The Differences between American and British Accents

Term Paper, 2017

11 Pages, Grade: 100


Table of Contents

1: Introduction

2: American and British pronunciation differences
2:1 Rhotic accents
2:2 Vowel pronunciation
2:3 Pronunciation of the consonant /t/
2:4 The consonant /l/
2:5 Change of stress

1: Introduction.

One of the reliable ways to identify someone's nationality is by asking them to speak because when someone speaks, we will be able to figure out and listen to their “tune” of language that is, the intonation that accompanies their utterances (Algeo, 2006). This “tune” is commonly known as “accent”. By a person's accent you can know if they are from England, America, Australia, etc. This is because accent is intricately connected to nationality or race. Therefore, it is legitimate to say that Americans and Britons are distinguishable mostly through their accents. Though both speak English, the manner in which they speak it is not the same.

The most obvious difference between American English and British English is accent. That is, “When a British or an American talks, they identify themselves primarily by the tunes of their respective varieties.” (Algeo 2006, 2) The latter statement however, is not completely true. Singing could be an exception. When Americans or British sing, their peculiar accents can be canceled out by the musical tune of the song, making it more difficult to decide if the singer is an American or a British. Take for example the famous British singer Adele. When you watch her being interviewed, her accent is thick and apparent; but when she sings however, she almost sounds like an American, and she could be understood without any difficulty. Now, let us return to the subject at hand. Generally, there are four differences between American English and British English when it comes to the area of pronunciation: rhotic accent, vowel pronunciation, consonant pronunciation, and change of stress.

2: American and British English Pronunciation Differences.

2:1 Rhotic Accent.

Let us first discuss the presence of the rhotic accent. American English is different from British English in that it is mostly rhotic, while British English is mostly non-rhotic (Roach, 2009: 70). Rhotic accent refers to the way in which the sound /r/ is articulated after a vowel within a syllable, like in the words Narnia, barge, torn, or birth (Gomez 2012). The /r/ sound is sometimes called retroflex. Despite most of American, Scottish, and Irish accents are rhotic, their rhotic accents are not completely identical. Besides the retroflex [r], the letter r can be pronounced on two other ways:

The alveolar approximant [ɹ] and the The alveolar flap [r] (ibid). The alveolar approximant [ɹ] occurs in phonetic environments wherein the letter r comes before a vowel in a syllable or syllable cluster like in the words ran, trust, shrewd, or pray. The alveolar flap [r] occurs in phonetic environments wherein the letter r is intervocalic, with the stress placed on the preceding vowel like in the words parish or lurid (ibid).

In other words, the alveolar approximant [ɹ] is shared by the Americans, and British; while the alveolar flap [r] is unique to the Americans. British only use the alveolar approximant [ɹ]. Americans may use either the alveolar approximant [ɹ] or the alveolar flap [r]. It should be noted that only the Scots and Irish are the only British who have rhotic accents; the rest of Great Britain is non-rhotic. The cause of Scotland's and Ireland's deviance can be traced back to history. Up to 1776, when the American Revolution started, the individual accents of America and Britain didn't exist. They were treated as one, and no one bothered to see their differences. In other words, American and British pride were weak at that time. It was only towards the end of the 18th century that the British started to remove their rhotic accents (Gomez 2012). “Received Pronunciation developed at the end of the eighteenth century, during the period of the American Revolution. At that time there was no pronunciation by which people in America could be distinguished from people in England. In the impressment controversies of the 1790's, naval officers on both sides found it so difficult to tell whether sailors were British or American that the American Government considered providing certificates of citizenship.” (Algeo 2006, 71) The upper classes of southern England started to eliminate their rhotic accent as a way of attaining class distinction. After some time, a new accent was gradually developed and the middle class adopted it as well. Unfortunately, this innovation didn't reach the Scots and Irish who were mostly of the lower working class and were probably too burdened by poverty to care about such “trivial” matters. They were the underdogs of Great Britain, so why should they care? (Gomez 2012).

2:2 Vowel Pronunciation

When it comes to pronouncing vowels, Americans and British also differ. The vowels that this paper will be focusing on are [ɒ]. [ae], and [ai].

Let us first discuss the vowel sound [ɒ]. In English in general, “simply”, the “short o” -which usually occurs within a stressed syllable with a single o like in dog or model, is pronounced as an open back rounded short sound [ɒ] in British English, but is pronounced as either an open back unrounded long sound [a:] in American English (Gomez 2012). British love to use the sound [ɒ] while the Americans only use [a:] or [ɒ:]. For example, British pronounce shot as [ʃɒt] while Americans pronounce it as [ʃa:t] or [ʃɒ:t]. It is interesting to note that the Americans were once users of the sound [ɒ] like the British. Their changing of [ɒ] to [a:] and [ɒ:] happened because of two phonological phenomena: the father-bother merger and the lot-cloth split. A split is defined as the appearance of a new sound, while a merger is defined as the disappearance of an existing sound (Gomez 2012).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Differences between American and British Accents
M.A. Program - Phonetics and Phonology
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ISBN (eBook)
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496 KB
American English, Rhotic accents, British English, Accents, English accents
Quote paper
Ahmed M. Hashim (Author), 2017, The Differences between American and British Accents, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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