Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Why British Singers Sound American

An American asked me the other day why so many English pop stars sing with American accents. Actually, that's not true. An American at the next table in the pub was asking loudly why English pop stars sing with American accents and I thought it would be a bit weird to lean across and explain. But if I had, I'd have said the following.

From here on in, when I say "American" I mean the Mid-West accent, and when I say English I mean BBC English - this is largely because no pop stars sound Cornish. There are a bunch of differences between these two accents, but a lot of them involve vowels and are hard to write about, so, for the moment, let's concentrate on a nice simple one. In American, when a T-sound appears between two vowels it turns into a D. So butter in American is pronounced budder; pity is pronounced piddy; and little is liddle. An English soldier has a medal made out of metal; an American soldier has a medal made out of medal. The English say better, the Americans say bedder.

The American pronunciation is actually a lot easier on the tongue. Try it. To pronounce the T in the middle of better you need to flick your tongue all the forward to touch your upper teeth and then pull it back in time for the vowel. In American all you have to do to make that D-sound is tap your tongue against the roof of your mouth.

In fact, most of the standard differences in the American accent are easier to pronounce than their English counterparts. You could even, if you were so minded, say that they were lazier. This may make English people feel superior. We proud Brits take the time to pronounce things properly, unlike those lackadaisical Yanks. Huzzah!

But we shouldn't think that, because sometimes the English pronunciation is the lazier/easier one. The English, for example, do not bother to pronounce the R on the end of words. Instead, we just say Uh. So singer in English becomes sing-uh and don't bother is don't both-uh. The Americans, with their strong work ethic and can-do attitude make sure that they say singerr and botherr.

So, when, just now, I said that the English say better and the Americans say bedder, I lied. In fact:

The English say bettuh (proper T, lazy R).

The Americans say bedderr (lazy T, proper R)

By proper here, I don't mean right and wrong. In fact, I've just been sitting here trying to say betterr, and it sounds very odd. I think I may be Welsh. It doesn't matter.

The important thing is what happens when you pronounce both sounds the lazy way. You end up with bedduh - a sort of strange, hybrid, transatlantic mongrel of a word. But who would be so lazy as say it that way?

The answer is, somebody who's concentrating on breathing, and hitting the right note, and getting the right emotion in, whilst simultaneously playing the piano. Here is a video of Paul McCartney pronouncing the word better. (And, yes, that's why I chose the word. Clever, aren't I?)

Bedduh, bedduh, bedduh, BEDDUH.

Here, on the other hand, is Mr Wilson Pickett, an American, singing the same song, and pronouncing better as bedduh. The lazy way on both sounds.

And if you want a few others, here's Elvis, Katy Perry, Elton John (for one verse), and a Chinese lady called Yao Si Ting. They all sing Bedduh.

They aren't trying to sing in an American accent or in a British accent; they're just trying to sing.

Singing is difficult so both Americans and Brits default to the easier pronunciation of the consonants. With most consonants the easier pronunciation is American, so both Brits and Americans tend to sound pretty American. Or to be more precise their accent comes from somewhere about 150 nautical miles east of New York.

Of course, there are some exceptions to this. First, classically trained singers spend a lot of time on training to get their words just right: fully pronounced consonants and nice clear vowels. They have to spend a lot of time on this because it's very, very difficult.

Second, some English singers do try to sound American. Michael Jagger is definitely putting it on.

Third, some English singers do pronounce their Ts. Roger Waters springs to mind.

But most of the times they're just taking the route of least resistance. D-ing their Ts, unrounding their Os and dropping their yods.

And if you're wondering what that last term means, English people put a sort of Y sound in words like tune and new, which we pronounce t-yune and n-yoo (to exaggerate it slightly), but which Americans often pronounce as toon and noo. This is called yod-dropping.

And I shall leave you with mystery:based on her yods, what nationality is the female singer of A Whole New World?

That's right, she's from the Philippines.

Anyhow, there are lots of other differences between American English and British English. I spent yesterday going through my new book, A Short History of Drunkenness, changing incomprehensible Britishisms so that they would be comprehensible for the American edition (out in May). This is troublesome when it comes to the drink that Scotsmen call whisky and Americans call whiskey.

The Spectator said this week that:

My favourite book of this and possibly any other Christmas is Mark Forsyth's A Short History of Drunkenness

Which means that you should almost certainly buy it immediately and thus solve all your Christmas-present-buying problems in one. You can get it in any good bookshop, or from these people.

Book Depository


  1. Do you have any insight into the inclusion of an R sound when there is no R in the spelling? For example, my name is Teresa, and I live in Washington. I've heard many Brits pronounce my name as Tereezer (with a definite "er," as opposed to an "uh"), and many an American from the Midwest pronounce my home state as WaRshington.

  2. The only, only explanation for this is that it's what people are accustomed to hearing and singing. Americans don't sing For Giovanni in their own accent for precisely the same reason. People think they have to sing a certain way to suit their medium. There are plenty of British singers who sing in their own accent - which is what Paul McCartney was doing on Why Jude. Roger Waters is an interesting one because he usually songs in his own accent; when he goes American it always sounds very deliberately hammy.

  3. There is a plenty of reasons why we have Simplified English (American) and Traditional English (British).