USA English versus British English Pronunciation


English is truly the widest spread language in the world. Besides, it’s a state language of Great Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Naturally, peculiarities of the manners and customs of life in these countries caused new pronunciation aspects due to their geographical remoteness from classical English.

Accents: RP/BBC & GenAm.

In order to be able to discuss the features of particular accents of English, it is useful to have one or more reference models to compare this accent to. For both of the major dialects of English, the British and the American one, such models exist.

However, one has to bear in mind that these models are not really, as is often assumed, based on features such as better intelligibility, etc., but often only on the prestige associated with them. Furthermore, the English Language Teaching (ELT) and Language Testing industries have always had a major influence on the propagation of certain beliefs about which accents should be preferred over others.

British English

The reference accent for British English is called Received Pronunciation (RP), nowadays somewhat more neutrally also referred to as BBC (English). The term was originally coined by Daniel Jones and was supposed to reflect the speech of educated Southern schoolboys, i.e. students attending public schools. It is often also referred to as ‘the Queen’s English’ or ‘Oxford English’, but both of these terms are rather inapplicable because both accents show clear differences, at least in comparison to mainstream RP.

John Wells’ Accents of English gives an excellent (though more than 20-year-old) overview of the different types of RP, which is especially illuminating because it also makes one realize that RP is not something clearly tangible and eternally fixed, but an accent that keeps on changing and shows a high degree of variability, just like any other. One of the main and most important facts about RP, however, is that is an accent that is only spoken by about 3-4% of the British population.

A more recent and updated, but in parts slightly controversial, description by Clive Upton can be found in the Handbook of

Varieties of English . For this course, we will adopt a transcription model that is in between the ones proposed by Wells and Upton, but mainly reflecting the recent changes described by Upton.

American English .

The reference accent for American English is called General American and is to some extent based on the speech of the more prestigious New England states, but also shows considerable variation. It is therefore often rather defined as an accent with few or no particularly strong regional features.

In the unit we consider only American English ( the form of English used in the United States that includes all English dialects used within the United States of America ) and British English variants ( the form of English used in the United Kingdom that includes all English dialects used within the United Kingdom ) as the most spread.

In this manual we intend to give only a general draft of this question to let students get a general notion of it that is enough to help them deeper realize the nature of different English language phonetics phenomena.

The English language was first introduced to America by British colonization, beginning in the early 17 th century. Similarly, the language spread to numerous other parts of the world as a result of British trade and colonization elsewhere and the spread of the former British Empire, which, by 1921, held sway over a population of about 470-570 million people: approximately a quarter of the world’s population at that time.

Over the past 400 years, the form of the language used in America – especially in the United States – and that used in the British Isles have diverged in a few minor ways, leading to the dialects now occasionally referred to as American English and British English. Differences between the two include pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary (lexis), spelling, punctuation, idioms, formatting of dates and numbers, and so on, although the differences in written and most spoken grammar structure tend to be much more minor than those of other aspects of the language in terms of mutual intelligibility.

A small number of words have completely different meanings between the two dialects or are even unknown or not used in one of the dialects. One particular contribution towards formalizing these differences came from Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary (published 1828) with the intention of showing that people in the United States spoke a different dialect from Britain, much like a regional accent.

Some divergences

This divergence between American English and British English once caused George Bernard Shaw to say that the United States and United Kingdom are «two countries divided by a common language»; a similar comment is ascribed to Winston Churchill. Likewise, Oscar Wilde wrote, «We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language» ( The Canterville Ghost , 1888). Henry Sweet falsely predicted in 1877, that within a century, American English, Australian English and British English would be mutually unintelligible.

It may be the case that increased worldwide communication through radio, television, the Internet, and globalization has reduced the tendency to regional variation. This can result either in some variations becoming extinct (for instance, the wireless , superseded by the radio ) or in the acceptance of wide variations as «perfectly good English» everywhere. Often at the core of the dialect though, the idiosyncrasies remain.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that although spoken American and British English are generally mutually intelligible, there are enough differences to cause occasional misunderstandings or at times embarrassment – for example, some words that are quite innocent in one dialect may be considered vulgar in the other.

