In this article we’ll focus on the British ‘O’ sound and its importance in the Received Pronunciation. The ‘O’ sound along with the ‘R’ sound are the most important sounds you should focus upon if you want to sound like a native British English speaker!
If you get the two sounds – ‘R’ and ‘O’ right, you’ve mastered about 80% of proper Received Pronunciation, and the rest is just a matter of practice! 😉
Of course, it’s easier said than done because you’ve got to invest plenty of time and effort into your accent practice before it becomes your second nature, but it doesn’t change the fact that if you get the ‘O’ sound right along with the ‘R’, you’ve done most of the hard work, so I’d say let’s get cracking and look into why the ‘O’ sound is so special!
You’ve Got to Purse Your Lips to Get the British ‘O’ Right!
First of all, the typical British ‘O’ sound is very distinct, and you can get it right if you purse your lips as if you’re about to blow off candles on a birthday cake. You don’t get a sound like this in the American English, so it might present some difficulties for you in the very beginning, but I’m sure that with enough practice anyone can get it right!
What I did find a bit tricky though, was incorporating words containing this rounded ‘O’ sound into sentences. It required quite some time for me to get used to the sharp change that takes place when you pronounce the rounded ‘O’ sound and the next sound you have to pronounce is a different vowel.
Saying things like ‘blow off’ makes you quite naturally want to start the next word (in this case ‘off’) which is also beginning with the letter ‘O’ with the same pursed lips. ‘Off’, however, is pronounced in a different way; it’s a very short ‘O’ which requires you to adopt a different mouth position (it’s actually called the open back rounded vowel – [ɒ]).
The best way to get used to the transition of vowels during a live speech is by training yourself during frequent practice sessions to repeat those words containing the specific rounded ‘O’ sound like ‘home’, ‘road’, ‘moment’, and incorporate them into longer sentences.
That way you’ll be able to speak fluently and you’ll instinctively know when to purse your lips and when you have to go back to a fuller mouth position.
But if you think this is all you need to know about the British ‘O’ sound, you’ll be in a nice surprise! 😉
Learning Words Containing the Short ‘O’ the Hard Way
Basically what it means is that you simply have to learn which English words are pronounced with the much shorter ‘O’ sound or the so called open back rounded vowel [ɒ] in the Received Pronunciation/British accent.
Let’s take, for example, the word ‘dog’. In American English it’s pronounced as ‘dahg’, and so are many similar simple words – ‘on’ (ahn), ‘off’ (ahf) – and also longer words containing the letter ‘O’ – ‘honest’ (ahnist), ‘probably’ (prahbubli), ‘problem’ (prahblim). Basically there’s no ‘O’ sound in them, and if you’ve been going by the American Pronunciation all along, then it’s your second nature to pronounce the letter ‘O’ in all those words with the ‘ah’ sound.
In the Received Pronunciation the letter ‘O’ in all these instances is pronounced as the open back rounded vowel; in other words, it’s actually a short ‘O’ sound ❗
So when you’re learning to speak like a Brit, you’ve got to make sure you pronounce all such and similar words with a short ‘O’ sound instead of the ‘ah’ sound!
Personally I found it a bit tricky because pronouncing words like ‘problem’ and ‘John’ with the ‘ah’ sound was one of the first things I learnt when learning to speak in English a long time ago.
Now, when learning the British accent, I actually realized that I have to unlearn that!
But now it’s going to get even more interesting…
The thing is that some words with the letter ‘O’ are pronounced with the open-mid back unrounded vowel [ʌ], (it resembles a very short ‘a’ sound) and there really isn’t a foolproof way of telling which words are pronounced that way!
- For example, the word ‘wonder’ is pronounced with the unrounded vowel which is how Americans would pronounce the first syllable of this word – [wʌndə].
- ‘Along’, on the other hand, is pronounced with the rounded vowel which resembles the short ‘O’ sound – [əˈlɒŋ].
As you can imagine, you have to learn all these exceptions individually, there are no work-around solutions, I’m afraid.
Personally I use this online British pronunciation dictionary to look up pronunciation of certain words I’m not sure of, and I warmly suggest you do the same! I’s quite important to establish proper pronunciation patterns in the early stages of the accent learning process so please make sure to check words regularly when you’re doing some British accent self-practice and you’re not sure of how this or that particular word might be pronounced!
And here’s another typical example of how you can’t be sure if the letter ‘O’ is pronounced as the unrounded ‘A’ or the rounded ‘O’.
- The word ‘some’ is pronounced with the unrounded vowel – [sʌm].
- ‘Got’ is pronounced, however, with the rounded vowel – [ɡɒt] which puts it into the category of the ‘O’ sound because it does resemble a short ‘O’ sound.
The thing is – both ‘some’ and ‘got’ are short, one syllable words containing the letter ‘O’, but in the Received Pronunciation ‘O’ is pronounced differently in each word. In ‘got’ it is actually the short ‘O’ sound, in ‘some’ it’s pronounced with a short ‘A’.
You can’t know it unless you simply learn it, so make sure to keep practicing your British accent regularly enough to achieve good results! 😉