Comparison of General American and Received Pronunciation

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

One aspect of the differences between American and British English is that of pronunciation, as described in American and British English pronunciation differences. The General American (GA) and the British Received Pronunciation (RP) accents have some significant points of difference, described in this article. However, other regional accents in each country also show differences, for which see regional accents of English speakers.

Received Pronunciation has been the subject of many academic studies,[1] and is frequently used as a model for teaching English to foreign learners.[2] The widely-repeated claim that only about two percent of Britons speak RP [1] is no more than a rough estimate and has been questioned by several writers, most notably by the phonetician J. Windsor Lewis.[3]


See also: Phonological history of the English language, sections After American–British split, up to the 20th century (c. AD 1725–1900) and After 1900.

Phonological differences[edit]

  • Rhoticity – GA is rhotic while RP is non-rhotic; that is, the phoneme /r/ is only pronounced in RP when it is immediately followed by a vowel sound. Where GA pronounces /r/ before a consonant and at the end of an utterance, RP either has no consonant (if the preceding vowel is /ɔː/, /ɜ:/ or /ɑː/, as in bore, burr and bar) or has a schwa instead (the resulting sequences being diphthongs or triphthongs). Similarly, where GA has r-coloured vowels (/ɚ/ or /ɝ/, as in cupboard or bird), RP has plain vowels /ə/ or /ɜː/. The "intrusive R" of many RP speakers (in such sequences as "the idea-r-of it") is absent in GA; this is a consequence of the rhotic/non-rhotic distinction.
  • The trap–bath split has resulted in RP having the back unrounded open vowel /ɑː/ where GA has a front open unrounded vowel /æ/, in most words where the vowel is
    • followed by either /n/ followed by another consonant (e.g. plant), or
    • /s/, /f/, or /θ/ (e.g. pass, laugh, path).
  • RP has three open back vowels, where GA has only two or even one. Most GA speakers use the same vowel for RP /ɒ/ as for RP /ɑː/ (the father–bother merger).
    • Although many also use the same vowel for these as for RP /ɔː/ (the cot–caught merger), this feature is variable in GA.
  • While the lot–cloth split is not usually found in RP, it is found in GA. However, the cot-caught merger of some speakers neutralizes this split. This results in /ɔː/ in some words which now have /ɒ/ in RP, particularly before voiceless fricatives and sometimes before /g/ (where it is always /ɒ/ in RP, both older and contemporary). This is reflected in the "eye dialect" spelling "dawg" for dog.
  • "Long o" and "short o" before intervocalic /r/ have merged in American English. Thus "moral" and "oral" rhymes in GA ([ˈ(m)ɔɹəɫ]), while in RP they do not rhyme, being pronounced /ˈmɒɹəl/ and /ˈɔːɹəl/, respectively.
  • RP has a marked degree of contrast of length between "short" and "long" vowels (The long vowels being the diphthongs, and /iː/, /uː/, /ɜː/, /ɔː/, /ɑː/). In GA this contrast is much less evident, and the IPA length symbol (ː) is often omitted.
  • The "long o" (as in boat) is realised differently: GA pure [oː] or diphthongized [oʊ]; RP central first element [əʊ]. However, there is considerable variation in this vowel on both sides of the Atlantic.
  • The distinction between unstressed /ɪ/ and /ə/ (e.g. roses vs Rosa's) is sometimes lost in GA, while in RP it is retained. Thus in RP, batted /ˈbætɪd/ and battered /ˈbætəd/ are not homophones (as they are in Australian English).
  • Where GA has /iː/ in an unstressed syllable at the end of a morpheme, conservative RP has /ɪ/, not having undergone happy-tensing. This distinction is retained in inflected forms (e.g. candied and candid are homophones in RP, but not in GA).
  • In GA, flapping is common: when either a /t/ or a /d/ occurs between a sonorant phoneme and an unstressed vowel phoneme, it is realized as an alveolar-flap allophone [ɾ]. This sounds like a /d/ to RP speakers. [ɾ] is an allophone of /r/ in conservative RP, which is hence caricatured in America as a "veddy British" accent. The degree of flapping varies considerably among speakers, and is often reduced in more formal settings. It does occur to an extent in nearly all speakers of American English, with better pronounced with a flap almost ubiquitously regardless of background. Pronouncing the t would be considered overly formal. This does not mean it always completely merges with bedder, as many speakers enunciate the d so as to distinguish it slightly from the flapped t.[dubious ]
  • Yod-dropping occurs in GA at the onset of stressed syllables after all alveolar consonants, including /t/, /d/, /θ/, /s/, /z/, /n/, /l/; i.e. historic /juː/ (from spellings u, ue, eu, ew), is pronounced /uː/. In contrast, RP speakers:
    • always retain /j/ after /n/: e.g. new is RP /njuː/, GA /nuː/;
    • retain or coalesce it after /t/, /d/: e.g. due is RP /djuː/ or /dʒuː/, GA /duː/;
    • retain or drop it after /θ/, /l/: e.g. allude is RP /əˈljuːd/ or (as GA) /əˈluːd/.
    • retain, coalesce[dubious ] or drop it after /s/, /z/: e.g. assume is RP /əˈsjuːm/, or (as GA) /əˈsuːm/;
  • Yod-coalescence occur in both GA & RP in unstressed syllables or after a stressed vowel. RP however more often retains the yod, especially in carefully enunciated forms of words. For example, issue is RP /ˈɪsjuː/ or (as GA) /ˈɪʃuː/, graduate may be carefully enunciated in RP as /ˈɡradjʊeɪt/, but nature is always coalesced /ˈneɪtʃə(r)/.[4] In both GA and RP, however, the sounds of word-final /d/, /s/, /t/, and /z/ (spelled either s or z) can coalesce with the sound of word-initial /j/ (spelled u or y) in casual or rapid speech, becoming /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /tʃ/, and /ʒ/ respectively, thus this year (/ˈðɪʃɪə(r)/ can sound like thi(s) shear/sheer. This is also found in other English accents.
  • For some RP speakers (upper class), unlike in GA, some or all of tyre (tire), tower, and tar are homophones; this reflects the merger of the relevant vowels.


  1. ^ a b "Learning: Language & Literature: Sounds Familiar?: Case studies: Received Pronunciation". British Library. Retrieved December 2011.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  2. ^ Fowler, H.W. (1996). R.W. Birchfield, ed. Fowler's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. 
  3. ^ Lewis, J. Windsor. "A Notorious Estimate". JWL's Blogs. Retrieved 17 January 2017. 
  4. ^ Wells, J.C. "Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation?". Retrieved 28 January 2015.