British Accent Training
Welcome, my transatlantic, special-relationship, across-the-pond cousins! This is a British Accent Training guide to the American accent, written by myself – Matt Pocock – a resident Brit and 3,000-lesson accent coach.
We’ve tailored this guide to the American voice: since an American voice has to work on different things than, say, a French voice does to pick up a British accent. That means we get to keep things nice and streamlined, working on the things that most need your attention.
Though the website says ‘British Accent Training’, we’re not going to cover every single accent on our green, cloudy isle. That would take forever. We’re just looking at one accent – the BBC English accent, spoken by actors such as Emma Watson and Colin Firth. It has a technical name that we’ll be using throughout this guide: Received Pronunciation. Other than General American, it’s the single most important accent for a jobbing actor to know. Around 80% of all the auditions you get put forward for will be in either Standard American or Received Pronunciation. So you’d better have a good RP under your belt, otherwise you’ll be missing out on work.
I wanted this guide to be as comprehensive, yet as streamlined as possible – so we’ll be talking about only a few crucial consonant and vowel sounds that change from American into British. If you’re looking for audio to help you along, you can check out our British Accent Training podcast on iTunes to hear more. Let’s get started!
Accents sound different from each other because of physical changes. The way an American or British voice makes a ‘oh’ (/ɒ/) sound are similar, but subtly different. The tongue might be a little higher in one or the other, the lips might be a little wider. And over the whole accent, you might get a sense that one accent is slightly ‘higher’, more ‘lippy’, more ‘throaty’ or more ‘backed’ than another. We call this the accent’s ‘setting’ – how it generally feels compared to your home accent.
From American into British, you’ll feel that the accent is a lot more ‘front’ than you expect. There is a lot more motion in the lips and tongue, and the accent feels like it’s happening right on the front teeth. The old elocution phrase ‘The Tip Of The Tongue, The Teeth And The Lips’, said vigorously in an over-posh British Accent, can get you in the right setting. So try using that as we go through the consonants and vowels to keep yourself in a new British setting.
The ‘R’ Sound
Let’s start the consonant section by talking about the ‘R’ sound. The American ‘R’ is, on the face of it, very similar to the British R. We make it in virtually the same way, by curling back the tongue and pursing the lips forward a bit. This creates a dark, slightly constricted sound in the throat which we call the ‘R’. This curling back of the tongue is very different to, for instance, a Russian or Spanish way of making an ‘R’ sound. There, the tongue flaps up to the roof of the mouth and back down, in a move called the alveolar tap. The British and American ‘R’ have much more in common than the American and the Spanish.
But there is a big difference between the British and American ‘R’: in the British Accent, you skip out nearly 50% of the R’s. Totally gone. For instance, in the word ‘car’ (/kɑːɹ/) becomes ‘cah’ (/kɑː/), missing out that ‘r’ completely. Same in the word ‘further’ (/fɜːɹðəɹ/); this becomes ‘fuhtheh’ (/fɜːðə/), missing out both ‘r’ sounds.
What? How can that be possible? It feels very strange, missing out these sounds. And how do you know that you’ve missed out the right ones?
Well, there are some hard and fast rules for when you should say the ‘R’ or not in the British accent. And it all depends on what comes after the ‘R’ in the sentence.
If a vowel sound comes after the ‘R’, you voice the ‘R’. Words like ‘real’, ‘right’, ‘red’, ‘rock’, ‘hurry’, and ‘roll’ all have vowel sounds after the ‘R’, so are all voiced.
But if a consonant comes after the ‘R’, you don’t voice it. Words like ‘cart’, ‘card’, ‘horse’, ‘weird’, ‘search’, and ‘staircase’ all have consonants after the ‘R’, so all those ‘r’ sounds vanish.
If there is empty space after the ‘R’, you don’t voice it either. ‘Car’, ‘here’, ‘beer’, and ‘chair’ all have nothing after the ‘R’, so you don’t voice it.
Advanced – This last rule is overturned if the word that follows it begins with a vowel. For instance, in the sentence ‘my car is gone’, the ‘r’ remains because the sound that follows it is a vowel, so it technically obeys the first rule. But this is not true if you leave a pause between the words ‘car’ and ‘is’ – in that case, the ‘r’ is followed by nothing, so is not voiced.
If we were to boil this rule down to a sentence, it would be this: the ‘r’ sound always needs a vowel sound afterwards to activate it. Otherwise, get rid of it.
The ‘L’ Sound
The ‘L’ that you know and love is about to change – or rather, about to split into two. The American ‘L’ is one colour – dark. It’s a dark, deep sound in which the body of the tongue rises up in the back of the mouth while the tip stays attached at the front.
But there is another kind of ‘L’: a light ‘L’. This light ‘L’ takes much less effort than the darker kind. It is only made by the tip of the tongue in the front of the mouth, and the back of the tongue doesn’t pull upwards at all. It sounds quite dainty, and quite thin as a sound – it is no way near as dark and deep as the dark version.
In the General American accent, the dark ‘L’ is the only ‘L’ you use. But in the British accent, you sometimes use a light one. And just as with the ‘R’ sound, there are hard and fast rules for this, too.
If the ‘L’ is followed by a vowel, you make it into a light L. The L’s in ‘like’, ‘light’, ‘lovely’, ‘bleak’, ‘close’ are all light because of this rule.
If the ‘L’ is followed by a consonant, you keep it as a dark L. The L’s in ‘silk’, ‘melt’, ‘fault’, ‘balls’ and ‘milk’ are all dark.
