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Jones, Daniel. An Outline of English Phonetics – T04

Appendix D
American Pronunciation

1. English is pronounced in the United States in numerous
ways, all differing considerably from the pronunciations used in
Great Britain. As American ways of speaking cannot fail to be
of interest to foreign learners of English, a short account of the
main features of American pronunciation is given in the following
paragraphs. These paragraphs do not furnish a detailed description
of one particular variety of American English speech. They merely
present a record of the chief features which are particularly noticeable
to the Southern British hearer, and which are observable in
the speech of many Americans. Those wishing to make a detailed
study of particular types of American pronunciation should consult
the books by Kenyon, Thomas, Gerhard and Pike listed in
Appendix E.

A. Vowels

2. The speech of many (or perhaps most) Americans does not
exhibit consistent relationships between vowel length and quality
such as are found in some types of British English. With these
speakers all vowels may occur long. Consequently all the vowel
qualities have to be represented by separate letters in phonetic

3. A very common American vowel system is the following:

tableau Symbol | Example | Transcription of American English pronunciation | feet | fit | fade | fed | bad, half | hot, father | bought, long | low | good356

tableau Symbol | Example | Transcription of American English pronunciation | food | cup, method | bird, water


4. The following are short descriptions of these sounds together
with notes on their use.

5. i has the quality of the ordinary British long , and is used
in the same places as this British sound; many Americans use this
sound finally in such words as heavy, policy (ˈhɛvi, ˈpɑlasi rather
than ˈhɛvɩ, ˈpɑlasɩ), and in inflected forms of such words (e.g.
pɑləsiz), also in the prefixes re- and pre- in such words as retain
(riˈten), presume (priˈzum). ɩ has approximately the same quality
as the Southern British short i, and is used for the most part in
the same places as this sound, except that i often replaces it at
the ends of words and in the prefixes re-, pre-. American e
corresponds to Southern British ei; it is often slightly diphthongal.
ɛ resembles Southern British No. 3, and is used in the same places
as this sound, a is often about Cardinal No. 4, but a higher
variety resembling the Southern British raised a (æ) is also
common. It is used in the same words as Southern British æ
and also in most of the words which in Southern British have
ɑː when there is no r in the spelling, e.g. pass, ask (American pas,
ask, Southern British pɑːs, ɑːsk), half (American haf, Southern
British haːf). The quality of American ɑ is similar to that of
the Southern British ɑː in father. It is used in some of the words
which have ɑː in Southern British when there is no r in the spelling,
e.g. ˈfɑðɹ (father), kɑm (calm). It also replaces the British short
0 in a great many words, e.g. hot (hɑt), top (tɑp), bother (ˈbɑðɹ),
correspondence (kɑrəˈspɑnənts). Bother rhymes with father in
American English. American ɔ has a quality intermediate between
the qualities of Southern British ɔː and ɔ (generally nearer to the
latter). It is used where British English has , e.g. cause (kɔz),
walk (wɔk), sort (sɔɹt); it also replaces the British short ɔ in many
words, e.g. long (lɔŋ), dog (dɔg). American o has a good deal of
lip-rounding; it is often slightly diphthongal, except when followed
357by ɹ. It is used for the most part in the same words as Southern
British ou (see, however, § 7 of this Appendix). ɷ is rather like
the Southern British vowel in book, but generally has less lip-rounding.
It is used in the words where British English has
short u. American u generally has about the same quality as
the Southern English long described in § 323. Many Americans,
however, use a more advanced variety (ü) resembling the ‘crooner's
u.’ American u is used for the most part where Southern British
has ; it is also used by many Americans in some words where
Southern British has juː, e.g. knew (nu), duty (ˈdüʈi). ə is a medium
central vowel. It stands commonly for the British English ʌ,
also for the ə of British English when there is no r in the spelling,
e.g. cup (kəp), butter (ˈbəʈɹ), come (kəm) and method (ˈmɛθəd), precious
(ˈprɛʃəs), drama (ˈdramə). Some Americans, however, distinguish
ʌ and ə in much the same way as Southern British people do. The
usual American ɹ appears to me to be an ‘r-coloured’ high vowel
near to ɩ; it is pronounced either with simultaneous curling back
of the tongue-tip towards the hard palate, or with a general retraction
of the whole body of the tongue with simultaneous lateral
contraction (see §§73, 831, 833); it differs in quality from the
South-Western English ɹ, which is definitely an ‘r-coloured’ ə.
The American ɹ stands for the Southern British əː, and for ə in
words spelt with r, e.g. bɹd (bird), fɹst (first), stɹ (stir), ˈstɹiŋ
(stirring), which is distinct from strɩŋ (string), ˈpepɹ (paper), ˈɛfɹt
effort), pɺˈswed (persuade), ˈɛrɹ (error).

