British and American English: The Accent

Two words spoken in an American accent reliably crack up the British: water and butter. It has to do with the difference between English R and the American R, which as far as I can figure out is this: Americans have one and the English have a sort noticeable absence—something you might write as an H, or an apostrophe. WAWtah, as opposed to WAWterrrr.

WAWterrr. Photo by AdriannaNicole

WAWterrr. Photo by AdriannaNicole

I’ve spelled that first syllable the same way but no way does it sound the same. No matter how much I mess around with the spelling, though, I can’t come up with the difference. Put it this way: The English first syllable is well behaved and sits in its chair with a perfectly straight back. The American one slouches and puts its feet on the coffee table.

That may not help. I do understand that.

Okay, I’m writing about English pronunciation as if the English had one single accent. They don’t, but let’s not get into that here. I’m oversimplifying, the same way I’m oversimplifying the American accent, because if I don’t I’ll never write this. I’ll lose myself in complications and sub-points and convolutions so badly that I’ll shut down the computer, go back to bed, and pull the covers over my head. Pretty soon I’ll be joined by two cats and we’ll spend the day there.

They’ll think it’s a day well spent.

Any number of British friends will, in the middle of a conversation involving food or drink, lose all restraint and repeat after us, “BUTTerrrr,” or “WAWterrrr.” They can’t help themselves. It just breaks loose. Even if it was going to fly around the room and break the dishes, they couldn’t keep it in. Sometimes they don’t even wait for us to say it first. I’d love to criticize, but if Wild Thing and I are in the car when the weather comes on and the winds are moderate, we’ll repeat “MAWderit” and laugh as if it was the first time we’d done it. Some jokes just don’t get old.

We’re lucky, though. We have the accent that people think is cool because they’ve grown up watching Hollywood movies. Well, we sort of have it. We have versions of it, with regional flavorings that, from this distance, most people don’t hear. So we don’t get the disapproval that goes with having accents people look down on, or are afraid of. A wave of let’s-all-worry-about-immigrantion is breaking over the country just now, and our accents mark us all. Wild Thing’s and mine get us sorted in the Immigrants We Accept pile. It’s uncomfortable sometimes, but not as uncomfortable as being in the Immigrants We Don’t Accept pile. Still, it’s odd when people react to your accent, even favorably. It’s a bit like having people react to your nose. You’ve been walking around with the thing all your life. You’ve forgotten it’s there and are thinking about something else, but people want to talk to you about it. Over and over.

I’m in the supermarket and the woman at the checkout says, “I love your accent.”

What am I supposed to say? It’s my accent. I’m not responsible for it. When I was a kid, if I’d known I could choose I would have chosen a different variation on the New York accent. Now it’s too late. The glue that holds it in place set long ago.

So I say thanks, just as if she’d said she liked my sweater. Which she’d have called a jumper.

61 thoughts on “British and American English: The Accent

  1. I always get confused when the British add an ‘r’ to the end of words that end in ‘a’ – for example, the name Anna. I almost always hear it said as Anner. Odd, and most of the time they have no idea they’re doing it (believe me, I’ve brought it up).
    The other goody is a favourite game I had with Neil during my first years here (and if I can get him to do it, it’s still good for a laugh from us both) and that is to get him to repeat a string of specific words I put together… (Mind you, his tongue is Welsh, so it works differently to even the English way of saying things.)
    “Ordinary aardvark keister doorknob.” Without fail, and with much effort, he gets to ‘doorknob’ only to lose it and say ‘dornerb.’ It’s even better than when I try to say ‘worcestershire.’ :)

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  2. The true Massachusetts accent is very much like the English. Let’s go for a pizz-er. Shall we have dinn-ah? If you listen carefully, traces of the English accent are everywhere including their use of words such as “rubbish” for trash and “parlor” (pronounced pah-lah) for the living room. Fun post!

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    • I’m from New England originally (Connecticut), so while I don’t run around saying “Pahk the cah in the Hahvahd yahd” I’ve always said “draw” for the word “drawer.” I never realized I was pronouncing this word differently from others until my “accent” was pointed out to me.

      Having lived in various parts of the US I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have an accent–everyone else does. ;)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Perfect. Or perhaps Pahfect :-) your description of the difference in the WAW pronounciation is right on target – upright chair vs. slouchy cushion .

    We have one Brit invasion in our household – we like to ask ‘ Would you like to go to the MOO-vies?’

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  4. Loved the post from start to finish, and wanted to say that this also comes up when teaching English to foreigners. Being Irish, my accent is a strange, almost mish-mash of the two accents. R’s are both dropped and added depending on the word etc. My students find the English English pronunciation rediculous and favor the US strongly. Therefore I nearly choked when I read this article as it sums up the differences so accurately, and the outrageous assumption that I have an accent. ;)

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    • My highly scientific conclusion as a result of this post is that no one has an accent. Ever.

