Saturday, January 01, 2022

What’s the difference between American English and British English?

[This video is about pronunciation. The transcript won’t make sense without the audio!]

It never occurred to me that one day people might want to hear me speak in a foreign language. That was not the plan when I studied physics. I’ve meanwhile subscribed to like a dozen English pronunciation channels and spend a lot of time with the online dictionary replaying words, so much so that at this point I think my channel should really be called “Sabine learns English.”

Inevitably, I’m now giving English lectures to my English friend who really doesn’t know anything about English. But then, I also don’t know anything about German, other than speaking it. And because looking into English pronunciation clicked some things into place that I kind of knew but never consciously realized, we’ll start the New Year with a not too brain-intensive video on the difference between American and British English. And that’s what we’ll talk about today.

I spent some years in the United States and some more in Canada, and when I came back to Europe my English sounded like this.

I then acquired a British friend. His name is Tim Palmer, and you already know him as the singing climate scientist.

Tim also has an interest in quantum mechanics and he’d get very offended when I’d say quannum mechanics. And since I’m the kind of person who overthinks everything, I can now exactly tell you what makes British people sound British.

But since my own pronunciation is clearly of no help, I asked Tim to read you some sentences. And to represent the American pronunciation I asked the astrophysicist Brian Keating who kindly agreed.

Before we listen to their speech samples, I want to be clear that of course there are many different accents in both the UK and in the US, and it’s not like there’s only one right pronunciation. But the differences that I’ll be talking about are quite general as I’m sure you’ll notice in a moment.

Now first of all there are many words which are just different in North America and in the UK. Trucks. Lorries. Cookies. Biscuits. Trash. Rubbish. Gasoline. Petrol, and so on.

There are also some words which are used in both languages but don’t mean the same thing, such as rubber or fanny. Just be careful with those.

And then there are words which are the same but are pronounced somewhat differently, like /təˈmeɪtəʊ/ and /təˈmɑːtəʊ/ or /ˈvaɪtəmɪn/ and /ˈvɪtəmɪn/, or they have a somewhat different emphasis, like /vækˈsiːn/, which in American English has the emphasis on the second syllable, whereas in British English it’s /ˈvæksiːn/ with the emphasis on the first syllable.

But besides that there are also some overall differences in the pronunciation. The probably most obvious one is the t’s. Listen to this first example from Brian and Tim and pay attention to those ts.

“Quantum mechanics isn’t as complicated as they say.”

In American English it’s quite common to use tap ts that sound kind of like d’s. Bedder, complicated. Or kind of mumble over the ts altogether as in quannum mechanics.

In British English the ts tend to be much clearer pronounced. Better, complicated, quantum mechanics.

While this is I believe the difference that’s the easiest to pick up on, it’s not overall the biggest difference. I think the biggest difference is probably that a lot of “r”s are silent in British English, which means they’re not pronounced at all. There are a lot of words in which this happens, like the word “word” which in American English would be “word”. Let’s hear the next sample and pay attention to the rs.

“The first stars were born about one hundred million years after the big bang.”

In American English you have first stars born. In British English, none of those has an r, so it’s first stars born. The Brits also drop those r’s at the end of words.

“The plumber wasn’t any less clever than the professor.”

That sound which the Brits leave at the end of an “er” word, is called the “schwa” sound and its phonetic spelling is an “e” turned by 180 degrees. It’s the most common sound in British English and it goes like this. E. That’s it.

In case you think that “Schwa” sounds kind of German that’s because it is kind of German. It goes back to a Hebrew word, but the term was introduced by the German linguist Johann Schmeller in 1821 to describe how Germans actually pronounced words rather than write them. The Schwa sound is all over the place in German too, for example at the end of words like Sonne, Treppe, or Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsmütze.

But let’s come back to English and talk a little bit more about those rs. Not all r’s are silent in British English. You keep them at the beginning of words, right?, but you also keep them between two vowels. For example, wherever, in American English has two rs in British English you drop the one at the end but keep the one in the middle. Wherever.

The “r” dropping is actually easy to learn once you’ve wrapped your head around it because there are general rules for it. Personally I find the British pronunciation easier because the English “r”s don’t exist in German, so if you can get rid of them, great. Ok, but just dropping the r’s won’t make you sound like the queen, there are a few more things. Let’s hear another sample. This time, pay attention to the vowels.

“I thought I caught a cold after I fell into the water.”

So you hear the two different ts in “water” again, but more prominently you hear the British use “ooo” where the Americans use a sound that’s closer to an “aaa”. W/ooo/ter. W/aaa/ter. This one is also quite easy to learn because it’s a general thing. Somewhat more difficult is the next one. Again pay attention to the vowels.

“You got this wrong. It’s probably not possible.”

What you hear there is that some of the “a”s in American English are “o”s in British English. Those two sounds have a different phonetic spelling, the a is spelled like this, and the o is the upside down of this. The difference is most obvious in the word “not” which in American English sounds more like “not”. Same thing with possible which becomes possible. And I did expect Brian to say pr/a/bably but he pronounced it probably, which is interesting. As I said there’s lot of regional variations in the pronunciation.

I have found this one rather difficult to learn because there’s another “a” sound for which this shift does not happen, and that has a phonetic spelling which looks somewhat like a big Lambda. Conversation turns into conversation, consciously into consciously, but company stays company. God turns to god but nothing stays nothing. Yes, that is really confusing. And in that word “confusing” the pronunciation doesn’t change because the first syllable is unstressed and the o becomes a schwa. Which is also confusing.

One final difference. This took me a long time to notice but once you know it it’s really obvious. English famously has a lot of diphthongs; those are combinations of two vowels. For example “I” that’s actually two vowels “a” and “I” -- aaii. Or “ey” as in take or baby. That’s an e and an i. eeeiiii. Take.

Most of those diphthongs are pronounced pretty much the same in British and American English, except for the əʊ as in “no”. In American English that’s more like an əʊ whereas in British English you start close to an “e”, əʊ. No. No. Only. Only. And so on.

Let’s hear how Brian and Tim pronounce this.

“I don’t know how slowly it will go.”

As I said, once you know it, it’s entirely obvious isn’t it. And if you want to sound Canadian you keep the American ou, but use the British eu for the aʊ. So out become out. About become about. Without without. But be careful, because once you’ve got that eu in your about it’s really hard to get rid of.

The shift from the American ou to the British eu is also confusing because many dictionaries use the same phonetic spelling for both sounds. And also, you don’t do it if there’s an “l” coming after the əʊ. So for example “pole” doesn’t become pole. No. So don’t do it if an l is coming up, except there’s an exception to the exception which is “folks”.

And that’s it folks, next week we’re back to talking about science.

Did you know by the way that German almost became the official language in the United States? You did? Well that’s an urban legend, it never happened. The USA doesn’t even have an official language; it’s just that English is the most widely spoken one.

Many thanks to Tim and Brian for their recordings, and many thanks also to Kate Middleton from SpeakMyLanguage for helping with this video. I learned most of what I know about British English from Kate. If you need help with your English, go check out her website.

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