Encyclospeedia Oedilfica

Regional Differences in Pronunciation

There are many regional differences in English, most obviously between the U.K. and American varieties. I’ll talk about differences in punctuation, spelling and grammar elsewhere; this page looks at differences in pronunciation and how to handle them as writer and editor. To see some of the differences themselves, read on; for suggestions about how to handle them in workshopping, skip ahead.

Examples of Difference

It would take forever to list every single difference in pronunciation across every branch of English, so I’ll try to limit myself to the main categories we’ve encountered in our time at the OEDILF.

1. Diphthongs

The following words and their like are pronounced by some writers and readers as one syllable and others as two:

-ire words: ire, fire, mire, spire, squire, tire, tyre, wire, hire, higher

-oil words: oil, foil, boil, coil, spoil

-eel words: eel, feel, wheel, meal, deal, kneel, peel, spiel, he’ll, she’ll, we’ll

-ale words: ale, male, fail, bale, gale, jail, snail, pale, quail, rail, tale, tail, whale, they’ll, veil

-ile words: mile, I’ll, smile, Nile, style, while

-our words: our, hour, flour, flower, shower, power, sour, tower

And there are others: the -ure in manure, for example, is one syllable or two in different accents. Vowel is VOWL for me, but may be VOW-el for you; poem is PO-um for me, POME for some others.

Many of these are what we call one-and-a-half syllable (1.5-syl) words, because they can often go either way, even in accents that usually pronounce them as two syllables (Australasian accents and some American ones). Depending on their position in a sentence and on the surrounding words, they can take either one or two syllables. The same can happen when they’re part of a multisyllable word: impalement can be three syllables (im-PAIL-ment) even for a speaker who says PAY-ul for the stand-alone pale.

Inflected forms such as fired and foiled tend strongly towards two syllables for such speakers; it’s harder for them to treat these as one syllable. And words ending in -er, such as higher and flower, sound very strange to their ears when treated as one syllable, as some English and American accents do. On the other hand, an Australian speaker who says FEE-yul won’t give three syllables to feeling: that’s FEE-ling.

None of this is meant to prohibit you from using these words or to change the way you pronounce them, but beware that others might have problems when you do use them in your particular way, especially where different handlings can create ambiguities about how a line is stressed or how certain rhymes work. In such cases it pays to explore alternatives or to consider adding a pronunciation guide.

2. Rhotic vs. Non-Rhotic Accents

This is one of the most distinctive differences between (most) American and (many) British and Commonwealth accents: the former rhotic accents pronounce the r’s at the ends of the syllables -ar, -or, -er, -ir, and -ur, and the latter non-rhotic ones usually don’t. It’s so fundamental to our speech that it can be hard to get your head around what the different pronunciations sound like, which can create problems when these syllables appear in rhyming positions. This is usually a problem for rhotic speakers workshopping non-rhotic speakers (and non-rhotics being workshopped by rhotics), because non-rhotics can rhyme -ar with -ah, -er with -uh, and -or with -aw, while rhotics can’t.

Here’s how to tell the difference for non-rhotic speakers like me. We do actually pronounce ending r’s when the next word or syllable starts with a vowel: for example, it’s there in your own or there in, which turn into “yawrohn” and “thehrin”. Imagine taking those sounds and chopping off the trailing “ohn” and “in”; what you have left are the rhotic pronunciations of your and there. Think of foreign not with the -o- sound of hot but the -aw- of for: fawrin. Chop off the “in” and you have the American pronunciation of for. If you start pronouncing the r’s it can be harrd not to sound American.

For rhotic speakers, try the opposite: for the word foreign, think of the pronunciation FAWR-in as FAW-rin and chop off the “rin”. What’s left is the non-rhotic pronunciation of for/four. A similar effect in words ending with -er makes it sound as if they end with a schwa: water becomes a rhyme for oughta (AW-tuh) and slaughter (SLAW-tuh). Though it looks strange, we non-rhotics would give water a pronunciation guide of WAW-tuh.

One effect of all this is that the words aren’t and weren’t can be pronounced with either one or two syllables. In some parts of America, aren’t is a one-syllable ARNT, but in others it becomes AR-ent. In non-rhotic accents, it’s AHNT, a perfect rhyme for aunt.

