British Vs. American English Pronunciation: Can Geographical Data Resolve a 200-Year-Old Debate?

Buying an ice cream in the American South was food for thought. Called out for “mispronunciation,” this Englishman turned to Harvard’s recent Dialect Survey for clues to an age-old dispute: who’s correct when it comes to pronouncing English nowadays, Americans or Brits? The most satisfying conclusion comes from an unlikely source.

Screaming for Ice Cream

Recently I was in Savannah, Georgia, visiting a famous ice cream shop founded by a family of Greek immigrants–a local staple so extraordinarily successful that its current owner, Stratton Leopold, was able to pursue a career as a Hollywood producer, best known for such blockbuster films as Mosquito Coast, The Sum of All Fears, and Mission Impossible 3.

These days, the line for Leopold’s snakes out onto the street and down the block. Dawdling when it’s finally your time to order is faux-pas, met with indignation by what seems like the entire population of Savannah behind you.

Waiting my turn in a line so long I had to wonder just how good is this ice cream. My mind swimming with options, I knew I had to choose wisely to make the most of the coveted experience. As I approached the counter, I resolved the best taste test would be ordering a flavor I normally wouldn’t. Being British, because “pecan pie” is not so much “a thing” in the UK, when my time came, I opted for exotic Pecan.

However, no sooner had the word come out of my mouth that I was universally corrected by everyone around me. In a charming turn, the crowd automatically called back the “right” pronunciation, much louder than I had uttered the “wrong” one—authority swiftly maintained.

Evidently, in the USA, pecan is pronounced “pee-KAHN.” To my post-colonial colleagues, my chosen pronunciation of “PEE-kan” must have sounded like someplace to visit when in urgent need of a restroom.

If there is any doubt, pecan is pronounced thusly:

Did You Say Tomato?

For years, British and Americans have maintained differing opinions about the “correct” ways to pronounce English words. Everybody’s heard the song – “You say tomato, I say tomato” – which defines the major differences and in which we supposedly agree to call the whole thing off, but if my experience in Leopold’s taught me anything it’s that the battle rages on.

Perhaps out of national pride, I suspected I was right in my pronunciation of pecan. I wondered whether I couldn’t find data to support my claim and other claims, resolve this longstanding discussion, and prove 317 million Americans wrong.

My first stop was North Carolina State University PhD student, Joshua Katz’s visualizations of the Harvard Dialect Survey, and unfortunately, when it comes to how to say “pecan,” I could see I was outnumbered.

My pronunciation does not even feature on the map and the only contentious part of the discussion is whether to extend the first syllable. Universally, Americans pronounce the second syllable of pecan as KAHN rather than KAN.

Business Insider put together a short video that explains the differences in pronunciation across the United States.

Though “defeated,” I was interested to note how pronunciation is generally closer to British English in states that are closer to the UK – namely, the East Coast and the Midwest. Does this rule hold for other contentious words and phrases?

Caramel

Sticking with dessert, I dug deeper. In England we pronounce every syllable of caramel so methodically that for years I assumed Americans were talking about something completely different when they made “carmel” a two-syllable word. Maybe it wasn’t toffee-flavored deliciousness at all, I thought, but instead some kind of tree extract.

To the British ear, hearing the pronunciation and simultaneously reading the word “caramel” defies logic in a way that only Americans can. So I was surprised to see on my official map that “Carra-mel” is actually a common pronunciation in some parts of the US. How do you say it?

Aunt

For more telling examples, I reached back to childhood. As a kid, reading Roald Dahl switched me on to the fact that accents could be so different that you could completely mistake the meaning of a word in your very own language. For example, Dahl points out how the word “aunt,” which refers of course to your mother or father’s female sibling, sounds like “aren’t” to the American ear and “ant” to the British ear.

In “The Ant Eater,” the short story’s protagonist, Roy, buys a starving Anteater from India but doesn’t look after him. Famished, the anteater ends up eating Roy’s aunt after misunderstanding his introduction. This story is hilarious to a kid in England, demonstrating the dire consequences of miscommunication, much juicier than a song about tomatoes and potatoes.

Viewing expressions of “aunt” on the Harvard map, we find that southern states, the states you might normally consider to have the strongest accents in the United States, actually pronounce the word more closely to their trans-atlantic cousins.

Centaur

It wasn’t until I came upon this weird, mythical example that I had the clues to determine which English pronunciations are most “correct.”

Centaur is pronounced completely differently in the USA. The majority of the country says “sen-tar.” However, in the very north-eastern states, from New York to New Hampshire, the pronunciation of “sen-tor” echoes the pronunciation from across the Atlantic.

You Say Potato

Centaurs magically led me to the most telling example. This most ancient of tomato and potato debates between the British and Americans can be solved with a simple question:

Who says the word “minotaur” correctly?

For the most part, in the UK, people pronounce minotaur as “mine-o-tor.” However, in the USA people say “minno-tor.” Similar to the caramel example, minotaur sounds like it looks to the American ear–so much so that the British pronunciation sounds preposterous! Yet, we really do say it like that, and proof that this debate rages in our modern age is provided by this video about the minotaur story from the Royal Opera House (it’s royal, so they wouldn’t let someone continually pronounce it wrong).

The general consensus is that “minno-tor” is the correct pronunciation. To prove it, here’s a British elocution expert saying it the right, alas, American way.

So neither nationality can claim their pronunciation is always “right,” but the mythical creatures provide a useful litmus test. For what it’s worth, they identify a kind of winner, and I stand corrected with my tasty pecan ice cream cone: USA! USA! USA!