ only it is a short vowel. In some American dialects the vowel in the above words is more like the British /ɔ:/ vowel. There is then no distinction between words like ‘cot’ and ‘caught’. BrE usually has a sharper contrast in length and quality of short vowels versus long vowels. In phonetic transcriptions, that contrast is usually marked with the use of /:/. In words like fleece, goose, palm, and thought the vowels would be transcribed as /i:/, /u:/, /a:/, and /ɔ:/ respectively. AmE uses the same symbols in transcription, only they drop the colon (Melchers & Shaw 18). There is a characteristic of AmE that is known as yod-dropping.
This is another feature that sets AmE apart from BrE. In AmE the /j/ sound is dropped after all dental and alveolar consonants. We can see that in the American pronunciation of words such as ‘new’ /nu/, due /du/, and assume /ə sum/. BrE, on the other hand, will usually retain the /j/ in the same context. Their pronunciation of the previous words would be /nju:/, /dju:/, and /ə sju:m/ (Wikipedia contributors). There are also some differences in stress patterns between these two varieties of English. These differences, however, are usually much less systematic. I will mention only the two which are most significant. First, for many French loan words, AmE will put the stress on the final syllable while BrE will put it on the first syllable. Examples of this are words such as baton, beret, buffet, brochure, and garage (Wikipedia contributors, “American…).
The second stress difference is stress in words that end with –ate. In this case AmE will stress the first syllable whereas BrE puts stress on the final syllable. Words like migrate, pulsate, rotate and spectate illustrate this point (Wikipedia contributors). From the phonetic characteristics mentioned above we can clearly see some of the distinct phonological differences concerning pronunciation and stress between the RP variety of English which is spoken in the United Kingdom compared to the north midlands dialect spoken in the United States.
Boeree, Dr. C. George. “Dialects of English.” 2004. Web. 3 September 2011.
Melchers, Gunnel and Philip Shaw. World Englishes. London, UK: Arnold, a member of the Hodder Headline Group. 2003. Print.
Roach, Peter. English Phonetics and Phonology. Third Edition. Cambridge University Press. 2001. Print.
Wikipedia contributors. “Differences Between General American and Received Pronunciation.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation,
Inc.. 6 September 2011. Web. 8 September. 2011.
Wikipedia contributors. “American and British English Pronunciation Differences.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.. 6 September 2011. Web. 8 September. 2011.