Sunday, January 29, 2012

British and American English Differences Part 1: Pronunciation and Accent

A concept image combining British and American flags. Image Credit.

My former student Sharon recently suggested that I write a blog post about the differences between British and American English. I told her that I didn't actually know many of the differences, since I've spoken and taught American English all my life, and the only time I've been to a place that speaks British English was a single night I spent in London about 14 years ago.

But she said that didn't matter, and that I should do it anyway. And she's right; I realized that just because I don't speak British English, it doesn't mean that I'm clueless about the differences. So, this is just a very basic introduction, but I'd also like to refer you to resources that can give you more information if you're interested in this topic.

One website that I like is called "Separated by a Common Language." Lynne, the writer for that blog, is an American woman who's been living in Britain, and she talks a lot about this topic. Another resource --possibly my favorite-- is Bill Bryson's book The Mother Tongue: English And How It Got That Way. If you're interested in this topic and you're able to get access to this book, it's very interesting and entertaining.

So, let's talk about some differences! Today we'll focus on pronunciation and accent, and in a few days we'll have a second part which will focus on vocabulary differences. 


For many English learners, and even native speakers, this is the most noticeable difference between these two types of English. There are many, many sites and blog posts dedicated exclusively to this topic, but for me personally, the biggest differences I notice in pronunciation are in the vowels and in the R's at the end of words.

For example, in this song by the British singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, she sings, "If I can't dance...then I don't want any part of your revolution." You'll probably notice that the words "can't" and "dance" have a soft "A," which would likely be pronounced differently in most American English dialects. Most American English speakers would likely say the A's in this song like /æ/, in other words, like the A in "cat" or "hat." To my ears, when Sophie Ellis-Bextor says these words, the A's sound more like the O in "hot" or "got"; they seem softer. 

I also notice differences in words with an R sound near the end, such as "cards," "party," "heart," "turn," "darling," and "never." In each of these examples, the strong "American" R sound is absent; British English seems to "swallow" these sounds, or convert them to a soft "uh" sound in some cases. Notice that this doesn't happen with words that start with the R sound, though.

I was actually going to put up this Billy Bragg song as a British English example because Angela told me that for her, it didn't even sound like it was English. But then I had to admit that I didn't understand about 75% of the song, either! Still, in the first two lines you can (probably) hear the words "afternoon" and "warmest," which exhibit the "A" and "R" differences I mentioned above. So maybe it's not a good example to analyze, but you can definitely tell he's not from Los Angeles or Cleveland!  

If you compare these two songs with this song by Johnny Cash, you'll notice quite a bit of difference in the two accents --and you should also notice musical differences, since they're different genres, but all great! In Johnny Cash's song, almost all the R's in words like "hurt," "beer," and "first" are pronounced strongly. That's typical of country music, but it's also typical of much of the American English accent. You'll probably also hear some stronger vowel sounds, like the A in "half" and "laughing."

One thing that I think is interesting is how British Accents are perceived in the United States. There's a perception or stereotype in the U.S. that British accents are more "sophisticated" than American ones. British tourists tend to get a lot of attention in the U.S., and some Americans actually try to "adopt" a British accent. This usually doesn't work out well, though, since Americans who do that are usually considered to be "snobs" or "fakes." Additionally, many villains in American movies and TV shows seem to have British accents, even if the villains the actors are portraying happen to be British, German, French, or any other nationality. It makes me wonder if the villains in British TV shows  speak with American accents!

So which one is "better" or "more correct"? Well, I think they're both great, but I'll let you be the judge about which you think sounds better to your ear. American English obviously came from British English, but American English and its words and expressions have also played a role in the development of British English.

If you have any questions, comments, or anecdotes about your experience with British or American pronunciation, please feel free to leave a comment below. And check back in the next few days for the second half of this post, where we'll talk about differences between British and American vocabulary in English.

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!


  1. noice!

    i haven't listening to anything by Billy Bragg in years, thanks for the reminder.

  2. You bet!

    It's funny, when we heard that song in the car, Angela even asked, "What language is this?" I guess she's used to me playing weird Swedish or German songs, haha. Like I said, though, I can't understand most of it unless I pay really close attention.

    By the way, you should write something about the differences in Australian English, as compared to British or American. I'd be interested in that.


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