LINGUIST List 8.1154

Thu Aug 7 1997

Sum: British vs. American

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. David Weiss, British vs. American <a> (S

Message 1: British vs. American <a> (S

Date: 7 Aug 1997 14:59:06 U
From: David Weiss <>
Subject: British vs. American <a> (S

 Griffin Bacal Internet Mail
 Direct inquiries to 8/7/97
 2:36 PM
 British vs. American <a> (SUMMARY)

I received a number of very helpful and insightful replies in response
to my question about differences in British & American pronunciations
of <a> (/ae/ vs. /a/ in foreign and loan words such as France, pasta,
Nicaragua, et al.) and thought it might be nice to pass them on to
the list. Typically, there's a nice mix of agreement & disagreement
among the responses, esp. on the issue of whether Americans are more
"loyal" to the source languages than Britons are. There are also some
observations on British changes to native stress patterns (which I
myself noticed while dining out with British colleagues who order
"creme BRU-lee" for dessert...).

One question that no one's answered yet, though: in the British
English pronunciation of "Jacques Chirac", why does "Jacques" have
something like /a/ when "Chirac" has /ae/ ? (The non-French stress on
the first syllable of "Chirac" has been explained to me already!)

Anyway, here are the responses I received. Thanks again to all.

David Weiss
- ---------------------

I've noticed also that the British are more likely to anglicize, in
the sense of using English pronunciations, especially of vowels.
Perhaps this habit comes from their lengthy use of Latin, as a learned
language. In the Middle Ages, I believe it was common to adapt Latin
to the language of the host country. For example, long a in Latin was
generally said as a post vowel shift /e:/ or /ej/ in England, as it
still is. Whereas in North America we generally use the classical
pronunciation, with the low vowel.

The other instance you cite /frans/ vs. /fraens/, is a more recent
development in British speech, in which /ae/ lowered to /a:/ before
certain consonants, although not invariably. For example, in laugh,
half, castle, fasten, plant, aunt the lower vowel prevails in Standard
British English.

At least this is what I seem to have noticed. How about you?

Is it possible that pasta was borrowed into British English after the
vowel lowering took place? That might explain the lack of lowering in
this instance. Also, the lowering does not seem to be entirely
phonologically conditioned, e.g., ant /aent/ vs. aunt /a:nt/. "Pants"
may not be British, but I don't believe this vowel is lowered, either:
possibly a new borrowing from American English?

Dr. Ronald Cosper

- ------------------------------------
	Just a quick response to your article in the Linguist
List. I'm not British or American, but have had a fair amount of
exposure to both accents of English. It seems to me that the situation
isn't very conclusive. Many British speakers believe that they retain
the right to 'naturalise' or 'anglicise' foreign words names, but then
so do Americans. The problems is that they have done this
differently. If we look at more recent French borrowings, the British
have generally naturalised them in terms of their stress pattern
(therefore: GArage, BAllet, BEret, BUFfet, MASsage, to follow the
pattern of older borrowings like VILlage, DAmage), whereas Americans
keep it more foreign sounding by stressing the second syllable. In
some cases, in the UK, 'garage' can rhyme with 'carriage', and
'buffet' with '(Little Miss) Muffet'. On the other hand, older Brits
still reserve the right to pronounce 'trait' with the final <t>
silent, as in French, unlike Americans; and as you mentioned, there's
'France' (and 'chance', 'dance').

	However, if we think of non-European names like Iran or
Pakistan, one stereotype of American pronunciation is eye-RAN and

	Moving on to your /A:/ v. /ae/ distinction that you mentioned,
I think some of it will have to do with the fact that in American the
<a> in <man> is almost universally pronounced /ae/, with perhaps the
exception of Southerners. In the UK, on the other hand, it is /ae/
mainly in the south. When you move to northern England, or Wales or
to Scotland, the sound is /a/, i.e. close to the European sounds as in
German 'Mann'. (And here, the /A:/ in 'path' or 'car' is also close to
[a].) You also get this over in Northern Ireland and the
Republic. Therefore, a southern English speaker would be used to
'naturalising' an item said using a Scots, Northern, etc. accent
(thus [man] --> [maen]), and would therefore apply the same 'rule' to
European names.