Try to keep in mind how strange these differences can sound to readers on both sides of the Atlantic or Pacific. The first time I realised an OEDILF writer was saying AR-ent, I was surprised, but even more so when I saw a DVD of Seinfeld, a show I’d watched for a decade, and realised I’d been hearing Jason Alexander say it that way all along. Our ears sometimes hear what we expect, rather than what’s there.

3. Vowels and Consonants

Vowel sounds are another major delineator of different accents, and again have significant implications for rhymes. Many Americans can rhyme hot and caught, but I can’t; I rhyme caught and short. The Australian and English -o- sound in words like not, hot and shot is almost impossible to get across to Americans in print (I’ve tried and failed): it’s much shorter and more clipped than the U.S. pronunciations of NAHT, HAHT, SHAHT (pronouncing not as NAHT makes me think of Wayne and Garth). Words I would rhyme with NAHT would be art, heart, tart and fart.

Note the rhotic/non-rhotic issue intruding here as well; the combination of the two can cause confusion. Just the other day our Editor-in-Chief raised an eyebrow over an English writer’s use of the slang spelling lurve for love. This is our non-rhotic way of indicating how an American pronunciation of the word sounds to our ears: lur rhymes with fur, neither of them with an r at the end but instead sounding something like LEUH, FEUH. Add a v and you start to sound like Barry White. I lurve to lurve you, bayyy-beh.

Vowel-sound differences aren’t confined to England and America, of course. There are plenty of differences within England itself: oop north, up has a long -u-, and class has the short -a- of hat, not the long one of arse and farce (CLAHSS, AHSS, FAHSS). Australian vowels (or at least the Sydney ones best known overseas) sound strident to non-Australians. Australians, in turn, are fascinated by New Zealand accents, which seem to our ears to shift every vowel over by one: fish becomes FUSH and accent becomes EK-sunt. I once ordered fush and chups from a chuppie in Akaroa (ek-uh-RAW-uh), and was momentarily baffled when the woman behind the counter said “Thetsut?”—until I realised she was saying “That’s it?”

Speaking of vowel shifts, they’re part of what’s going on here. Linguists talk of the Great Vowel Shift from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, which left many regional accents stranded on different sides. We’re still experiencing vowel shifts in different parts of the world at different rates: younger Australians, for example, are starting to sound more like Kiwis, flattening their i’s and a’s. Don’t assume that the limerick you write today will read the same way for your great-grandchildren. It may not even rhyme for them.

Consonants tend to be more consistent across accents, but even here there are traps to watch out for. Some Americans will happily rhyme little and riddle, because the t’s and d’s are indistinguishable for them, whereas the English won’t. Others might drop a t after an n, rhyming Atlantic and panic. Some English writers will pronounce the suffix -asia as AYZ-yuh or AY-zee-yuh, rather than the AY-zhuh heard in other parts of the world; a rhyme with amaze ya is available to them, but wouldn’t be for others.

4. Stresses

As if all of that wasn’t enough, the stress patterns of particular words and phrases can often be completely different in different accents, sometimes even with different numbers of syllables. This is a particular trap with longer words: laboratory is LAB-or-uh-TOR-ee or LAB-ruh-TOR-ee in American accents, luh-BOH-ruh-ter-ee or LAB-uh-ruh-ter-ee in English accents, and luh-BOH-ruh-tree in mine. Obviously, those would all be handled completely differently in a limerick. Many words ending in -tory attract a stress in American English that disappears elsewhere: AMB-yoo-luh-TOR-ee (U.S.) becomes AMB-yoo-luh-ter-ee (U.K.) becomes AMB-yoo-luh-tree (Aus.). Something similar can happen with words like momentarily: mo-mun-TAIR-uh-lee, MO-mun-tur-uh-lee, MO-mun-truh-lee.

A range of two-syllable words ending in -ate are stressed in opposite directions in America and the rest of the world: RO-tate, DIK-tate and DIE-late become ro-TATE, dic-TATE and di-LATE. Another similar pair (in the other direction) is a-DULT, AD-ult. Again, these differences have obvious implications for rhyme schemes.

In Australian English we’re instinctively drawn to stress the second syllable in many cases where many English would stress the first. A notable example of recent years was the word harassment, which first came into widespread use in the 1980s with the notion of sexual harassment. Aussies say huh-RASS-ment and huh-RASS. The powers that be at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation instructed their newsreaders to say HA-rus-ment and HA-russ (with the -a- sound of hat) to mimic British English, which sounds unnatural to much of the population.

