Spoken American English

My likes/dislikes from the USA.


Michael Dorn

The excellent actor Michael Dorn played the Klingon Star Fleet officer Lieutenant Worf, a sometimes thankless role in which he stood on the bridge acknowledging orders to open a comms channel or fire phasers or photon torpedoes, and ultimately made a total of 281 appearances in the Star Trek TV series and movies — more than any other actor.

Something that Dorn always did in that role was to speak so distinctly, and so to emphasize the particle "not" when this was crucial to the plot, that it was clear that this was the negative. I can think of no equal in this, in fact or fiction.

One of the flaws in British English is the tendency to elide almost to their disappearance some negative prefixes, for example to abbreviate the "il-" in "illegal" so much that it sounds almost like its opposite, "legal". I have even heard old-fashioned BBC Radio 4 newsreaders do this, which is terrible.

Dorn, playing Worf, would always say that word "IL-LEGal" very distinctly, so that there was no missing the negative. Whether he saw this as part of the (foreign) Klingon character's way, or of his compensating zeal when trying to make good as a Federation Star Fleet officer despite his origins and being (to begin with) the only Klingon in the Fleet, I don't know; but I have long thought his style of delivery of words of that kind, those particular, phonically potentially ambiguous words quite excellent. I will even go so far as to say his is the model that all actors playing such roles, and all announcers and newsreaders in the English-speaking world, should follow. It is a great pity so few do that job as well as he could.

Accent & pronunciation

Yes, I know: there are many American accents; and I am not going to go into details of different regions to much here. As an Englishman with a 21st century BBC standard accent (not at all the same as the BBC accent of 1950 which was still very much the same as that of the Queen), at one time you might have expected me to find everything about transatlantic English accents bad. I don't, and nor do most British people under a certain age (and many over it) nowadays. I do, however, find certain points in certain accents particularly irritating ...


A certain kind of speaker, who evidently doesn't engage brain before putting mouth into gear, says "and" without knowing what they are going to say next, but tries to hold our attention with an elongation of this conjunction that in the ghastly diphthong-laden vowel set of some Americans comes out as a tortured sound that almost leads one to imagine they ar trying to sculpt chewing-gum with their tonsils. Ugh!

The long -o- in -os

Unlike some of the points here which can perhaps be put down to the effect of the Irish, Italian, Yiddish and other influences on modern spoken American English, this is a mystery to me. I cannot see that it is an attempt to be learned, in other words a case of over-correction of a sort, though that might be part of the mechanism.

What it is about is the totally erroneous lengthening of o in final syllables where the o is followed only by a single consonant, notably "-s". Examples are cosmos, ethos, kudos, and pathos. All of these wrods are habitually pronounced with correct unvoiced -s but incorrect long -o-.

Of these four frequent examples, the first is the daftest. Here they have two identical vowels, both short and both followed by an S. The first S is voiced because it is followed by a consonant and the second isn't because it is not. That they get right. There is, however, nothing in the structure of the word that makes it appropriate to change the value of the two vowels. The two vowels should be pronounced identically, yet every American one hears on TV seems to say not "KOZ-moss" but "KOZ-mowss" so as to rhyme with "comatose" — in which the second O is long because there is an E after the S!


I know that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has an excessively pervasive influence in American culture. (More about that here.) However, it betrays a very impoverished range of expression that almost every character in every American movie or tv drama who wants really desperately to assure some other character that they are telling the truth, utters this formula (that is to say, "I swear to God").

(They also tend to say it when they are confronted with anything that renders them nearly speechless with exasperation, etc.)

Swallowed vowels

Perversely, whereas in many cases AmE tends to pronounce vowels fully where typical upperclass BrE tends to clip and swallow them (e.g. police becoming "pleece"), there are certain words where typical AmE clips or swallows vowels that are distnct, even long, in BrE.

The typical example of this is missile (something thrown, or a rocket-propelled bomb) which in BrE is "MISS-ile" but in AmE is "miss'l", and thus indistinguishable from missal (a Roman Catholic liturgical prayer book). It is chiefly the loss of this distinction that irks me; it is so unnecessary given how many words are pronounced distinctly in AmE.

Another example is laboratory (BrE: "la-BOR-a-to-ry", AmE: "LAB'-ra-TO-ry").

-D- for -T-

This originates in Irish speech, I think. It has become practically universal in North America. Listening to it is not in this case my problem; my problem is the knowledge that all those hundreds of millions of speakers have seemingly no way to distinguish phonetically between "Saturday" and "sadder day", "matter" and "madder", and so on. This speech pattern makes it easier to write songs with rhymes in, but has no other advantages and leaves an awful lot to context and assumption about what the hearer will understand. In my opinion, any language change that lets distinctions disappear by degrading precise diction, and causes so much greater reliance on the hearer, is a change for the worse.

Shifted stress

You might not think there is anything to choose between one community's stress pattern and another's for English words. After all, it is only a matter of familiarity, isn't it? However there are certain words and word groups where what I consider well-spoken BrE has one stress and AmE has another, often joined by less-well-spoken BrE.

Examples of the latter are the set exemplified by BrE "de-FAULT", "re-SEARCH" (AmE "DEE-fault", "REE-search"). An oddity that I have only just discovered (through my friends at Mensa World English group) is capillary: BrE: "ca-PILL-u-ree", and (apparently) AmE "CAP-il-LA-ry". To my ears, this (as at gredic.com) sounds totally artificial, as though somebody was merely trying to be perverse and put the stress anywhere but on the -PILL-.


"Too" for "indeed"

It is in a way a great pity that English does not have a short, unique word equivalent to the German doch, which in a full sentence has the effect of "indeed" and when said alone in response to a negative statement serves as a contradiction. For example, suppose that you have done something you were asked to do, and the person who asked comes and says

"You have not done it yet!"

Just about the briefest way to contradict them is to say:

"Yes, I have!"

However the same exchange in German might run:

"Du hast das noch nicht getan!"

Now, faced with this situation, many Americans, at least jusdging by characters in Movies and TV drama, say instead

"I have too!"

Now, I know thisis now Lexicalized; dictionary.com has it thus:

4. (used as an affirmative to contradict a negative statement): I am too!

But note the parentheses, which are not used on the other definitions of "too"; I think this is it being descriptive rather than prescriptive. It makes no sense given the other uses of "too" — meaning "also" or "excessively", just as in BrE. Why do I dislike it? It just seems like a deeply entrenched immigrant misunderstanding of the correct use of "too". I almost suspect it is something written by scriptwriters but not really said by ordinary English-mother-tongue Americans, AHD calls it "informal" so it reckons it is not a usage well-spoken Americans should employ. Come to think of it, it seems like something typical only of quite young children.