      Another comment attributes the Massachusetts accent, which manages to both drop and add Rs (don’t ask me, I’m only reporting), to the English influence, but I wonder, given what you just wrote, if it isn’t at least partly Irish influence. Boston, at least, had a heavy influx of Irish immigrants, and I’d guess the rest of Massachusetts did as well.

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      • I guess it’s the rush of all the folk of the British Isles who fled for the greener pastures across the pond. Added in that you’d struggle to find an Irish person without some family in the States (my own scattered across Boston, I believe), so your conclusion is highly probable!

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  5. My English husband occasionally asks me to say “turkey” and “water”, because my pronunciation cracks him up. I’m from Vancouver, so I have a West Coast accent. My favourite word to hear in a New York accent is “coffee”; I used to work with a guy who refilled his “kwawffee” six or seven times a day.

    When I was a kid, we had a neighbour who was from London, married to a Canuck. Their daughters were named Deborah, Dana, and Diane, and mutual friends always referred to them as Debber, Daner, and Diner, because of their mother’s pronunciation of the final ‘a’ on two of the names.

    This video about the Psychology of Accents popped up on my facebook feed yesterday, just after I read your first post about this. Thought you and your readers might enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting YouTube clip. And since everyone’s making fun of everyone’s accents here, I loved it when she was explaining the differences between the American and English R by saying, “Hahd sounded like hahd,” where my brain insisted that she really, deep down, wanted to say, “Hard sounded like hahd.

      Well, of course she wanted that. I mean, who wouldn’t?

      Loved your friends’ names. Especially poor ol’ Diner.

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  6. I’m from the Midlands, then Manchester, and I visit Texas every year. They think I’m Australian, even when I’m with Aussies!
    Because of my DH’s profession, we could have gone to live in the States, and we did seriously consider it at one point, but what we would have gained in housing and gas and such, we’d have lost in the health insurance. And the guns scared us silly!
    Aluminium. Just sayin’ – there’s more than one i in it.

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  7. I’m a native Minnesotan–a true American midwesterner with no accent (she says, smiling) but not of Scandanavian stock. Nevertheless, “yah” (“ya,” “ja”), meaning “yes,” is a part of my normal vocabulary. At a professional conference several years ago, a colleague began chatting about how quaint he found Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio sketches to be. In the course of the conversation, I responded to a question with “yah.” He adopted the most profound look of amazement, saying, “I thought that word was something Keillor made up! I’ve never actually heard any real person use it!”

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  8. I’ve always thought that the little differences add to the rich beauty of the whole patchwork quilt of English. Wouldn’t it be boring if we all sounded identical – like a troupe of robots?

    Now that I’m back in the UK, I no longer have a ‘cute British accent.’ In some ways it’s sad to have sunk back into the soup of standard sounds. What I remember made me feel the most foreign when I lived in the US was when people would hum theme tunes – like Gilligan’s Island – and everyone else, except me, would join in. Shared childhood experiences – or TV shows – are things you can never catch up with and that you’re always excluded from. That sounds sad, doesn’t it?

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    • I couldn’t agree more about the rich beauty. I love the differences, and I can’t resist making fun of us all–and especially myself–for them.

      Wild Thing and I are always left behind in the equivalent of those Gilligan’s Island moments, and on the rare occasions when we actually find and watch one of the shows friends were laughing about, we don’t generally think it’s funny. Humor doesn’t always translate well, even within a single language. In the 1960s, when the American movie The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming was shown in the Soviet Union, audiences found it as funny as American audiences had, but they laughed in different places.

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      • Yes, when I show my children TV programmes that I loved as a child, they generally survived better in my memory than in reality. The programmes are often clunky and slow in a way that I don’t remember realising as a child. Though Noggin the Nog and The Clangers – or anything by Oliver Postgate, survive as wonderful well-told human stories. I would watch them with as much warm enjoyment now as I did when they were on the TV in my childhood.

        It’s strange how films have different effects in different places, isn’t it? I remember going to an International Film Festival in Cairo, about 25 years ago. I was the only woman in a cinema of Egyptian men. Every time a gun appeared on screen, especially if it was fired, there would be an intake of breath throughout the cinema. I’ve never heard that in a UK or US cinema.

        One of the films they showed was Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. I’d seen it before, but sitting in that Cairo cinema, watching the opening scenes, with the men of Egypt sighing around me at the thought of how easily Western women seem to hop into bed, in a country where TV couldn’t even show a married kiss, the film seemed to be telling quite a different story.