These examples only scrape the surface. If you’re confused by the stresses in a particular line and don’t know the author’s background, it always pays to ask. (Unfortunately, the OED and the Macquarie Dictionary aren’t open-access like Merriam-Webster, so comparing British and Australian pronunciations with American ones can be difficult, but some of our more active OEDILFers have access to all of these sources—I used them to confirm the stress patterns given above.)

Regional PGs

What with all of these differences in pronunciation, it’s a miracle that most of our limericks are understandable to most readers without lengthy explanation. Inevitably, though, this isn’t always the case.

The OEDILF has always been predominantly American in membership (even though the balance has shifted in the past year), and non-Americans regularly have to explain themselves when it comes to differences in pronunciation. I’ve had to defend Australian and U.K. pronunciation from Americans and Australian pronunciation from the British. But there are too many important battles, about humour, meaning, expression and so on, to waste time turning every regional difference into an endless workshopping struggle.

I now accommodate most requests for a regional PG, taking the primary pronunciations of Merriam-Webster as my guide—if my pronunciation doesn’t work well with theirs, I’ll lean towards (to-WARDS, not TOORDS) a PG. I usually find this easier than trying to account for American speech patterns in my writing—which isn’t to say that I don’t when I can, but I could never do it all the time while staying true to my own voice (assuming that I knew every American pronunciation I should accommodate, which I don’t).

A small compromise in the form of a regional PG can reap great rewards in our standard OEDILF coin of RFAs. There are plenty of well-read editors who genuinely won’t be familiar with all the nuances of regional pronunciation and will find that a particular piece doesn’t work for them as a result. How many will take the time to search for an online non-American pronunciation guide, and how many will just click over to the next tentative limerick? Why let that stand in the way of an RFA?

Consequently, dozens of my own limericks have ANs like:

This uses U.K./Australian rhymes: cah, ah, bah.

A simple PG can also suffice, with or without a regional indicator:

(ro-TATE, U.K.)

In a perfect world, it would be well-known that Aussies don’t pronounce the trailing r and so can rhyme car and baa. But the fact is that we hear more American accents on TV and movies than Americans hear Australian accents (or English, Irish, etc.). Americans are at an advantage in this, not having to point out that r’s should be pronounced or that hot rhymes with caught in the U.S., and it’s true that there’s something of a double-standard if we look at the overall pattern, despite our best intentions as individuals. But it’s no worse than the rest of the English-speaking Internet, where Americans outnumber the rest of us.

Playing Fair

I have a broad ear as a result of living in Australia, America, New Zealand, England and now Scotland (and having Canadian in-laws, and a father and aunts of British colonial background), and will happily RFA all sorts of out-of-the-way rhymes that have given other WEs trouble without asking for regional PGs. Now and then there’s a rhyme or stress pattern that perplexes even me, and I figure a PG or regional note can’t hurt in such cases; given the long ANs attached to some limericks here, their impact is minimal. But I try not to ask anyone to change something that works in their accent but not mine (once it’s explained to me); if I can see how a piece would work in another accent and nothing else strikes me as wrong, I’ll RFA it. Sometimes I’ll ask someone to consider alternatives, but will bestow my RFA regardless to show that they don’t have to. I’m always glad when others do the same for me.

Some people, however, withhold RFAs simply because rhymes don’t work in their own accent, even when the regional difference is widely known—and sometimes even when the author has included a PG. But an RFA means “ready for approval by the OEDILF”, not “works perfectly in my accent”. It slows the whole process down if every limerick has to wait for WEs with perfectly matching accents, and to what end? If a limerick works in an established English-language accent (as supported by various national dictionaries), it’s approvable as an OEDILF limerick.

One way to look at it is that the OEDILF is getting limericks from non-American members it otherwise never would have, because those rhymes or stresses wouldn’t occur to Americans. No U.S. OEDILFers tackled alpha and omega (AL-pha and o-MEE-ga), but to me it was the perfect anapest of AL-pha and OH-meh-ga. In the same way, a lot of American stuff delights me by having rhymes I’d never have thought of.

If there’s an elegant alternative to a regional pronunciation, as there often is, then suggesting it is fine. But I hope we don’t lose our regional flavour in the process, non-American or American, because it’s part of what makes us who we are.

