British and American Pronunciation Snezhina Dimitrova
In 1877, the British philologist Henry Sweet said that within a century “England,
America, and Australia will be speaking mutually unintelligible languages owing to
their independent changes of pronunciation.” Fortunately, this grim prediction did not
come true. Still, more than 300 million people in the world today speak English as
their mother tongue, and many differences between varieties of English do exist. But
the differences in terms of vocabulary, grammar, or spelling are remarkably small
compared with differences of accent. Accent is the term which linguists use when
they refer to the pronunciation features typical of people who belong to the same
geographical region or social class; speakers’ accents may also reflect their age, sex,
level of education, etc. It is difficult to say exactly how many accents of English there
are. Even within the United Kingdom, there are accents as varied as Scottish English,
Irish English, Welsh English, Cockney, a newly-emerged accent called Estuary
English, and many others. But as far as the teaching of English pronunciation to
foreign learners is concerned, the choice of a model accent has traditionally been
limited to what can be considered the two “standard” accents in Great Britain and the
In the United States, this is an accent called General American, or GA. In fact, the
label “General American” covers a range of accents which don’t exhibit any Eastern
or Southern local colouring. General American is the pronunciation used by the
majority of the population of the United States and by most US radio and TV
announcers. It is also the model accent used in teaching English in such parts of the
world as Central and South America, the Philippines, etc.
In Britain, the accent traditionally considered to be the standard pronunciation model
is known under the somewhat strange name Received Pronunciation, or RP (where
“Received” is interpreted as meaning “generally accepted”). It is regarded as the
appropriate pronunciation model to be used in teaching English as a foreign language
in those parts of the world where British rather than American English is traditionally
taught. Although it is sometimes associated with the way educated people in the
south-east of England speak, RP is generally considered to be regionally “neutral”: it
is not an accent typical of any particular geographical region in Britain, and can be
According to some authors1, about 10% of the English are speakers of Received
Pronunciation. On the other hand, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English
Language tells us that today less than 3% of the people in Britain speak RP in a pure
form. At the same time, it could be argued what the features of such a “pure” form
are, because at present several varieties of RP exist. An example of the one most
widely used – “General RP”2 – is the accent which can be heard on the BBC. But
there are at least two more varieties: a “conservative” form of RP spoken mostly by
the older generation as well as in some professional circles, and often also associated
with the “Establishment”, and “advanced” RP which is used predominantly by
younger people belonging to certain professional and social groups, and is believed to
In the last few years, however, a new term – BBC pronunciation has become
popular. There are several reasons for its emergence, the most important of which are
the existing diversity within RP itself, and the fact that today the term “Received
Pronunciation” often evokes negative attitudes in many younger people because of the
connotations of high socio-economic status and superiority which RP still has for
many people. The term “BBC pronunciation”, on the other hand, doesn’t carry any
such implications of social superiority and prestige.
There are many differences between British and American English which don’t
concern pronunciation. For example, in England you live in a block of flats, take the
underground and go on holiday. In the United States, you live in an apartment house,
take the subway and go on vacation. These are examples of vocabulary differences.
There are differences of grammar as well. In Britain you ask, “Have you got the
time?” and receive an answer, “It’s ten past two.” In the United States you say, “Do
you have the time?” and they tell you that “It’s ten after two.” British and American
English also differ in terms of spelling. Thus, British English has colour and centre,
where American English has color and center. Catalogue is spelt catalog, without -ue
in the end in the United States, and so on. But it is in terms of pronunciation that
British and American English differ most.
There are several ways in which accents may differ. They may have different
phonemic inventories, that is, different numbers of distinctive vowel or consonant
sounds. They may differ in terms of the actual phonetic realisations of their phonemes
in the flow of speech. Other differences may involve phonotactics – the positions in
the word and the syllable in which the phonemes of a language can occur, the
pronunciation of groups of common lexical words, patterns of word stress, rhythm,
1. BBC pronunciation and General American differ most in terms of their vowel
1.1 Long/tense and short/lax vowels
General American is usually described as having tense and lax monophthongs. The
muscles of the lips and the tongue are tightened for the production of tense vowels
and more relaxed for the articulation of lax vowels. Generally, long vowels are tense
while short vowels are lax. But vowel length is relatively less important in GA than in
BBC English: GA vowels differ in length, but these differences depend primarily on
the environment in which the respective vowels occur. Nevertheless, most dictionaries
which show the pronunciation differences between the two “standard” accents retain
the length diacritic [:] in the transcription of the GA vowels, because in this way the
relationship between the two vowel systems is shown more clearly.
