English and its Varieties. An Analysis of the British and the North American Sound System

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013
11 Pages, Grade: 2,0


List of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Varieties of English
a) Received Pronunciation – the Standard British accent
b) American English

3. Varieties of the sound systems – a comparison
c) The Vowels
The RP vowel system
General American English vowels: differences from RP
The missing phoneme /ɒ/
The GA consistency of the phoneme /æ/
Diphthong changes: /əʊ/ vs. /oʊ/
d) The Consonants
The RP consonant system
The General American English consonants: differences from RP
Rhotic vs. non-rhotic accent
Dark /ł/ vs. Clear /l/
Variations of /t/
e) Differences in articulation: stress

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Speaking any kind of language always includes the interaction of the various linguistic aspects: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and pragmatics. Both, phonetics and phonology analyze the human language on the basis of sounds. Phonetics is defined as the study of speech sounds which “examines the characteristics of human sounds, […] in any language.” (Dretzke 1998: 17) In contrast phonology is the study of sounds “in a specific language […] and examines how sounds form a system in the language and how they function within the pronunciation system of that language.” (Dretzke 1998: 17) The cooperation of sound-building and sound-performing builds up the way we speak, including geographical or social backgrounds. This leads to the conclusion that language possesses multiple variations, even within one single language. The coexistence of those language variations affects a specific language within the same country, as well as a specific language spoken in different countries. Regarding the English language, there are wide variations in pronunciation, including dialects or accents due to differences within the age, the gender, or the geographical origin of the speaker. But there are also variations that are defined as standard pronunciation. Two of them, concerning the English language, are known as the Received Pronunciation (RP), which presents the Standard British accent, and the General American accent (GA), which presents the standard pronunciation in North America. Nowadays those variations face the people amongst others by the spoken media, like television or radio. Especially English learners who were, or still are predominantly confronted with the British English Pronunciation due to their academic education tend to have an issue with the unfamiliar General American pronunciation. To illustrate the differences between the General American accent and the Received Pronunciation in British English, this paper dwells on the individual parts that finally form a specific pronunciation type: The differences within the vowel and consonant system, as well the differences within the articulation with focus on the stress of syllables.

2. Varieties of English

a) Received Pronunciation – the Standard British accent

The Received Pronunciation (RP), also known as ‘the Queen’s English’ ‘Oxford English’ or ‘BBC English’ is originated in the South East of England and is “actually used by perhaps only 3-5 per cent of the population of England.” (Hannah, Trudgill 1994: 2) In spite of its marginal spread, this accent is the one which English learners are normally taught to in school at which ‘received’ can contextually be translated as “socially accepted as good”. (Dretzke 1998: 150) Nowadays and due to its historical development, the RP accent is regarded as a regionless accent, whereby one cannot indicate where exactly an RP-speaker comes from. Further it is “used most often in radio and television broadcasts in England” (Hannah, Trudgill 1994: 9). This, altogether, leads to the conclusion that the RP accent can be defined as the Standard British accent, and builds up the core for the following comparison with the accent of General American English.

b) American English

The history of North American English started in the early 17th century when the first settlers arrived at the continent. Shortly after, and linguistically significant, the first English settlers came into contact with the native Indian population, but also, amongst others, with settlers from Spain, France, Germany, the Netherlands. (Kovecses 2000: 20) After the War of Independence “[t]ens of thousands of settlers moved west of the seaboard area toward and beyond the Mississippi River [which] open[ed] the second major period in the history of American English”. (Kovecses 2000: 21) Until today the development of American English is influenced by immigration and is characterized by the amount of different regional variation within its pronunciation. To limit the number of all of these variations, the comparative part of this work focuses on the analysis of the ‘Standard’ or ‘General American English’ (GA) accent, which earmarks that level of pronunciation that “is employed by educated speakers in formal settings.” (Kretzschmar 2004: 257)

3. Varieties of the sound systems – a comparison

c) The Vowels

In phonetics, vowels are described as sounds which are produced while the “voice is switched on, and the mouth cavity is left unobstructed, so that the air passes out freely” (Barber, Beal, Shaw 2009: 4) In general, they can be classified by the position of the tongue, and the roundness of the lips. Regarding the tongue’s position vowels can be specified by its height, which divides vowels into open, half-open, half-close, and close ones, and by the tongue’s retraction into front, central, or back ones. Further its quality depends on the position of the lips, which “can be spread wide, held neutral, or rounded more or less tightly.” (Barber, Beal, Shaw 2009: 5) Those parameters of height, and backness of the tongue, and roundedness of the lips build up the schematic arrangement of vowels: the vowel diagram, which varies from language to language, and even from dialect to dialect. The English language vowel diagram is defined as follows:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

The RP vowel system

The RP vowel system is characterized by 20 vowel sounds (phonemes) which can be divided into twelve pure vowels and eight diphthongal vowels. Barber, Beal and Shaw presented those characteristics as follows:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Further, the pure vowels can be subdivided into long and short vowels. The long vowels (/i:/, /ɑ:/, /ɔ:/, /u:/, and /ɜ:/) are marked by a length mark (:) which is obviously not essential because in the RP vowel system every vowel sound is represented by its own phoneme. The remaining seven pure vowels can be defined as short vowels.

General American English vowels: differences from RP

The missing phoneme /ɒ/

One of the most obvious differences from RP to General American (GA) Pronunciation lies in the absence of the RP phoneme /ɒ/ within the GA vowel system. This causes the phenomenon that the “three RP vowels /ɒ/, /æ/ and /ɑ:/ correspond to only two vowels in [GA] - /ɑ/ [or /ɑ:/] and /æ/.” (Hannah, Trudgill 1994: 38) Consequentially words like pot, top or box (RP: /pɒt/, /tɒp/, /bɒks/) change within their GA pronunciation to /pɑt/, /tɑp/ and /bɑ:ks/. Regarding the vowel diagram it can be established that the change from the RP /ɒ/ to the GA /ɑ/ primarily affected the roundedness of the vowel o. The RP phoneme /ɒ/ is produced by fully rounded lips, whereas the GA phoneme /ɑ/ is less rounded. Furthermore, the absence of the RP phoneme /ɒ/ is counterbalanced by the GA phoneme /ɔ/ (or /ɔ:/), as in cough, long or gone (GA: /kɔf/, /lɔŋ/ ,/gɔ:n/).

The GA consistency of the phoneme /æ/

Another conspicuous feature between those two accents is the difference within the usage of the near-open front and unrounded phoneme /æ/. In RP the phoneme /æ/ changes constantly into the open back less rounded phoneme /ɑ:/, before “/θ/, /f/, /s/ [and] also […] before /nt/, /ns/, /nč/, /nd/, /mp/.” (Hannah, Trudgill 1994: 40) In GA this change does not occur and as a result words like path, pass, can’t, dance or sample vary completely from each other.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


English and its Varieties. An Analysis of the British and the North American Sound System
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für Englische Philologie)
Levels of Linguistic Analysis II
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
585 KB
American English, British English, Standard British Accent, Sound system
Quote paper
Agnetha Hinz (Author), 2013, English and its Varieties. An Analysis of the British and the North American Sound System, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/302897


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