Peter Tan 
- ------------------------

I am writing back to you off net because I have nothing really
substantive to add to your observation, except to say it isn't just
names - listen to the British pronunciation of 'lasagna' or 'pasta' as
well with [ae]. But what I wanted to say is that I named the process
"mangle" as a new phonological rule of [a]>[ae]/[+foreign], or even,
more widely, take any foreign word and pronounce it somehow other than
the way those foreigners would pronounce it (you see why I am not
replying to the whole net :-) ). I noticed it in the speech of my
father-in-law, from Leeds, whom I love dearly and who insists on
saying [paest] for 'pasta'. I would never correct him, but I've been
aware of it since, and six months of living in Britain a couple of
years ago only confirmed the observation you have noted as well.

I'm looking forward to seeing what other, more serious, responses look

Margaret E. Winters
- -------------------

The general rule in British English is to make stressed /a/ in foreign
words into /ae/, as we have in the U.S. in 'piano'. But 'France'
doesn't follow the pattern, because it was anglicized so long ago, and
follows another general pattern of SOUTH English dialects that is only
a couple of centuries old at most: turn historical short a (low front
/ae/) into /a:/ before (certain?) fricatives, with or without a nasal
in between. Hence 'bath', 'castle', 'fast', 'lance', 'last', 'France',
etc. all have /a:/ in the south of England. Northerners kept the /ae/
pronunciation, as did Americans outside the Boston area. The word
'bath' is a good shibboleth for northerners vs. southerners in

I think I recall reading in some history-of-English text that /ae/ -->
/a:/ is not a cut and dried rule (or an exceptionless change--however
you want to think of it). And I can't recall exactly how the rule was
stated--perhaps the fricative had to be in a cluster. Note that words
ending in -ash did not undergo the change. And I'm not sure how the
lengthening of /a/ before -r and -l relates to this change--'arse' and
'half' got /a:/ and and then lost their liquids, in both north and
south England, but not in America outside Boston.

Try Pyles and Algeo's History of English if you want to know more
about this particular change.

- Suzanne Kemmer
- -------------------------------------------
Mr. Weiss:

I'm not entirely sure that 'non-English <a>' is the relevant
parameter. I've recently returned from the Southwest, where a number
of people pronounce 'Colorado' with <ae> (a pronunciation some
national news announcers reporting on the recent Colorado floods also
use). As a native of southern New England, I had always heard this
word pronounced systematically and exclusively with <a>, by Americans,
perhaps, as you suggest, because of its Spanish origin. But my recent
experience shows that my pronunciation is clearly *not* the only one
available. The same variation also occurs in the American
pronunciations of 'Vietnam', with some using <a>, as I do, and others
using <ae>. 'Native' English words also participate in the same
phenomenon: in addition to 'aunt', which is a well-known example,
there are words such as 'bath', 'path', and 'laugh', which are often
pronounced with <a>, not <ae>, in parts of New England. For these last
four words, my native pronunciation is <ae>, although I find myself
sometimes using <a> in 'aunt', perhaps under the influence of

George Aubin

- ------------------------------------

It seems to me that the sound represented by <a> in most European
languages lies between the English [a] as in father and [ae] as in
pan. The Brits tend to slide it forward when pronouncing words such
as padre, while the Americans tend to slide it back (except for those
Great Lakes speakers who have shifted /a/ towards the center; they
don't shift it at all). In either case they are assimilating the
nonexistent phone into their own phonological system. I don't think
either is more 'loyal.' A similar phenomenon happens with the French
rounded high front vowel in 'tu,' but with speakers of different
languages. English speakers, when they don't get it right, tend to
make it a high rounded back vowel [u]. Spanish speakers tend to
pronounce it as a high unrounded front vowel [i].

