British and American English Pronunciation Distinctions

American vs British PronunciationWhen you decide to learn English as a foreign language, you have several general dialects to choose from, the two most common being general American English (AE) and general British English (BE).  As you already know, there are many British and American English pronunciation distinctions.

Much of your choice may inevitably be hinged on your teacher’s native dialect, but if you have the opportunity, your objective for learning English should of course dictate your selection of accent.

SEE ALSO: British-American Dictionary, Part 1: Business Vocabulary

This can easily affect your success in your reasons for learning English, whether that be business, school, or a specific craft in which AE or BE speakers may be field leaders.  This is true because people tend to associate authority in any given field to the accent that is, somehow, established as most trustworthy or authoritative in that field.

Regardless of what you learn to speak most naturally, however, exposure to both British and American English exceptions proves useful for universal English comprehension in the international community.

So let’s look at some distinctions between British and American English!

Before we get to a few technical rules, here’s a general list of popular words that are pronounced differently in AE and BE, as demonstrated with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA):

British EnglishAmerican English
Advertisement/əd’vɜ:tɪsment//‘ædvər’taɪzment/
Garage/‘gærɪdʒ//gə’rɑ:ʒ/
Herb/hɜ:b//ɜ:rb/
Mobile/’məʊbaɪl//moʊbəl/
Privacy/’prɪvəsɪ://’praɪvəsɪ:/
Stupid/stju:pɪd//stu:pɪd/
Vitamin/’vɪtəmɪn//’vaɪtəmɪn/

At first glance this may seem arbitrary, but there are, in fact, some principles that we can apply when distinguishing the two accents.

Stress

Much of English is French loan words, rooted in the Norman invasion of England almost a thousand years ago (1066 AD).  Americans typically stress the last syllable of these borrowed words, while the British often stress an earlier syllable.  These are some common examples:

British EnglishAmerican English
Adult/´ædʌlt//əˈdʌlt /
Café/‘kæfe//kæ’fe/
Monet (proper name)/‘məʊneɪ//moʊ’neɪ/
Bernard (proper name)/‘bʌnəd//bɜr’nɑ:rd/

Also, when a two-syllable word ends with the prefix -ate, AE typically stresses the first syllable while BE stresses the second, occasionally turning the first syllable into a schwa (/ə/).

British EnglishAmerican English
Translate/trən’sleɪt//’trænsleɪt/
Narrate/nə’reɪt//næreɪt/

Affixes

As you probably know, the affix attaches to a word to form a modified meaning, and common distinctly pronounced affixes include –ine and –ile.  BE typically uses the full vowel of the last syllable, while AE often employs the weak form –

British EnglishAmerican English
turbine/’tɜ:baɪn//’tɜrbɪn/
hostile/’hostaɪl//’hastəl/
sterile/’steraɪl//’sterəl/

 

It should also be noted that in AE, when the stressed syllable directly precedes the prefixes –ary, -ery, and –ory, their vowels are often pronounced as the schwa, while BE typically removes the vowel altogether.

Weak form

There are weak forms in AE that exist less commonly in BE, prominent examples including the following:

British EnglishAmerican English
Your/jɔr//jər/
Or/ɔr//ər/

 

 

Vocabulary

We can only mention so many useful rules of AE and BE distinctions, but a significant part of learning the individual dialects is knowing the appropriate lexis for each dialect.  Here’s a list of words that may confuse the opposing accents’ speakers:

British EnglishAmerican English
TorchFlashlight
LorryTruck
MailPost
FootballSoccer
ToiletRestroom
PetrolGas
RubbishTrash/Garbage
BiscuitsCookies
CrispsChips
ChipsFries

 

Perhaps these rules and descriptions may reveal a pattern or a launching point for understanding common indicators that distinguish British English from American English pronunciation.  Not all of these are formulaic, as many fall into the uncomfortable category of “miscellaneous.”

The good side, though, is that there are plenty of ways to get better acquainted with these dissimilarities.  The variety of both American entertainment and British entertainment offers examples not only for British and American linguistics but also for their distinctive cultures through the values, senses of humor, and entertainment preferences displayed through this valuable medium.

So once you’ve chosen the English dialect that most suits your needs, prolific entertainment options in each culture provide plenty of fun fodder for exercise.  Play close attention to words that you hear in each accent, listen to the subtly particular cadences, and – have fun!

76540_10101071225547367_2024639090_nMycah Banks grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, studied literature and history at university, and then moved to Japan to teach English.  Settling back into the eastern U.S., she is now an aspiring librarian.

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