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British and American Pronunciation – Video

by Oli Redman on 7 June, 2017 , No comments

In this lesson, you can learn about the differences between British and American pronunciation. You can learn about the main features of British English and American English pronunciation. We’ll show you the most important pronunciation differences between UK English and US English.

Before we begin, remember there’s no one ‘correct’ way to pronounce English. There are many ways to speak English—not just British or American.

Also, remember that both the UK and the USA are big countries, and not everybody talks the same way. What you’ll see in this lesson are general differences between British and American pronunciation.

Let’s start with one of the biggest differences between British and American pronunciation. This is a difference you can see.

1. The ‘Shape’ of British and American English

Watch an American person talk; watch a British person talk. What do you notice?

British English is much more frontal; it uses the lips a lot more.

By contrast, American English speakers move their lips less. The lips are more relaxed and the mouth is generally wider.

In American English, sounds generally come from further back in the mouth, closer to the throat.

British English is a lot ‘tenser’. To sound British, you need to produce a lot of sounds at the front of your mouth. Vowel sounds are often shorter than in American English, meaning you need to move between sounds faster.

All of this means you need to use the muscles of your lips and cheeks more.

For example, let’s think about the word water.

When I say it (American English pronunciation), the first vowel sound is much more relaxed. I don’t use my lips to pronounce the sound at all: water.

The vowel sound is often a little longer than in British English. Then, the rest of the sounds come from further back: water.

When I say water (British English pronunciation), the vowel sound is much tenser. I’m using the muscles of my cheeks, and pushing my lips into a small, rounded shape: water.

I then pronounce the rest of the sounds near the front of my mouth, without really relaxing back much: water.

So, American English is more relaxed, and tends to be spoken with a wider mouth, using the lips less. British English is tenser, more frontal, and uses the lips a lot more.

What other effects does this have on pronunciation?

2. Differences in Vowel Sounds

Think about the word phone.

This word has a diphthong: a double vowel sound: /əʊ/.

In British English, this sound is produced with fast, minimal movements. To sound British, you should move your mouth as little as possible: phone.

In American English, you need to relax your jaw and move your mouth more. The sound is longer, and the two parts of the vowel are more distinct: phone.

You can find a similar difference in other diphthongs. For example, think about the word how.

When I say it (American English pronunciation), my mouth is more relaxed and I move more compared to a British English speaker.

Again, this means the sound is slightly longer, and the two parts of the vowel sound are more separated: how.

When I say how (British English pronunciation), I produce the diphthong with a very small movement of my lips. The movement is all near the front of my mouth.

This produces a shorter, faster sound. The two parts of the vowel sound aren’t very distinct, because I’m moving through the sound quickly: how.

You can see a similar difference with words like train or rice, which also contain diphthongs: /eɪ/ and /aɪ/.

In British English, the diphthongs are pronounced with smaller movements, and the sounds are shorter and faster: train, rice.

In American English, the vowels are pronounced with the mouth more relaxed, the mouth moves more, and the sounds are longer and more ‘separated’: train, rice.

However, the differences in pronunciation aren’t just in diphthongs. Some other vowel sounds are also different in British and American pronunciation.

For example, think about the word cat.

This word has an /æ/ vowel sound.

In American English, this is a diphthong. You move your tongue through the sound, so the vowel sound changes as you pronounce it: cat.

In British English, the /æ/ sound isn’t a diphthong. It’s a single sound. To pronounce the sound with a British accent, again you need to use more tension.

This is because you have to hold the sound until you pronounce the following consonant. You can’t relax into the consonant like you can in American English: cat.

You have to hold the tension, which for this sound is in the throat: cat.

Some vowel sounds are just different, in that words are pronounced with different vowel sounds in British and American English.

This is particularly common with the vowels /æ/, like the ‘a’ in cat, and /aː/, like the ‘a’ in father.

Sometimes, words which have one sound in British English will have the other sound in American English.

For example, in British English, we say ban/ɑː/na, sult/ɑː/na, keb/æ/b and las/æ/gne…

…But in American English, we would say ban/æ/na, sult/æ/na, keb/ɑː/b and las/ɑː/gne… The sounds are exactly opposite.

There are many, many differences between vowel sounds in British and American pronunciation—too many to list here! Let’s look at one more important one:

There are many examples where the sounds /æ/ and /aː/ switch with the sound /eɪ/.

A famous example is the word tomato. It’s pronounced with an /eɪ/ sound in American English.

But in British English, it has an /ɑː/ sound: tomato.

Other examples? B/æ/sil, appar/eɪ/tus, comr/eɪ/de or /eɪ/pricot… (British English pronunciation)

…While I would say: b/eɪ/sil, appar/æ/tus, comr/æ/de and /æ/pricot (American English pronunciation).

Okay, so that’s all for vowel sounds.

Key points: American vowel sounds are often longer and more relaxed than British vowel sounds. Also, many words are pronounced with different vowel sounds in British and American English.

What about consonant sounds; are they also different in British and American pronunciation?

3. Differences in Consonant Sounds

Like with vowels, there are many differences between consonants in British and American pronunciation.

Let’s start with the two most important differences. These relate to ‘r’ sounds and ‘t’ sounds.

In British English, in words written with a vowel + ‘r’, the ‘r’ is not normally pronounced: car, nurse, horse.

In American English, these ‘r’ sounds are pronounced: car, nurse, horse.

Also, ‘r’ sounds at the end of a word are pronounced. Look at this question:

  • Are there any more people over there?