• BBC pronunciation is described as having 7 short relatively pure vowels: /ˆ, e,
æ, √, Å, ¨, \/. These vowels can be found in GA as well, with the exception of
the “short o” – the back rounded /Å/ vowel heard in BBC English in words
such as not, lot, block, etc. In GA, this vowel sound is replaced with /å:/ - the
back unrounded vowel that one hears in BBC pronunciation in last, part, fast,
etc. So not is pronounced /nÅt/ in BBC English and /nå:t/ in General
American, and lot is pronounced /lÅt/ and /lå:t/ respectively. Other examples
of words the stressed vowels in which are subject to the same variation in the
Notice, however, that there are also words which are pronounced with /å:/ in both
accents, e.g., father, palm, balm, part, start, large, card, etc.
• On the other hand, in a number of words in which BBC pronunciation has /å:/,
General American has the front open /æ/ vowel, e.g.
• The long back mid rounded vowel /ø:/ which in BBC English occurs in words
such as thought, walk, law is usually opener and less rounded in GA. In fact,
the General American vowels in the open back area are characterized by a
considerable amount of variation. Some Americans pronounce the above
words with a vowel quality which is lower than the BBC vowel but is still
characterized by a certain amount of lip-rounding. Some dictionaries use the
symbol /Å:/ to transcribe this GA vowel. But most words belonging to this
large group have an alternative pronunciation in General American – one in
which the vowel has lost its roundedness, thus becoming /å:/. For example,
• All GA vowels are characterized by r-colouring when they are followed by the
This r-colouring is particularly noticeable in the case of the mid central vowels /±:/
and /\/ as in bird, nurse, or in the last syllable of another. Dictionaries sometimes use
special transcription symbols to show the pronunciation of these vowels in GA, e.g.,
/bɝ:d/, /nɝ:s/, /\«n√∂|/. In this book, the r-coloured mid central vowels of General
American are transcribed with the symbols for the respective BBC vowels followed
by /r/, e.g., /b±:rd/, /n±:rs/, /\«n√∂\r/.
• The difference between unstressed /ˆ/ and /\/ is often lost in GA, e.g.,
• BBC pronunciation has 3 diphthongs ending in /\/ - /ˆ\, e\, ¨\/, as in here, there, poor. General American has no separate phonemic diphthongs which
end in /\/. The vowels in the above three words are pronounced as sequences
of ˆ + r, e + r, and ¨ + r, respectively. (But remember that /¨\/ is often replaced
by /ø:/ in BBC pronunciation.) For example,
• In BBC pronunciation the diphthong in words such as no, go, don’t has a
central starting point - /\¨/. In General American, the starting point of this
diphthong varies a great deal, but is generally more back and rounded - /o¨/,
The consonantal systems of BBC pronunciation and General American do not differ
considerably. The overall number of consonant phonemes in the two standard accents
is the same. The differences concern their phonetic realization and their distribution.
• One of the most typical features of GA concerns the realization of /t/ between
vowels. In this position, both in individual words and across word boundaries,
/t/ is pronounced as a quick tap and is accompanied by voicing, so that is
sounds almost like a /d/. The symbol most frequently used in pronunciation
dictionaries to show a voiced /t/ is /t¶/, for example,
However, there is no t-voicing in attend, return, attack, etc., because the process of
tapping and voicing the /t/ takes place in GA only when the first of the two vowels is
stressed. Neither is the /t/ voiced in lightness /«laˆtn\s/, lighthouse /«laˆtha¨s/: in these
words, /t/ is not immediately followed by a vowel. T-voicing also takes place when
the stressed vowel is followed by /r/ or by /n/, e.g., party /«på:rt¶i/, reporter /rˆ«pø:rt¶\r/,
twenty /«twent¶i/, hunter /«h√nt¶\r/. /t/ is also voiced when it is followed not by a vowel
but by the syllabic lateral /l§/, e.g., battle /«bæt¶l/, little /«lˆt¶l/, frontal /«fr√nt¶l§/.
