Whether on stage or screen, much of the potential work available in the UK and beyond requires an American accent. And as such, the ability to do an American accent as an actor is an invaluable tool to have at your disposal.
A General American (or GA) accent is found across many regions of the US. Its lack of local or cultural characteristics makes it a popular accent in broadcast media and a good starting point for anyone wanting to add an American accent to their acting CV.
It can be hard to know what to listen for when tackling a new dialect. So, here are some key pointers to keep in mind when practicing a General American accent.
American English vowels—A, E, I, O and U and their dipthongs and variants—are wider and more relaxed than in British English. They also tend to be longer in duration and sit further forward in the mouth.
You’ll find that you move your mouth less when forming certain vowel sounds. For example, the vowels in “stop”, “lost” and “want” are pronounced with less rounded lips in a General American accent, creating a longer, more relaxed vowel sound (/ɑ/ vs /ɒ/ in Standard English).
Some words that have different vowel sounds in Standard English have the same sound in General American. For example “marry”, “merry” and “Mary” have distinct pronunciations in Standard English ( /‘mari/ , /’mεri/ & /’mε:ri/), but the same pronunciation in General American (/‘mε:ri/). So the sentence, “He was merrily marrying Mary” requires less muscularity in General American.
All of these characteristics add to the generally relaxed feel of the General American accent compared to the Standard British accent. A great tip is to slacken your jaw and try speaking in a more laid-back manner.
For more specific guidance, this YouTube playlist by Sounds American explains the pronunciation of all the American vowel sounds, including phonetics, muscularity and examples to practice.
The biggest pronunciation difference between General American and Standard British English is when the letter ‘r’ is pronounced.
The General American accent is rhotic, meaning that the letter ‘r’ is always pronounced where it’s written, also known as a ‘hard r’. This differs from the Standard British English accent, which is non-rhotic.
For example, in the sentence “there are four birds,” every letter ‘r’ should be pronounced in General American. The YouTube channel Sounds American has great videos on how to pronounce the American ‘r’.
However, be careful to not add an ‘r’ when there isn’t one. Many British actors will add an ‘r’ to vowel sounds, for example at the end of words like “data” or “pizza.” This is a huge giveaway that you’re not fluent in a General American accent.
The Standard British accent uses a mixture of light and dark ‘L’ sounds (compare the sounds in ‘light’ versus ‘dull’). By contrast, General American always uses the dark ‘L’.
This is achieved by lowering the middle of the tongue whilst keeping the tip of the tongue connected to the alveolar ridge (the part of your mouth immediately behind your top front teeth). This may feel strange at first, but it will become more natural with practice.
In Standard British English the ‘T’ sound, when pronounced, is always unvoiced, meaning the sound is made only using air and not the vocal folds.
By contrast, the ‘T’ sound in the middle of words is sometimes voiced in General American. This is called the flap ‘T’, and is a marker of an authentic American accent. It sounds similar to the letter ‘D’, and is found in words like “kitty”, “city” and “water”.
However, note that there are some instances in General American where the ‘T’ isn’t pronounced in natural speech, such as in the word “button” or the phrase “not now” . In phonetics, this is called the glottal ‘T’. It’s produced by stopping the flow of air to create a gap where the consonant would otherwise be pronounced. You can learn about and practice more examples in this video.
Many words in American English and British English are pronounced with different stresses. Here are just a few of them (General American vs Standard British):
- ca-FÉ vs CA-fé
- bro-CHURE vs BRO-chure
- de-TAIL vs DE-tail
- ma-ti-NEE vs MA-ti-nee
- RO-tate vs ro-TATE
There are plenty of other examples.
Using the wrong stress is another giveaway that you’re not truly fluent in an accent. Pay attention to this detail when listening, practising or preparing text for an audition or performance.
There are many assumptions we Brits make about American pronunciation. Many British actors assume that the ending ‘-ing’ becomes ‘-in’ in an American accent. However, this isn’t a rule with General American. Unless the script is written with the ‘g’ dropped, you should pronounce it with the appropriate stress.
Another assumption Brits often make is that all American accents use twang. Twang is a vocal quality characterised by its sharp, bright tone, which helps the sound carry. Think the sound of a witch’s cackle or a duck quacking. Again, this isn’t a rule with a General American accent.
Any accent you do should still sound like you. A good rule of thumb is to keep the amount of twang in your voice the same as your natural accent.
Of course, no article can be a substitute for listening and practice. But whether you’re refreshing your American accent or starting from scratch, these guidelines should give you an idea of where to start with your dialect work. Once you’re familiar with the sound and pronunciation of General American, practice the accent in everyday conversations until it feels comfortable and natural.