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          • I think they need a sprinkling of time travel – I think our fondness for them is fondness for the moments shared with family, cuddled up on the sofa, safe and cosy, watching a familiar story unfold on the screen, with the familiar theme tune. That’s the thing that is unavailable to people like me, as regards Gilligan’s Island. I can never see it with the eyes of a child.

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  9. I’m seventh generation Australian on my Dad’s side, but Mum was English-born, even though she emigrated before she started school (so she has no accent, at least as far as I can tell). I definitely have an Australian accent, but whenever I got to the country, everyone thinks I’m foreign because I don’t have that nasal twang. Once, I even came across a guy from Liverpool working in the mines who was convinced I must be from some posh English family. I’m not – I just like to enunciate. I don’t know if I should find these comments insulting or complimentary. I never really know what to say.

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  10. Haha, you’ve got the two accents bang on. Love the slouchy American accent vs the upright, uptight british one.

    I have to say I LOVE the southern drawl, now that is a lazy accent with its cowboy boots up on the coffee table. And that was even pre Kevin Spacey in House of Cards (although that certainly helped). Accents are a funny thing, they tell people so much about you without you realising, or at least in the UK they do.
    We have a friend who has a really strong Scouse accent and he’s a super bright lawyer. He was offered a top notch offer from a top legal firm on leaving university, but only if he took diction lessons to get rid of his accent. He told them to bugger off, and he still has his accent to this day (and he’s doing really well). I thought it was shocking that in this day and age people still make those kind of judgements on an accent though.

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  13. It’s the soft southern English who don’t pronounce their Rs “properly”. If you want to hear a nicely rolled R, just listen to a northerner with a Lancashire accent. As for the folks of Morpeth Northumberland – they roll their Rs from the back of the throat (yes, it does sound like a speech defect).

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  14. This post cracks me up because the reversal is also true. As a Brit growing up in America, my American friends would often ask me to say words like “turtle” because they thought it sounded ridiculous (or cool–I can’t really tell which). I’ve also received a lot of free stuff because Americans liked my British accent (tickets, fruit, upgrades, you name it). I’ve now mastered a relatively neutral American accent (thanks to the CNN news anchors) which I use daily when I’m trying not to attract attention to myself. But, the British accent slips out occasionally and throws everyone into one of two categories: 1) creepy admiration or 2) hysterical guffawing :-)

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    • It’s true, it’s true. Americans are suckers for a British accent. We swoon. And–oh, hell, it’s true, we tease. And it makes perfect sense to me that you couldn’t tell whether your friends thought you sounded cool or ridiculous. (I’m putting my money on the first.) It also makes sense that the admiration would get a little creepy. I’m older than you (judging by your photo), by a good many years, and the creepiness of people around me (mercifully) has diminished with time, but even so I do get tired of people reacting to my accent when, really, I want to talk about something completely different. Like, maybe, where the bus stops.

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  16. Accents are wonderful, especially regional ones.
    When I was ten years old, we moved from New York to California, where we lived for two years before moving back to New York. My schoolmates, whom I hadn’t seen for that period of time,laughed at what they called my “accent” because I had lost my New York one.

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    • It’s interesting that the majority of responses to this post have been from Americans, about regional accents. Since I moved to the U.K., I’ve been struck by how many class, national, and regional accents rub elbows in a small patch of land, and probably because they’re new to me they stand out more than the U.S. variations. But it’s the U.S. that I’ve heard from most.

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  17. Two words that never get old for my step children are hearing me say “banana yoghurt” (banaarna yoggut) I’m pretty sure they buy it especially now, I did attempt to say ba-nan-a yo-gert American style once, but the youngest did herself a mischief laughing, so they asked me to stop. For me the funniest thing about the American pronunciation of water is not the length of the the different syllables, but the double d inserted in place of t. “wadda boddle” to my “wort-ter bottttttle”. I remember my first and last baseball game in Boston, I couldn’t understand was was so awful about the new chap coming out onto the field and was saddened that the crowd were passing moral judgement on his character. It turned out they were not, as I thought chanting “badder, badder, badder” but “batter, batter, batter” in reference to what he was about to do. Which was a relief to my sensibilities at least.

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    • A British friend manages a fairly good version of the American R when she mentions her daughterrr. It only makes me laugh because it’s so improbable stranded in the middle of her accent. As for my accent, a friend thought we were having a very strange conversation about what you do on horses when I was talking about writing.

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  18. Funny! I am down with all things related to accents. Of course, I don’t think I have one-eventhough I am from the US of A. But seriously, most people from Washington DC have a ‘soft’ accent like mine. People always tell me they like my accent-I usually say “thanks…but you’re the one with the accent, mate” which brings laughter and confusion in equal measue. Wahaha. Very funny post.

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