Language Change

I was always confused when growing up that there was no i at the end of mischievous and grievous, because everyone where I lived said mis-CHEEV-ee-us and GREEV-ee-us. Then I read McCrum, Cran & MacNeil’s The Story of English and realised what was going on: they were the Irish pronunciations of the words. As such, they were exported to areas that took in a lot of Irish, whether voluntarily or—in the case of my notorious home state of Tasmania (née Van Diemen’s Land)—involuntarily.

I felt a lot more relaxed about it after that. Now it makes me happy to hear mischievious and grievious, because it reminds me of home. (It was too late for me. I’d trained myself to say them the “proper” way in the intervening years, and there’s no point going back now that I don’t live there.)

Which is a good lesson for anyone who gets too hung up on “proper” and “improper” pronunciations of words: they could well be regional variations. Language is an integral part of culture, and local pronunciations are an integral part of local cultures. By telling people that their pronunciation of particular words is wrong, you could be condemning a big part of who they are, and who their friends and family are. How to Lose Friends and Influence People Against You.

Spelling isn’t a reliable guide. All sorts of words are pronounced at odds with how they’re spelled: the American AZ-muh for asthma, for example (I aim for ASS-thmuh, but as often as not end up with ATH-smuh). It’s no surprise to me that many say NOOK-yuh-lur or NYOOK-yuh-luh (often heard in Australia) for nuclear, even though I say NYOOK-lee-yuh myself; it’s hard getting your tongue around that consonant shift in mid-word. The pronunciations of February, library and nuclear get a lot of attention because they’re words everyone uses and feels they have a stake in, yet it’s unclear (and thus disputed) what the majority usage is. If everyone said NOOK-yuh-lur we wouldn’t give it a moment’s thought.

When it comes to pronunciation, rightness is just what everyone in a particular linguistic community agrees it is. Otherwise we would still be pronouncing words as they did in ye olden days, with knight being something like kun-IKHT. Pronouncing according to the strict logic of spelling only takes over when the word is less used: waistcoat used to be pronounced WESS-kit. Once everyone stopped wearing them and talking about them, the spelling took over and now they’re (boringly) WAIST coats. Worcestershire, as in the sauce, isn’t WER-SESS-ter-shy-er; in England it’s WOOSS-tuh-shuh. But it’s understandable that people who don’t know the place or the condiment wouldn’t know that.

Saying that certain pronunciations are “better” than others ignores the fact that English spellings reflect our words’ history, not their current pronunciation. The works of Robert Burchfield, David Crystal, Simeon Potter and others contain reams of evidence on this point. Conventions change at different rates and in different directions in different parts of the world. I’ve met people who pronounce the gh in night, because in my part of the world a lot of dialects never stopped using it. For every supposedly obvious pronunciation that just happens to match the American accent we can point to other obvious pronunciations that don’t. Learning them is part of the fascination of this project.

Countless writers have been strongly tied to a particular place and dialect. Shakespeare’s plays are full of Warwickshire words. There are many writers whose work would be much less if it wasn’t so strongly tied to a place. (At times I fear that I’ve done that to myself, half consciously and half unconsciously, by moving around so much.)

Our American writers, too, use their own dialects and idioms all the time. They just don’t always see it, because they’re in it.

Beyond the Words

There’s one last point worth making about regional differences in pronunciation. The British tendency to destress and compress syllables in long words may contribute to a more relaxed attitude to rhythm and metre among some of our U.K. writers.

One of the major British comedians of the last century, Spike Milligan, wrote many limericks still read today by British lovers of comic verse. By OEDILF standards, they’re loosely written, with extra or missing unstressed syllables, lines that start on a strong stress, and so on. Milligan—and similar past writers—will certainly have influenced the limerick writing approach and views of certain British contributors, and it would be no surprise if they were considerably less strict about perfect anapest than most OEDILFers, hewing instead to a “natural speech” line.

It may well be that the American concept of the limerick isn’t identical to the British concept of the limerick, in the same way that the American novel tends to have a different flavour than the British. This doesn’t give U.K. writers carte blanche to do whatever they like (and we have many who count syllables as carefully as our American writers), but it may help explain the approach of some U.K. OEDILFers, old and new.

Partly reworked from forum and workshopping comments from October 2004–February 2007.

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