Variations in the Phonologies of Different English Varieties

Phonological Differences between Southern Standard British English and General American

Seminar Paper, 2011

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. What Does Phonology Deal With? The Basic Terminology

3. Phonological Differences in English Varieties
3.1. Systemic Differences
3.2. Distributional Differences
3.3. Lexical Differences
3.4. Realizational Differences

4. Phonological Differences between Southern Standard British English and General American
4.1. Systemic Variations between SSBE and GenAm
4.2. Distributional Variations between SSBE and GenAm
4.3. Lexical Variations between SSBE and GenAm
4.4. Realizational Variations between SSBE and GenAm

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

English languages can be categorized in various ways. The most usual differentiation is the regional classification. It is common knowledge that e.g. the North American English differs from the English in Britain or the Irish English. So, how can we possibly find exact distinguishing factors in order to categorize the differences in the English languages? If we speak in terms of pronunciation differences, as in the North American English and the `typical´ British English, we speak of different accents. If the focus is on different grammatical features or vocabulary, we call it a dialect of English. If all three factors, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary, are considered, the term variety is used (Collins & Mees 2006:2; Hughes & Trudgill 1979:2). Different varieties exist, for example, in Scotland, Ireland, North America, England, New Zealand or Australia etc.

The following essay will deal with pronunciation differences of varieties and will therefore regard different English accents and the phonology of those. In a nutshell, phonology deals with the “study of the selection and patterns of sounds in a single language” (Collins & Mees 2006:7). Since the term `accent´ symbolizes the pronunciation and the term `phonology´ stands for different sound patterns, it is not difficult to see the close link between both terms. More detailed information on phonology will be provided in the following. In order to categorize an English language further, one might also point out that several variations exist within the different varieties. These can, for instance, be of a social or regional nature and can occur between different varieties or within them (Collins & Mees 2006:2). Concerning the latter, the speakers do, nevertheless, have mutual core features by which they can be classified as a group of speakers. “An accent, in phonological terms, is an idealized system which speakers of that variety share” (McMahon 2002:93). This idealized version is perceived as the standard version. This also helps to produce a categorization of types of differences between accents (McMahon 2002:93). In the following it will be argued that the phonology of English varieties can differ in four ways. Firstly, to create a basic understanding, the essay will shortly deal with the terminology around phonology. Then the possible general phonological differences between varieties will be explained. Subsequently, the essay will spotlight the differences in the phonology of the North American Standard English in comparison to the British Standard English. Lastly, a short conclusion will be given.

2. What Does Phonology Deal With? The Basic Terminology.

As already explained, the target of this essay is to compare the differences in phonology of different English accents. It is hence necessary to clarify how exactly phonology is defined, and which phonological approach is referred to. Kreidler states that phonology deals with the way speech sounds are grouped into a system. This system represents the sound system of a particular language. Hereby, phonology sets the physical aspects of speech into relation with linguistic knowledge of grammar or vocabulary. Moreover, in his opinion, phonology regards the description and relevance of the pronunciation of a language and is concerned with questions on the constitution of differences in utterances. Utterances represent stretches of speech sounds with at least one tone unit and a silence before and after this tone unit (2004:5). After Cruttenden the traditional approach of phonology is via phonemics (2008:3). Phonemics is concerned with the analysis of segments of speech that bring a change in meaning. The following essay will focus on this approach in order to explain differences in the phonology of English varieties. In doing so, the phonemes of different varieties will be examined. A phoneme is a unit of sound which creates distinctive meanings in morphemes (Kreidler 2004:7). Whereas a phoneme produces a difference in meaning, a morpheme is the smallest unit of speech that already carries a meaning. Examples are the words run and gun. Both words are morphemes because they carry a certain meaning; however, the sounds of [r] and [g] are phonemes because they contribute to the meaning distinction of the words. Phonemes will be indicated by the following symbols throughout the essay: /r/, /g/. A phonemic inventory can be established for every language (Collins & Mees 2006:10).

Different phonetic realizations in the utterance of the same phoneme are called allophones. In other words, allophones are described as consistent variants of the same phoneme (Cruttenden 2008:43). A phonemic system can only be established with regard to one variety of one language since different varieties might reveal different realizations of phonemes and different distributions of phonemes in words (Cruttenden 2008:46).

Lastly, it needs to be mentioned that since the focus of the observation is on the phonology of different varieties of English, it will not include the investigation of the prosody or the `suprasegmentals´. Prosody is concerned with the rhythm, intonation and stress of words and sentences (Cruttenden 2008:4).

3. Phonological Differences in English Varieties

After having clarified the specific terminology around phonology, this part will now deal with the phonological differences that might occur between different varieties of the English language. In order to draw a comparison, the synchronic state of various accents will be monitored. For this, the accents are observed as they are at the particular time of the examination (Wells 1982:72). In the following, four different categories of phonological differences will be investigated and described, the systemic, distributional, lexical and realizational differences. With the help of those types of variations one will be able to differentiate between various kinds of phonemic systems (McMahon 2002:93).

3.1. Systemic Differences

The first category investigated is the systemic differences. McMahon says that “the system of two accents may contain different numbers of phonemes, so different phonemic oppositions can be established for them” (2002:93). In other words, phoneme opposition that occurs in one accent might be absent in another. A good example is the distinction between /w/ and /ʍ/, in words like Wales or whales, which is made in some English accents like in the Scottish English, whereas in American English no distinction is made between both phonemes (McMahon 2002:94).

The variation in vowel phonemes of various English accents seems to be a lot greater. This might be due to the fact that there is a large number of vowel phonemes in the English varieties. An example might be the distinction between the phonemes /ʊ/ (as in foot) and /u/ (as in boot), which takes place in most accents of English but is not made in the Scottish accent. Here, only one phoneme /u/ exists for both vowels (Wells 1982:77). Systemic differences in vowel phonemes can be regarded via Standard Lexical Sets. Standard Lexical Sets have been developed by Wells (1982). Here, the reference vowels have been linked to keywords that represent the respective vowel, for instance the vowel phoneme /ɪ/ is linked to the keyword KIT. As introduced by Wells, the keywords will be written in capital letters in the following. Regarding the lexical sets, it seems as if reference vowels of one variety correspond to vowel phonemes of another variety (Wells 1982:122f.). An example of this is the keyword TRAP. The reference vowel of the standard American accent would be /æ/ while the one of the standard British accent would rather be /a/ (McMahon 2002:81). A comparison of the Standard Lexical Set of accents will be pursued in detail later.


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Variations in the Phonologies of Different English Varieties
Phonological Differences between Southern Standard British English and General American
Free University of Berlin  (Englische Philologie)
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ISBN (Book)
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Phonology, English varieties, Standard British English, Southern Standard British English, General American, Standard American English, different English varieties
Quote paper
Christiane Iden (Author), 2011, Variations in the Phonologies of Different English Varieties, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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