The reason why may be related to subtle shifts in location of native
vowels, or customs in teaching L2s or both.

Michael Newman
- --------------------------------

Hi David. Your query on Linguist List about foreign (a) pronunciation
was passed on to me by Mark Liberman. As he indicated in his response
to you, I have just completed a PhD dissertation on this subject. The
central phenomenon under study was the one you noticed: the difference
between American and British treatment of foreign (a). The pattern
you observed is indeed the main pattern of divergence between the
dialects: Americans tend to use the /a:/ of 'father' in words like
'pasta' and 'Mazda' while Brits tend to use the /ae/ of 'fat'. The
American usage is really akin to using the /o/ of 'pot', since for
most Americans outside of New England /o/ and /a:/ are merged (father
and bother rhyme). The divergence between the dialects is
concentrated predominantly in closed (or potentially closed)
syllables. In open (or potentially open) syllables, both dialects use
/a:/: Americans and Brits alike pronounce 'llama, bravado, nirvana',
etc., with /a:/. A very good article by Geoff Lindsey (1990), in a
volume edited by S. Ramsaran called Studies in the Pronunciation of
English, shows that the Am-Br difference extends to other vowels and
reflects a basic difference in the organization of Am and Br vowel
systems: Am vowels contrast along a tense-lax dimension and Br along a
long-short dimension.

Charles Boberg 
- -----------------------------------------------

I just had a discussion of this with Larry Trask, an American-born
Vasconist working in England (U. Sussex, I think). (CCed; hi, Larry.)

Based on that discussion, I think I can codify the phenomenon you

1. The British "nativize" foreign words much more aggressively than
the Americans. A couple of examples that are unrelated to the
[a]/[ae] issue: "Don Juan" Sp. [don 'xwan], Am. [dan 'wan], but
Br. [dan 'dZu &n]; "Don Quixote" Sp. [don ki 'xo te], Am. [dan ki 'ho
ti], but Br. [dan 'kwIk sot].

2. As a relatively recent innovation (1700's, I think), in the south
of England an original [ae] is backed to [a] in some syllables whose
coda contains a fricative. Hence "grass", Am. and N. Eng. [graes],
S. Eng. [gras]; other examples are "past", "dance", "entrancing",
"chaff", "rather". This explains [frans]; it's not an anomalous
attempt to retain a foreign [a], it's a purely Southern English [a],
exactly as you would expect from an original [ae].

3. "Pasta" is anomalous. From the above account I would expect
S. Eng. [past&]; are you telling me they say [paest&]? Larry?

4. When the syllable in question gets farther from the end of the
morpheme, things get murky. For "rascal", both [ras kl] and [raes kl]
sound plausibly Londony to me. But what about "Vasconist"? Try as I
might, I can't imagine anyone, be he ever so Eton-and-Oxford, saying
['vas k& nIst]; I can only hear ['vaes ...].

In the foregoing, I have blurred the distinction between the low-mid
[a] and the low back English vowel that I think looks a little like a
"D" in IPA. True Oxonians nearly gag every time they say "rather".

Allan Wechsler

- -----------------------------------------
Dear David,

	Nice question: the reason is actually differing vowel systems
between US and UK. The back /a/ of US that you use in words like
"milan" does not exist over here: the closest is the vowel you hear in
France, which is /a:/ (back). This vowel either occurs 1) as a result
of the loss of rhoticity (car, cart), or 2) (in RP and Southern
English) before voiceless fricatives (bath) or clusters starting with
a nasal, (dance, France: the similar vowel to the French from is
therefore co-incidence). In the case of 2) this is a change (17/18th
century?) from the front /ae/. To pronounce Milan with this way would
make it sound like it was spelt "Milarn". An exception to this is some
speakers' pronunciation of Pakistan with 2 /a:/s. I'm a Northerner, so
use /ae/ in bath, France and the words like Pakistan (and Iraq, Iran,
(woops, but not in Zimbabwe): may be many of us use /a:/ as these have
entered the language since the vowel has been available?)

Maik Gibson
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