In this question, every word has an ‘r’ sound at the end, except for any and people (American English pronunciation).

Listen again. Can you hear the ‘r’ sounds?

  • Are there any more people over there?

In the UK, we pronounce ‘r’ at the end of a word only if the next word starts with a vowel:

  • Are there any more people over there?

I don’t pronounce ‘r’ sounds on are, more, over or the second there. I pronounce ‘r’ on the first there because the next word—any—starts with a vowel (British English pronunciation).

Listen once more:

  • Are there any more people over there?

So, ‘r’ sounds are one big difference between British and American pronunciation.

What’s the other big difference? ‘T’ sounds.

Look at a sentence:

  • Betty’s daughter’s butter is better than Tamara’s or Matt’s.

In American English, when you have a ‘t’ sound between two vowel sounds, the ‘t’ changes to a ‘d’ sound:

  • Be/d/y’s daugh/d/er’s bu/d/er is be/d/er than Tamara’s or Matt’s.

What about the ‘t’ sounds in the names Tamara and Matt? Do they change?

No, they’re pronounced normally. Why?

Remember, the ‘t’ sound changes only if it’s between two vowels. In other cases, ‘t’ is pronounced normally.

This doesn’t happen in British English. To sound British, you should pronounce all of the ‘t’ sounds:

  • Be/t/y’s daugh/t/er’s bu/t/er is be/t/er than Tamara’s or Matt’s.

In some parts of the UK, the ‘t’ between vowel sounds is replaced with a stop /t/, like this:

  • Be/ᵗ/y’s daugh/ᵗ/er’s bu/ᵗ/er is be/ᵗ/er than Tamara’s or Matt’s.

This is a common feature of many London accents.

I’m not from London, so I wouldn’t say it like that, but you might hear British people who use a lot of stop ‘t’ sounds like that; it’s common.

Those are the biggest differences with consonant pronunciation, but we’ll look at one more.

Another difference is in words like Tuesday, tutor, duty, or news.

What connects these words?

They all start with a consonant plus an /ʊː/ sound.

In American English, the pronunciation is closer to the spelling: Tuesday, tutor, duty, news.

So how’s it different in British pronunciation?

Listen and see if you can hear the difference: Tuesday, tutor, duty, news.

There’s an extra sound there, which isn’t in American pronunciation.

In British English, you need to add a /j/ before the /ʊː/ sound: Tuesday, tutor, duty, news.

This happens when you have an /ʊː/ sound after certain consonants, like /t/, /d/ or /n/.

Okay, so now you know something about the differences in the pronunciation of sounds between American and British English?

Are there other important differences?

4. Differences in Word Stress

There are also differences in word stress between American and British English.

For example, listen to five words (American English pronunciation):

  • advertisement
  • inquiry
  • moustache
  • adult
  • translate

When I say them, where’s the stress?

Now, listen to Oli (British English pronunciation):

  • advertisement
  • inquiry
  • moustache
  • adult
  • translate

Where’s the stress when I pronounce them? Can you hear the difference with Gina’s pronunciation?

Can you hear the stresses? Here they are (American English pronunciation):

  • ‘advertisement
  • ‘inquiry
  • ‘moustache
  • a’dult
  • ‘translate

Now, listen to the British pronunciation one more time. Try to hear where the stress is, and how it’s different.

Here are the stresses in British English pronunciation:

  • ad’vertisement
  • in’quiry
  • mou’stache
  • ‘adult
  • trans’late

As usual with word stress, there aren’t really rules. However, it’s useful to know that word stress can be different in American and British English.

Let’s look at one more difference between British and American pronunciation.

5. Differences in Vowel Reductions

Do you know this sound?

British and American Pronunciation: Schwa IPA symbol

It’s a schwa. It’s common in both British and American English.

However, in British English, other vowel sounds reduce to a schwa sound much more often than in American English.

What do I mean by ‘reduce?’

Look at five words:

  • strawberry
  • ordinary
  • innovative
  • category
  • ceremony

In British English, all of these words have at least one schwa sound. Can you hear where it is?

Now listen to Gina and see if you can hear the difference (American English pronunciation):

  • strawb/e/rry
  • ordin/eə/ry
  • innov/eɪ/tive
  • categ/ɔ/ry
  • cerem/əʊ/ny

Can you hear the difference? In British English, the ‘e’ in strawberry is pronounced with a schwa sound. The ‘full’ vowel sound is reduced to a schwa.

However, in American English, we pronounce the vowel with its full sound: /e/.

Listen to the five words one more time. Pay attention to the highlighted vowel sounds:

  • strawb/e/rry
  • ordin/eə/ry
  • innov/eɪ/tive
  • categ/ɔ/ry
  • cerem/əʊ/ny

Now, listen to Oli one more time. Hear how British English reduces these vowels to schwa sounds:

  • strawb/ə/rry
  • ordin/ə/ry
  • innov/ə/tive
  • categ/ə/ry
  • cerem/ə/ny

Can you hear it now?

This reduction is more common in British English, but sometimes it goes the other way, too.

If a word ends –ile, like fragile or mobile, then the ‘i’ vowel will have its full vowel pronunciation in British English.

In American English, the ‘i’ can be reduced to a schwa sound: frag/ə/le, mob/ə/le.

The same is true for other words ending in –ile, like hostile or volatile.

So now, you’ve learned about differences between British and American pronunciation with vowel sounds, consonants, word stress and vowel reductions.

Thanks for watching!

Oli RedmanBritish and American Pronunciation – Video