• Probably the most important difference between the consonants of the two
accents concerns the distribution of /r/. BBC English is a non-rhotic accent,
and in it this consonant occurs only before vowels. There is no such constraint
on its distribution in GA, which is a rhotic accent: in it, /r/ is pronounced
everywhere there is an r letter in the spelling: before a vowel, after a vowel
and in front of another consonant, e.g.,
• Many speakers of General American don’t pronounce /j/ in a stressed syllable
after the alveolar consonants /t, d, n/, e.g.,
• The two variants (allophones) of /l/ - the “clear” [l] and the “dark” [˚] are very
similar in General American, and to a speaker of BBC English both of them
• The consonant /ß/ is voiced – pronounced as /Ω/ - in a number of words, e.g.,
3. Other differences between BBC pronunciation and GA
• There are a number of suffixes the vowels in which are pronounced differently
There is a tendency for the –ile suffix in hostile, fragile, futile, etc. (pronounced /-aˆl/
in BBC English) to have a weak vowel or a syllabic consonant and to be pronounced
/\l/ or /l§/ in General American, e.g.,
The suffixes –ary, -ery, -ory, -mony usually have a weak vowel in BBC pronunciation
• Some words have different stress patterns in the two accents. For example,
detail is usually pronounced /«di:teˆl/ in BBC pronunciation and /dˆ«teˆl/ in GA,
ballet is usually /«bæleˆ/ in BBC but /bæl«eˆ/ in GA, many two-syllable verbs
ending in –ate have stress on the suffix in BBC pronunciation but on the first
• Finally, there are a number of words the pronunciation differences in which
don’t follow any predictable pattern, e.g.,
In conclusion, it must be said that there is a lot of accentual variation both within
Britain and the United States. Also, some Eastern accents in the USA sound closer to
BBC pronunciation than to General American, while some British accents resemble
General American rather than BBC English. Nevertheless, BBC pronunciation and
General American still are, and will most probably continue to be, the two accents
which learners of English who wish to acquire (near) native-like pronunciation take as
Exercises Exercise I
Give examples of differences between British and American English in terms of:
British English American English Exercise II
Put these words in one of the two columns below according to the pronunciation of
part, calm, fast, grass, laugh, palm, last, bark, large, after, psalm, past, can’t, chance,
Transcribe the vowels in the words below. The first one is done for you.
What is the vowel in the words below in BBC pronunciation and in General American
sport, wrong, gas, task, advantage, spot, grasp, glance, raw, storm, map
/ø:/ sport, …………………………….…………
/ø:/ sport, .………………………………………
Use phonemic transcription to show the pronunciation of these words in General
Underline the words in which /t/ will be voiced in General American.
atom, re-sit, writer, atomic, attitude, attic, assertive, attach, potato, matter, pretty,
Read these words and arrange them in the columns below according to the
customary, necessary, testimony, monastery, ordinary, category, futile, voluntary,
matrimony, missile, hostile, territory, dictionary, melancholy
BBC pronunciation General American -(\)rrii customary, -øø:::rrrii -(\)llii -øø:::lllii Exercise VIII
Use phonemic transcription to show the BBC and the GA pronunciation of the
What are the stress patterns of these words in BBC pronunciation and in General
laboratory, advertisement, dictate (vb.), limousine, ballet, frontier, vibrate, address
(noun), inquiry, magazine, weekend, premiere
BBC pronunciation General American Exercise X
In order for two words to rhyme, they must have the same vowel followed by the
same consonant(s) in their stressed syllables. Which of the following words rhyme in
BBC pronunciation and in General American? Put a tick in the appropriate box below.
Exercise XI Diagnostic passage
Read and record the text below. Then compare your recording with the one on the
I arrived in New South College on a Sunday afternoon. The porter at the lodge told
me how to get to the central office block, where a clerk at the Accommodations
Office gave me my keys. So I wandered about, looking for the pretty little cottage I
had seen on the colour photograph in the prospectus. I hadn’t thought it necessary to
ask the clerk for directions. But it was getting dark and there was just nobody around.