Written forms of American and British English as found in newspapers and textbooks vary little in their essential features, with only occasional noticeable differences in comparable media (comparing American newspapers to British newspapers, for example). This kind of formal English, particularly written English, is often called «standard English».

An unofficial standard for spoken American English has also developed, as a result of mass media and geographic and social mobility. It is typically referred to as «standard spoken American English» or «General American English», and broadly describes the English typically heard from network newscasters, commonly referred to as non-regional diction, although local newscasters tend toward more parochial forms of speech. Despite this unofficial standard, regional variations of American English have not only persisted but have actually intensified, according to linguist William Labov.

Regional dialects in the United States typically reflect the elements of the language of the main immigrant groups in any particular region of the country, especially in terms of pronunciation and vernacular vocabulary. Scholars have mapped at least four major regional variations of spoken American English: Northern, Southern, Midland, and Western. After the American Civil War, the settlement of the western territories by migrants from the east led to dialect mixing and leveling, so that regional dialects are most strongly differentiated in the eastern parts of the country that were settled earlier. Localized dialects also exist with quite distinct variations, such as in Southern Appalachia and New York.

The spoken forms of British English vary considerably, reflecting a long history of dialect development amid isolated populations. Dialects and accents vary not only between the countries in the United Kingdom, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but also within these individual countries.

There are also differences in the English spoken by different groups of people in any particular region. RP, which is «the educated spoken English of south-east England», has traditionally been regarded as proper English; this is also referred to as BBC English or the Queen's English . The BBC and other broadcasters now

intentionally use a mix of presenters with a variety of British accents and dialects, and the concept of «proper English» is now far less prevalent.

Since the 1970-s regional accents have become increasingly accepted in mainstream media, and are frequently heard. RP is also sometimes called «Oxford English», and the Oxford Dictionary gives RP pronunciations for each word. It is the accent of Standard English in England with a relationship to regional accents similar to the relationship in other European languages between their standard varieties and their regional forms. RP is used to a much lesser extent in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Until recently, RP English was widely considered to be more educated than other accents.

Although there is nothing intrinsic about RP that marks it as superior to any other variety, sociolinguistic factors have given Received Pronunciation particular prestige in England and Wales, especially since the early to mid 20 th century. However, since the

1960-s, a greater permissiveness towards allowing regional English varieties has taken hold in education and the media in the United Kingdom; in some contexts Received Pronunciation is now perceived negatively.

To consider the historical aspect it is necessary to point out that the introduction of the term Received Pronunciation is usually credited to Daniel Jones after his comment in 1917 «In what follows I call it Received Pronunciation (abbreviation RP), for want of a better term». However, the expression had actually been used much earlier by Alexander Ellis in 1869 and Peter DuPonceau in 1818 (the term used by Henry C.K. Wyld in 1927 was «received standard»). According to Fowler's Modern English Usage (1965), the correct term is « the Received Pronunciation ».

The word received conveys its original meaning of accepted or approved – as in «received wisdom». The reference to this pronunciation as Oxford English is because it was traditionally the common speech of Oxford University; the production of dictionaries gave Oxford University prestige in matters of language. The extended versions of the Oxford English Dictionary give Received Pronunciation guidelines for each word.

RP is an accent (a form of pronunciation) and a register, rather than a dialect (a form of vocabulary and grammar as well as pronunciation). It may show a great deal about the social and educational background of a person who uses English. Anyone using RP will typically speak Standard English although the reverse is not necessarily true (e.g., the standard language may be pronounced with a regional accent, such as a Yorkshire accent; but it is very unlikely that someone speaking RP would use it to speak Scots).

RP is often believed to be based on the Southern accents of England, but it actually has most in common with the Early Modern English dialects of the East Midlands. This was the most populated and most prosperous area of England during the 14 th and 15 th centuries. By the end of the 15 th century, «Standard English» was established in the City of London. A mixture of London speech with elements from East Midlands, Middlesex and Essex, became known as RP.