And if the ‘L’ is followed by empty space, you keep it as a dark L. ‘Ball’, ‘kill’, ‘heal’, ‘mill’, and ‘hole’ are all dark.
Advanced: Just as with the ‘R’, if a word that ends with an L leads onto a word that begins with a vowel, it turns into a light L again. This is because the vowel that follows the ‘L’ activates it, and turns it into a light L. In ‘kill it!’, the L becomes light in the British accent because of the ‘ih’ sound after the ‘L’.
The ‘T’ Sound
The final big difference between the American and British accents is the way you treat the ‘T’. The General American accent has many odd rules (at least odd to us Brits!) when it comes to the ‘T’. Because in many words that actually contain a ‘T’, you will say a ‘D’ instead. So ‘butter’ becomes ‘budder’. ‘Metal’ becomes ‘Medal’. The sentence ‘I won a metal medal’ becomes ‘I won a medal medal’.
All you do in the British accent is you make the ‘T’ instead of the ‘D’ in these words. Here’s a provisional list: After, Better, Bottom, City, Computer, Counter, Daughter, Doctor, Empty and Letter.
In this British Accent, you’ll also generally hear T’s sounded at the end of words. Bite, Last, Late, Least, Sat, Seat, Set and Shirt are all sounded. The only exception to this rule is when a ‘T’ at the end of the word follows onto a ‘T’ on the start of the next word, such as in ‘that tart’. In this case, you mash them together and only sound out one ‘T’.
Spa, Spot, Sport
Three vowels in particular come to mind when talking about the British accent from American; Spa (/ɑː/), Spot (/ɒ/), and Sport (/ɔː/). These three sounds are subject to a great deal of confusion when transferring from American to British, because the patterns that you expect from American do not always translate into British.
But first, let’s talk about the vowels themselves. The vowel in ‘spa’ is long, extended, with a square mouth shape and a relaxed tongue. It is found in words like father, master, bath, card, and hard.
The vowel in ‘spot’ is short, clipped, with a slightly circular mouth shape and a dropped jaw. It is found in words like dog, God, bother, often, and soft.
Finally, the vowel in ‘sport’ is also long and extended, with a circular mouth shape. The tongue pulls back slightly from its normal position, and takes up a backed position in the mouth. This is found in words like awful, course, sort, and call.
You’ve probably noticed that the words I’ve grouped together are not ones that you expect to come together – especially that ‘awful’ and ‘course’ are the same vowel sound, or ‘card’ and ‘bath’. That’s because many words use a totally different vowel to pronounce these words than you do in American.
But you can use this ‘spa, spot, sport’ combination to work out which vowel it is in British. Let’s take the word ‘draw’. Imagine a British person saying ‘draw’. Does the vowel you imagine them saying sound most like ‘spa’, ‘spot’, or ‘sport’?
‘Draw’ is actually a ‘sport’ sound, though in a General American accent it sounds more like a ‘spot’ vowel. Bizarre, right? Through trial and error – and listening to the British accent to analyse it – you’ll get better at making these distinctions.
Next up, we see the American ‘Trap’ (/a/) sound. With ‘spa’, ‘spot’ and ‘sport’, we noticed that many words changed drastically from one accent to another – ‘awful’, ‘draw’ and ‘bath’ being chief among them. But the changes on this vowel are a little simpler.
The American version of the ‘trap’ sound is very wide, with a high tongue and a lot of high-sounding resonance. The muscles around the cheekbones are very active. But in the British version of ‘trap’ (/æ/), the muscles are a lot more relaxed. It almost sounds like it’s halfway to an ‘eh’ (in ‘set’, /ɛ/) – a lot lower placed. The lips still do a good bit of work, stretching sideways and outwards, but there is not nearly so much muscle action in the cheekbones and the sound is a lot less resonant.
You can find this in words such as ‘cat’, ‘matter’, ‘as’, ‘attack’, and ‘catch’.
Note – sometimes, instead of changing to a British ‘ah’, you’ll be changing to the ‘spa’ sound instead. This is true for words such as ‘bath’, ‘path’, and ‘master’.
Most consonant and vowel sounds never get named. They have these little symbols to indicate what they are, but you never get to call a sound by its name. The yod is different.
The sound is what we would think of as a ‘y’ sound, though it is written as a /j/ in phonetics. It comes on the starts of words such as ‘yes’, ‘yummy’, and ‘YOLO’, but it also appears in words that you don’t expect. Without the yod, ‘music’ would be ‘moosic’; ‘cute’ would be ‘koot’. This sound is thought of by most people as a consonant, though its official name is a ‘semi-vowel’ – and I’ve put it in with the vowels because of the effect it has on the vowels around it.
Received Pronunciation uses a few more yods than General American. Words such as ‘tuna’ in America are pronounced ‘toona’ – but in RP are pronounced ‘t-you-na’. Same with ‘tutor’; ‘tyootah’ – ‘dune’; ‘dyoon’. The yod is fairly rare, and the word list of changes is fairly short – but any that are missed stand out massively.
Note – many British speakers do not use the yod for these words. Instead, ‘tutor’ will become ‘chut-ah’, ‘dune’ will become ‘june’. However, this is actually a separate accent from the one we’re looking at, called Contemporary RP, in which the rules of RP are slightly relaxed. To get a pure Received Pronunciation, use the yod!
British Accent Training
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