The beautiful blonde girl I had momentarily seen a minute ago had disappeared in the
direction of the car park. Everybody seemed to have gone to spend their leisure time
in the city. The dark green bushes on both sides of the path were beginning to look
hostile, and I couldn’t help thinking that I had got lost.
The aim of your recording and these comments is to help you to determine which of
the two standard accents your pronunciation is closer to – BBC English or General
American. Listen to your recording of the diagnostic passage, compare it with the one
on the cassette which accompanies this book, and read the comments below.
Alternatively, before reading the comments, you could try to analyse the passage
yourself, and then compare your analysis with the one given here.
The superscripts have been added in the text below in order to help you find more
easily the words and phrases which the comments refer to.
I arrived in New1 South College2 on2 a Sunday afternoon 3,4. The porter4,5 at the lodge2
told6 me how to get to the central office2,12 block2, where a clerk7 at the
Accommodations2 Office2,12 gave me my keys. So6 I wandered2,4 about, looking for4
the pretty5 little5 cottage2,5 I had seen on2 the colour4 photograph6,3 in the prospectus2. I
hadn’t thought8,11 it necessary9 to ask3 the clerk7 for4 directions. But11 it was getting5
dark4 and there10 was just nobody6,2 around. The beautiful5 blonde2 girl4 I had
momentarily6,9 seen a minute12 ago6 had disappeared10 in the direction of the car4 park4.
Everybody2 seemed to have gone2 to spend their10 leisure7 time in the city5. The dark4
green bushes on2 both6 sides of the path3 were4 beginning to look hostile9, and I
couldn’t help thinking that11 I had got2 lost2.
1 New is pronounced /nju:/ in BBC English, but usually /nu:/ in General American.
2 These words have the “short o” vowel /Å/ in BBC pronunciation, but /å:/ in General
3 These words are pronounced with /å:/ in BBC English and with /æ/ in General
4 In these words, the r comes after a vowel and before another consonant, or at the end
of the word. General American is a rhotic accent, and in it all letters r from the
spelling are pronounced. The words in which the r comes before a vowel and will be
pronounced in both accents are not marked.
5 The consonant /t/ in these words is between vowels, the first of which is stressed. In
General American, /t/ in this position is voiced and tapped.
6 The diphthong in these words is pronounced /\¨/ in BBC English, while in General
American it has a back rounded starting point and is usually pronounced /o¨/.
7 Clerk is pronounced /klå:k/ in BBC English and /kl±:rk/ in General American.
Leisure is pronounced /«leΩ\/ and /«li:Ω\r/, respectively.
8 These words, which in BBC pronunciation have the rounded /ø:/ vowel, are usually
pronounced with an unrounded vowel in General American - /å:/.
9 The suffix vowels in these words are the other way about in the two standard
accents: in necessary and momentarily, -ary and -arily have weak vowels in BBC
pronunciation and strong vowels in General American. Hostile has a strong vowel in
the suffix in BBC pronunciation and a weak one in General American.
10 The BBC centring diphthongs /ˆ\/ and /e\/ are replaced in GA pronunciation by a
11 The /t/ between vowels will most probably be voiced in the phrases thought it, but it, that I: t-voicing in General American occurs not only within words, but also across
12 The weak vowel in these words is usually /\/ in General American.
Were you able to determine which of the two accents – BBC pronunciation or General
American – your pronunciation is closer to? Try to be consistent and to adhere to the
model you have chosen. Having understood the major ways in which the two accents
differ, try to get rid of those features which are not typical of “your” pronunciation
1 According to Wells (1982:118), “Even with the more generous definitions … not
more than about 10 percent of the population of England could be considered as RP
2 The terms “General”, “Conservative”, and “Advanced RP” were used by Gimson
(1970), whereas Cruttenden (1994), following Wells (1982), prefers to talk about “3
main types of RP: General RP, Refined RP and Regional RP” (1994:81).
3 The term “BBC pronunciation” was first put forward in the Introduction to Jones
(1997, ed. by Roach and Hartman) and is further discussed in Roach (2000).
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