B. Diphthongs

6. In American pronunciation the following diphthongs occur,
in addition to the diphthongal variants of e and oː aɩ, , ɔɩ, ɩɹ,
ɛɹ, ɑɹ, ɔɹ, , ɷɹ.

7. , , ɔɩ are about as Southern British ai, au, ɔi. The other
diphthongs begin with ordinary vowels and end with ɹ. ɩɹ, ɛɹ, ɷɹ
correspond to Southern British , ɛə, . ɔɹ corresponds to
Southern British ɔː in words spelt with r, e.g. sɔɹt (sort), fɔɹm (form).
occurs in the words listed in footnote 36, p. 80, as having
alternative pronunciation with close o, e.g. moɹ (more), poɹt (port),
koɹs (course). Many Americans, however, do not use , but employ
ɔɹ in its place (mɔɹ, pɔɹt, kɔɹs). American ɑɹ corresponds to Southern
British ɑː in words spelt with r, e.g. pɑɹt (part), ɑɹm (arm).358

C. Nasalization of Vowels and Dphthongs

8. In American speech vowels and diphthongs are generally
nasalized when preceding a nasal consonant, e.g. stãnd (stand),
tãɩ̃m (time), ˈɛ̃ni (any), ɩ̃nstə̃nt (instant); also very often when
following a nasal consonant, e.g. mẽk (make), smɔ̃l (small). This
nasalization is incidental, and need not therefore be marked in
phonetic transcription.

D. Consonants

9. The American consonant system is the same as that of Southern
British with the following exceptions.

10. t preceded by a strongly stressed vowel and followed by a
weakly stressed vowel is sounded as a voiced flap (a variety of ɾ,
§§ 746, 753). As this sound belongs to the American t-phoneme,
it may be conveniently represented by the symbol . Examples
ˈwɔt̬ɹ (water), ˈlet̬əst (latest).

11. When orthographic nt occurs in a similar position, it seems
usual not to sound the t. Examples: ˈwɑnəd (wanted), ˈtwɛni
(twenty), ˈsɛnə̃ts (sentence), ˈɩnɹvju (interview), ˈkwɑnət̬i (quantity).
The word sentence pronounced by an American is often difficult
for a British hearer to recognize.

12. Some Americans, like some British people, use ʔ in place
of t before m, n, l, r, j, w in words and expressions like ˈsɹʔnli
(certainly), ˈðaʔ wən (that one). Cp. footnote 15 to § 555.

13. The consonantal r, as in rɛd (red), brek (break), ˈvɛri (very,
vary) generally has a more retracted articulation than the corresponding
British sound, and it has, as a rule, no perceptible friction.
Its articulation is sometimes accompanied by considerable lip action.
It may be termed a ‘semi-vowel,’ since its relation to the American
vocalic ɹ (§ 5 above) is similar to that existing between j and i or
between w and u.

14. In the speech of very many Americans l is a ‘dark’ variety
(§ 659) in all situations. Dark l is used, for instance, in such words
as liv (leave), laɩk (like), flot (float), plan (plan), ˈsɩli (silly), bəˈliv
(believe), ˈmɩljən (million). The American l often has a very
marked effect on the quality of preceding vowels. In particular,
front vowels are often much lowered and retracted in this position.
For instance, I have heard element (ˈɛləmənt) pronounced with an ɛ
that was almost a-like.359

15. Orthographic wh in such words as which, when are pronounced
in America with hw or ʍ (voiceless w), thus hwɩʧ or ʍɩʧ, hwɛn
or ʍɛn, etc.

16. Very prominent ə-like glides occur in the speech of some
Americans when ɩ, ɛ and a are followed in the same syllable by
certain consonants, especially it would seem p, t and f. These
speakers make bɩt, gɛt, etc., sound something like bɩət, gɛət, etc.
I have heard a distinguished American scientific man whose
glide in such words as gɩft, iˈkwɩpt, fɩfθ approximated to a; the
words were quite difficult for British listeners to recognize. 2

E. Distribution of sounds in words

17. In American English the distribution of sounds in words
often differs from that of British English. The following are

tableau Usual or frequent American pronunciation | Usual Southern British pronunciation | suggest | inquiry | garage | record (noun) | knew | fertile, hostile, etc. | apparatus | anti-, as in anti-social | quinine | advertisement | amenable | depot | morale | vacation | exeat | leisure

Other examples (involving secondary stress) are shown in § 19.360

18. In this connexion it is noteworthy that Americans make
much more frequent use of the strong form of the indefinite article
ɑ than English people do. I have heard for instance: hi ˈkem
ˈfɔɹwɹd wɩð e kɑmˈplitli ˈnu ˈprogram
(he came forward with a
completely new programme
), ˈnɑʈ ˈonli e ˈtɹnɩŋ-pɔɩnt (not only a
), and many other similar examples. English people
would as a rule use the weak form ə in such expressions.

