Choir Quips 2 – How to Do an American Accent

After the last instalment of Choir Quips, I asked my fellow choir members whether there was anything they would like to know about “singing pronunciations”. Simon – one of the basses – replied asking:

Can you do one on how to sing in an American accent?

Delphine (one of the sopranos) seconded this request. So let’s find out….

We’ll be looking at 5 ways to do an American accent

The Ts

The LOT Vowel

The BATH Vowel

The PRICE Vowel

The Rs
(there’s a surprise for you here…)

The Ts

You’ll notice that Americans tend to pronounce /t/ sounds in the middle of words (when between vowels) more like a short /d/ sound (or like a Spanish “r” sound)

 

/t/ turns into voiced alveolar tap [ɾ] (sometimes transcribed as [t̬]) when syllable final after a vowel sound, /l/, /r/, or /n/ – and before an unstressed weak vowel or syllabic /l/. This is a similar sound to the “r” in Spanish caro.

In the choir, we’ve been singing the delightful Afternoon Delight by Starland Vocal Band (you may recognise it from the film Anchorman). Listen to the following lyrics and pay attention to the /t/ sound in exciting:

And the thought of lovin’ you is getting so exciting

 
You can hear this more clearly in the Merriam Webster American English Dictionary’s recording of that word:

 
Compare this to the Oxford English Dictionary’s audio recording of exciting (in British English).

 
You’ll hear the air being released on the /t/ sound in the British English version.

You’ll notice that the final /t/ in thought is also pronounced like a short /d/ sound. This is because there is a vowel after the /t/ at the beginning of the next word.

The /t/ in getting is actually pronounced with a glottal stop. This is stylistic here and isn’t usually a feature of Standard American.

When there is no vowel sound after a /t/, then it is unreleased (i.e. you can’t hear any air being expelled after the /t/). It may also be glottally reinforced (i.e. a glottal stop is made at the same time). Listen to:

Sky rockets in flight. Afternoon delight

 
Simplified Advice: pronounce /t/ as a short ‘d’ when between vowels, and don’t add air if it’s at the end of a word.

The LOT Vowel

The vowel sound in words like lot, job, rock are pronounced as /ɒ/ in British English, but /ɑ/ in American English.

Listen to the “o” vowel in these words (recording from the Oxford English Dictionary):

Birdhouse in Your Soul
Birdhouse in Your Soul Cover from They Might Be Giants (image source)

In choir, we’ve been singing the brilliantly quirky Birdhouse in Your Soul by They May Be Giants. Listen to the “o” vowel here:

Though I respect that a lot
I’d be fired if that were my job

 
Can you hear that it is more of an /ɑ/ sound? To a British person’s ear, the words seemed to be pronounced as “lart” and “jarb”.

You’ll also hear Michael Jackson use /ɑ/ in rock when he sings I wanna rock with you in the eponymous song:

 

Simplified Advice: pronounce “o” /
ɒ/ vowels like “ar” /ɑ/.

The BATH Vowel

In Standard Southern British English (not in the north of England), many speakers will pronounce some words with the letter “a” as [ɑː] rather than [a]. In America, most speakers will use [æ] instead.

Let’s listen to some examples.

Here’s the Oxford dictionary again with afternoon, dance, chance

afternoon delight by starland vocal band
Cover for Afternoon Delight by Starland Vocal Band (image source)

Now let’s listen again to Afternoon Delight

 
In Michael Jackson’s Rock with You, he sings Girl when you dance, there’s a…

 
Finally in Barbara Ann, The Beach Boys sing so I thought I’d take a chance, Barbara Ann

 
Can you hear the vowel difference between the British speakers and the American singers?

Simplified Advice: always pronounce “a” like the vowel in cat and not like in cart

The PRICE Vowel

Listen to the vowel in the following words (recordings from the Oxford English Dictionary): I, fine, inside, tried

 
Notice that the vowel is actually a diphthong (i.e. a glide from one vowel to another). In contemporary British English it may be transcribed as [ɑj] (or /ʌɪ/ in the Oxford Dictionary). It’s also a diphthong in Standard American (a.k.a. General American).

Cover of Islands in the Stream sung by Kenny Rodgers and Dolly Parton (image source)

However, popular music does not have its roots in Standard American, but rather in the accents of the South – especially those of African-Americans. In the 20th century (and perhaps today to some extent) there was a tendency to pronounce this vowel as a monophthong [aː] (Basically monophthong is just one vowel, diphthong is two).

Listen to this vowel in the following lyrics from Islands in the Stream:

I set out to get you with a fine tooth comb, I was soft inside

 
Now listen to the word tried in Barbara Ann by The Beach Boys:

Tried Betty Sue, Tried Betty Lou, Tried Mary Sue, But I knew it wouldn’t do

 
Can you hear the vowel difference between the British speakers and the American singers?

Simplified Advice: pronounce “aaa” rather than “I” when singing.

The R

One big difference between British and American English, as many of you may know, is when to pronounce the letter “r”. In Standard American English, the letter “r” is pronounced all the time, whereas in British English the “r” is only pronounced if there is a vowel sound following it.

For example, here are examples of Americans saying four, car, (pop) singer (listen to the “r” sounds being pronounced)

 
Here are examples of Brits saying four, car, singer (notice there are no “r” sounds)

 
This pattern of omitting the “r” when there is no vowel sound following is colloquially referred to as dropping the “r”.

However, in popular American singing you may hear these “r” sounds being dropped – like they are in British English. Why? Well, because 20th century American popular culture came from places where people dropped the “r” like in the South (particularly from African-Americans) and the North East (particularly New York City). Note that this r-dropping is variable rather than consistent.

Listen to The Beach Boys sing:  Ba, Ba, Ba, Ba, Babara Ann and not Bar, Bar, Bar, Bar, Barbara Ann

 
Listen to Madonna sing just like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there. Notice she does not pronounce the final /r/ sounds in prayer or there.

 
For comparison, here are recordings of those two words from the Merriam Webster American Dictionary. You can really hear the /r/ sound:

 
However, in other songs you will hear the /r/ being pronounced. For example listen to the lyrics make a little birdhouse in your soul from Birdhouse in Your Soul by They Might Be Giants:

 
So the /r/ is variable. It may be more prominent in certain music genres than others.

Notice that some Brits will add a /r/ sound when one isn’t in the spelling. For example, while singing vodka and tonic from the song Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John adds a /r/ in the middle: vodka R and tonic.

Lots of people in my choir were adding a /r/ while singing – which is fine for this song. However, most Americans will not to do this and it should be avoided if aiming towards an American accent.

Listen to it’ll take you a couple of vodka (r) and tonics:

 
Simplified Advice: listen to the genre of music to check if the singers are pronouncing or dropping the /r/ sounds.

Of course, there are other aspects that should be adjusted when moving from a British to an American accent – one particularly important feature is twang, which describes a specific voice quality. FYI twang is not the same as nasality and Americans tend not to be nasal (arguably Brits are more nasal than Americans).

Have you noticed any interesting features in American accents? Please comment below!