Researchers generally distinguish between three different forms of RP: Conservative, General, and Advanced.

  • Conservative RP refers to a traditional accent associated with older speakers with certain social backgrounds.
  • General RP is often considered neutral regarding age, occupation, or lifestyle of the speaker.
  • Advanced RP refers to speech of a younger generation of speakers.

The modern style of RP is an accent often taught to non-native speakers learning British English. Non-RP Britons abroad may modify their pronunciation to something closer to Received Pronunciation in order to be understood better by people unfamiliar with the diversity of British accents. They may also modify their vocabulary and grammar to be closer to Standard English, for the same reason. RP is often used as the standard for English in most books on general phonology and phonetics and is represented in the pronunciation schemes of most dictionaries published in the United Kingdom.

Traditionally, Received Pronunciation was the «everyday speech in the families of Southern English persons whose men-folk had been educated at the great public boarding schools» and which conveyed no information about that speaker's region of origin prior to attending the school.

«It is the business of educated people to speak so that no-one may be able to tell in what county their childhood was passed»

  1. Burrell, Recitation.A Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary School, 1891.

In the 19 th century, there were still British prime ministers who spoke with some regional features, such as William Ewart Gladstone.

From the 1970-s onwards, attitudes towards Received Pronunciation have been changing slowly. The BBC's use of announcers with strong regional accents, such as Yorkshire-born Wilfred Pickles, during World War II (in order to distinguish BBC broadcasts from German propaganda), is an earlier example of the use of non-RP accents.

One issue which also cannot be altogether disregarded is the substantial difference between RP and the variants of English that are used by large groups of native speakers in the British Isles and elsewhere. Since the RP variant has been taught by several generations of teachers in the area of the former USSR who have had little if any opportunity to converse with a native speaker of British

English, certain distortions have developed, particularly in the formation of some of the more difficult diphthongs. The situation is complicated by the fact that some of these ‘RP’ diphthongs are relatively difficult to masterfully even for many Anglophones, and North American speakers naturally make no attempt to do so. Due to the fact that American English is what many Ukrainian students hear in songs and movies, as well as their conversations with many English-speaking visitors, the pronunciation which they develop is often something of ‘hybrid’, containing some vestiges of RP and some elements of North American pronunciation.

Finally, it needs to be stated that when it comes to the correct pattern of English pronunciation, one cannot afford to be totally dogmatic: there is room for variation even in the most rigid standard or RP.

Differences in pronunciation

Differences in pronunciation between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE) can be divided into:

  1. differences in         accent (i.e.      phoneme inventory and realization ).
  2. differences in the pronunciation of individual words in the lexicon (i.e. phoneme distribution ).

As American English is just a variant of English it mainly preserves English language sound basis having at the same time the following peculiarities:

  • The diphthong [ou] is pronounced with more rounded lips then in British English.
  • Sound [e] is pronounced more openly and reminds sound [ ɛ ] .
  • Sound [ju:] usually has a weak [j] after consonants that is often omitted in the speech of many Americans. So, words student , new , duty sound as [stu:dent], [nu:], [`du:ti].
  • Vowel [ɔ] sounds as [a] , diphthongs [ai] , [au] have a front sound [a] as nucleus that almost coincide with [æ] .
  • Instead of the vowel [a:] in such words like class , plant , answer we hear sound [æ] .
  • It’s common for American English to have nasal pronunciation of the vowels.
  • Sound [r] is pronounced both in the middle of the word and at the end, that’s why American speech sounds harsher than British.

In the USA variant of the English language, there are some lexical

and orthographical peculiarities which generally don’t stop American and British people from understanding each other but still are worth considering.

The lexical peculiarities of the British English and the American English:

British English

American English


pocket knife




garbage can




love seat





unit trust

mutual fund

cloakroom attendant

hat-check girl


trailer / camper / mobile home

1-st year undergraduate


2nd year undergraduate


3rd year undergraduate


4th year undergraduate


to ring smb.

to call smb.




French fries

estate agent


The orthographical peculiarities of the British English and the American English:

British Variant

American Variant