F. Stress

19. Words with two or more syllables following the chief stress
often have a stronger secondary stress than in British English.
The vowel bearing the secondary stress is a ‘strong’ one, i.e. not
ə as often in British English. Examples are

tableau American pronunciation | Southern British pronunciation | library | dictionary | territory | category | nominative | ceremony

G. Intonation

20. The intonation of American English has a general resemblance
to that of Southern British. There are, however, three noteworthy
points of difference. One is that in the American tune corresponding
to Southern British Tune 2 (p. 282, etc.) the voice appears
to start as a rule at a mid or rather low pitch and to remain fairly
even until the final rise. The evenness of the tone is often not
affected by any stressed syllables that may occur. For instance,
an American will pronounce

dɩd ɩt ˈɔl hapən ˈjɛstɹde
Did it all happen yesterday?

ˈhwɑt ðə ˈkɑnfrəns haz tə ˈdu, ɩz tə mek…
What the conference has to do, is to make…

ˈkɷdnt ju əv ˈmanɩʤd tɷ əˈvɔɩd ðəm
Couldn't you have managed to avoid them?

For the usual Southern British intonation of such sentences, see
§ 1023.

21. Another, very characteristic, American intonation is one
of the type


It is used in non-final parts of sentences, where Southern British
speakers would employ some variety of Tune 2, i.e. a tune ending
with a simple rise. It may occur finally when some continuation
is implied; Professor K. L. Pike tells me that it may imply some
hesitation, and that it often has a connotation of friendliness. I
have heard it in interjectional expressions such as

image | image
gɷd ˈbaɩ. | həˈlo.
Good-bye. 3 | Hullo.

aɩ wɑnə gɛʈ ˈaɷt 4
I want to get out.
(Implying ‘but I can't.’)

22. A common variant of this intonation is a tune of the type


It begins with syllables (stressed or unstressed) at mid or rather
low pitch and ends with a high fall-rise. This fall-rise differs
from the Southern British one described in § 1054 in two respects:
(1) the fall is much less in extent, (2) the entire fall-rise is at a
higher pitch-level than that of the preceding syllables. The
following are a few out of many examples I have noted:

ɩʔ ˈwɑzn ˈmətʃ tə ˈask. 5
It wasn't much to ask.

wɩɹ ˈglad tə bi ɩn ˈɩŋglənd
We're glad to be in England.

aɩ wəznt ˈrɛdi.
I wasn't ready.

ju kɷd əv bɩn ˈfɹm.
You could have been firm.

wi ˈsɹtnli ˈkan.
We certainly can.
(Said in reply to the question
‘Can you come here?’)

wi ˈhapnd tə bɩ ˈpasɩŋ əˈlɔŋ.
We happened to be passing along.

wi ˈmin tə ˈwɩn.
We mean to win.

23. Sometimes there is a rise in the course of the syllable
preceding the fall-rise. For instance, I have heard

wi wɹ kənˈvɩnst ðət wi wɹ ˈraɩt.
We were convinced that we were right.

The following is another example noted by one of my colleagues.

Doctor addressing patient:

də ˈju ˈhav ˈgas.
Do you have gas? 6

24. The precise significance of this intonation is not always
clear to me. It seems to differ little from that of the previous
intonation (§ 21), but it implies presumably a higher degree of
hesitancy, contrast or friendliness. 7364

25. The above should be compared with the following Southern
British intonations:

it ˈwɔznt mʌʧ tu ˈɑːsk.
(Implying ‘So I really
think you might have

ai ˈwɔznt ˈredi.
(Implying ‘That's why I
wasn't able to come.’)

juː kəd əv biːn ˈfəːm.
(Meaning ‘I really think
you ought to have been.’)

wiː ˈhæpnd tə bi ˈpɑːsiŋ əˈlɔŋ.
(‘So we thought we would
just drop in.’)

wiː ˈmiːn tu ˈwin.
(Implying ‘So don't make
any mistake about that.’)

djuː get ˈflætjuləns.

1 Also written ɚ.

2 Some Southern British people have a somewhat similar tendency, but
not to the same degree. See my Pronunciation of English (1950 and
subsequent editions), §§ 86, 90, 93.

3 I have often heard this from American women; it appears to be much
less frequent with men.

4 I once heard this called out of the window of a train which had just
begun to move, by an American woman who had forgotten to get out at her
destination. (The guard hearing this remark stopped the train for her.)

This intonation is the same as that recorded for I want to go by Pike in
his Intonation of American English, p. 50.

5 The speaker from whom I took this example pronounced (not )
before ˈask.

6 = Southern British Do you get flatulence?

7 This tune is dealt with (very shortly) by K. L. Pike at the bottom of
p. 50 of his Intonation of American English. He explains there (1) that the
word bearing the fall-rise constitutes the ‘centre of attention,’ (2) that it
is in contrast, and (3) that there is an implication of some sort, e.g. ‘that
there might be modifying or doubtful circumstances which demand cautious