Do You Speak American English?

"I have no problem with English. I have been speaking it since grammar school." How often have we heard this comment? Although many people speak “The Queens‘ English,” and have excellent grammar and vocabulary skills, there are some stylized differences between RP (Received Pronunciation) and North American English pronunciation. Understanding these differences can help bridge the communication gap with our friends across the pond.

How is American English pronunciation different from English learned abroad? Syllable stress - Patterns of North American English are often different from the stress patterns of British English. Just listen to the BBC to hear differing stress and intonation styles. Americans say EDucate, not eduCATE; TRANSlate, not transLATE; and iDENtify, not identiFY. These minor syllable stress variations can sound “different” if we are not accustomed to that stress pattern in our own speech.

Sentence Level Stress - In North American English, sentence-level stress is very critical when relaying information. If no word is stressed, monotone speech results; if an unimportant word is stressed, the rhythm or melody of the sentence is altered.

A word is stressed by saying it with louder volume, higher pitch, and a longer vowel sound. An increase in loudness alone will make the speaker sound angry or impatient. An inappropriate rising pitch at the end of the sentence will sound uncertain, tentative, or immature. In North American English, the last important content word is usually stressed. We put the primary stress on the first word in a compound word. In the UK, it is the exact opposite: while we tell our friends to enjoy their WEEKend, they will implore us to have a nice weekEND!

Vowels - The production of vowels often differs between mainstream North American English and RP, as they are spoken with different mouth tension and positions. Just like the regional dialects of the US, there are many variations in vowels throughout the UK. Traditional English was "rhotic," meaning the "R" is pronounced in words such as "park" and "another." In the 1800's, non-rhotic speech was used by the upper class and currently, non-rhotic speech is more prevalent. One can hear this influence in the New England and New York dialects, e.g. "anothuh"/another, "come ovuh he-ah"/come over here.

Consonants - The pronunciation of the "t" sound is noticeably different between North American speakers and those who learned English abroad. In American English, "t" is pronounced differently according to its location within the word. In particular, when the /t/ appears in or before an unstressed syllable, it sounds fast and like an imprecise /d/ and is called a flap /t/. For example, Italy, city, water, photograph, sit up. In contrast, the /t/ in all of its positions is precise and crisp in RP.

Figurative Language - Naturally, language/vocabulary differences abound between the two styles of English.  For example, in the United Kingdom a lorry means a truck; the tube is the subway system; a subway is a pedestrian underpass; and a roundabout is a traffic circle. A "hole in the wall" is an ATM in British English but a small out-of-the-way place in North America. If an American has been traveling for work, he/she might say, “I have been on the road a lot lately.”  Someone who speaks RP may say, “ I haven’t been at the station for a while.” Charming, yet confusing at the same time!

Spelling - Differences also exist between British and American English, e.g., flavour/flavor, learnt/learned, favourite/favorite, pyjamas/pajamas, and defence/defense, to name a few.

Of course, neither RP or North American English is more appropriate or correct. These are differences that should be acknowledged, respected, and appreciated. In fact, many people find accents charming and exotic!

Lynda Katz Wilner and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker formed ESL RULES, LLC in 2006. Through this joint business venture they provide workshops and produce and distribute their unique training materials for accent modification and communication training. Their line of products address critical and frequently confused English grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules of speech and pronunciation for nonnative English speakers in the financial/business, scientific/medical, information technology, hospitality, and religious/spiritual settings. 

For more on the ESL RULES line of products, please visit www.eslrules.com