One of the main difficulties a foreigner student may face when learning English pronunciation is the remarkable variety of accents. Like many other languages spoken in such a vast territory and by so many people, spoken English presents wide variation in pronunciation. In spite of that wide variation, three standard pronunciations are distinguished: (1) The Received Pronunciation, also called Oxford English or BBC English, is the standard pronunciation of British English; (2) The General American is the accent considered as standard in North America, and as such it is the pronunciation heard in most of American films, TV series, and national news; (3) The General Australian is the English spoken in Australia. However, this three main accents should be interpreted as broad categories, for the English language has a great and rich diversity of varieties

Many students are confused as to appreciate the difference between accents, and they often speak with a mixed of accents perplexing somewhat a native speaker. The purpose of this article is to study the main differences between British English, as represented by Received Pronunciation (RP), and American English, as represented by General American (GA). This study should help students to correct their pronunciation, be consistent with their accent, and acquire a new pronunciation with fewer traces of their native language.


Change of Diphthong [ƏU] to [OU]

The shift from the British diphthong [ƏU] to [OU] is also very distinguishing. The shift consisted in the change of the mid central unrounded vowel [Ə] to the close-mid back rounded vowel [O] in the first vowel of the diphthong. This shift is considered to be systematic. In Table 1 several examples of this shift are shown.

Change of Vowel [ɒ]

Letter o is pronounced in many different ways in English. Here we have a few illustrative examples  of such diversity: Hot/hɒt/ in RP, but /hɑːt/  in GA; love[lʌv ]; corn /kɔːn/ in RP, but /kɔːrn/  in GA; continue /kənˈtɪn.juː/; moon/mu:n/; coast /kəʊst/ in RP, but /koʊst/ in GA; house/haʊs/. The so-called “short o”, which often appears in a stressed syllable with one letter o such as in dog or model, underwent a change in American English. In British English that sound is pronounced as an open back rounded short sound [ɒ], as in hot[hɒt], or possible [ˈpɒs.ə.bl ̩]. In American English it is pronounced either as an open back unrounded long sound [ɑː], as in hot[hɑːt], or as an open-mid back rounded long vowel [ɔː], as in dog[dɔːg]. Note that British English prefers a short sound as opposed to American English, which prefers a long sound in all cases. Table 2 shows several words in both pronunciations.

British English
American English
[t∫ɑːklƏt] or [t∫ɔːklƏt]
[ɑːf] or [ɔːf]
[sɑːrI] or [sɔːrI]
[wɑːnt] or wɔːnt]
5.2: Change of vowel [
ɒ] to [ɑː] and [ɔː].

In the areas of Eastern New England, such as the Boston accent, and New York City this change did not take place. This is coherent with the same theory explaining why speakers of those areas are non-rhotic.

This change is framed in the context of the many vowel transformations that occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries. The change of vowel [ɒ] to vowel [ɑː] and [ɔː].took place because of two phonological phenomena, namely, the father-bother merger and the lot-cloth split. A split is when a once identical sound happens to have a different pronunciation in some instances; usually both sounds coexist.

A sound in AmE functions in the same way within the system as it does in BrE. The same symbols for the same phonemes for both are used.

The monophthongs of AmE.

/i:/   beat                    /u:/   boot

                                    /ɔ:/  bought

                                    /ɑ:/  father

Although these vowel phonemes occur in both BrE and AmE, the words which contain these sounds in the two varieties are not exactly the same. Also, the one that appears to be missing, /ɜ:/, is not really missing. This sound in BrE occurs only in word that have an r in the spelling. In AmE the r is pronounced.

A complete list of the long vowels in AmE is as follows:

The long vowels of AmE

/i:/   beat                                                        /u:/   boot

                                    /ɜ:/   bird                    /ɔ:/  bought

                                                                        /ɑ:/  father

The short vowels in BrE, the following also occurs in AmE,

/ɪ/ hit

/e/  bet                       /ə/  about                   /ʊ/  cook

/æ/  bat                      /ʌ/  but

In other words, all the short vowels in of BrE also occurs in mE except for /ɒ/. Words with the vowel /ɒ/  in BrE have either /ɔ:/ and /ɒ:/ in AmE.

The  short vowels of AmE

/ɪ/ hit                                                              /ʊ/  cook

/e/  bet                       /ə/  let a                     /ə/  letter

/æ/  bat                      /ʌ/  but

The diphthong of AmE

BrE has three kinds of diphthongs: /ɪ/ -glides,   /ʊ/-glides,   and   /ə/-glides. All of the  -glides also occur  in AmE:

The  /ɪ/  and  /ʊ/-glides  in AmE:  

/ei/  late                      /ou/  boat

/ai/  light                    /au/  shout

/ɔi/  boy

The /ə/-glides of AmE:

/iə/  beer                                            /uə/  poor

/eə/  bear                   /ɑə/ far          /oə/  pour

AmE /æ/ –  BrE /ɑ:/

Fast                 bath                 dance               craft                 ask

Class                laugh                enhance           after                 mask

Last                 path                 trance             daft                  flask

AmE /ɑ:/ –  BrE /ɒ/

Not                  cot                   lock                 sock                 bond

Hot                  spot                 knock              knob                mop

Lot                   rot                    rock                 rob                   doll

AmE / ɑ:/ –  BrE /ɒ/

Off                  soft                  broth                log                   frog

Scoff                loft                   froth                hog                  fog

Coffee              oft                    moth                dog