what's so difficult about water?

As mentioned in my last post, an American ordering water in a British restaurant often amounts to a verbal slapstick scene. (But if you want to read some real verbal slapstick, see my dear friend lazybrain's most recent post.) American visitors to these shores typically have to ask for water at least three times before communication is achieved--and there is similar difficulty for some BrE speakers ordering water in the US. One commenter back at the last entry presumes that this is because of the (southern) BrE lack of post-vocalic /r/s (i.e. 'r' after a vowel sound). That is to say, many AmE dialects pronounce a distinct /r/ at the end of water, whereas some prominent BrE dialects don't.

I don't think that's the problem, though. Firstly, when (mostly [r]-ful) northern Americans order water in the (mostly [r]-less) southern states, we don't get that slapstick, and vice versa. Second, there's a lot more going on in water.

I think the biggest problem is the pronunciation of the /t/. In most standard forms of BrE, it's pronounced [t]--like the [t] in tiger. (In some non-standard forms of BrE, it can be pronounced as a glottal stop--i.e. an interruption to the flow of sound that is made by closing the glottis, in the throat. Many Americans (like me) use a glottal stop instead of a [t] before a syllabic (pronounced on its own) /n/, as in mitten. It's also the sound between the vowels in uh-oh!) In AmE, a /t/ between two vowels is typically pronounced as an alveolar flap. Alveolar refers to the gum ridge behind the top front teeth. In a flap (or 'tap'), the tongue passes very quickly over that point. When BrE speakers parody this sound, they often use a [d], but a flap is not a [d], as described in this tutorial:
Flaps are abbreviated forms of the alveolar plosives /t/ and /d/ and the alveolar nasal /n/. In a normal alveolar plosive closure, the vocal tract is blocked for some 50 ms, but in the flap, produced by one rapid tap of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, the duration is very short, on the order of 10-20 ms. The flap is very common in American English. [From Center for Spoken Language Understanding, Oregon School of Science & Engineering, Spectrogram-reading tutorial]
When I lecture, the two things I try to be careful about are: (a) pronouncing my /t/s, and (b) saying cannot instead of can't (I cannot say that I always succeed), since I discovered quickly that these were the American pronunciations that most impeded my communication to BrE speakers.

But wait! There are more differences between BrE and AmE pronunciations of water. The /a/ vowel differs quite a bit, with the BrE version being (in my amateur-phonetician estimation) longer than the AmE version, giving the word a different rhythm in the two dialects. The standard southern BrE vowel is also quite a bit rounder than the very open standard AmE vowel.

So, there are two differences in the rhythmic profile of water that differ quite a bit cross-Atlantically, plus two vowel differences (the quality of the /a/ and what happens with the /r/). It's amazing that anyone ever quenches their thirst in another country. (Unless it's with beer. My brothers mastered the ordering of a pint almost immediately.)

A tip for travel(l)ers: modify your water. If you want the free stuff, say tap water in Britain and iced water in America. (If you don't want the ice, ask for iced water without the ice--just modify your water with a word that the waiter will be expecting to hear!) I don't recommend slowing down your pronunciation--that only exaggerates the differences. If you're American, using a fully pronounced [t] should be all it takes to make your water comprehensible. I don't recommend that BrE speakers take on a flap, since a badly executed flap may make it sound like you're mocking the American you're speaking to. Just say water as many times as necessary, then accept the compliments on how intelligent your accent sounds.


  1. Actually, (Am/E) in medium to low priced restaurants (can't say about the upper level ones) asking for a Glass of water will get you tap water. Asking for ice water without ice will get you extra ice, I suspect. Bars may offer more expensive bottled water first, but I've never asked for water at a bar.

    I was just pondering the hard T issue, since there is a current local radio ad, in which the announcer over pronounces the T in 'settle', making me grind my teeth.

  2. The tap/bottled thing is interesting, too. We recently read a 'hot-this-summer' type of article (in one of the Glasgow papers, I think) which claimed that it was suddenly all the rage for women in America to 'unapologetically ask for tap water.' Maybe my surprise at their surprise just gives away my lack of class, though.

  3. Is there any difference in meaning for "can't" or "cannot" in British and American English? For example "do not" and "don't" don't have exactly the same meaning to me. If you said:

    Don't drink the water.

    that's a piece of advice or maybe a warning, whereas:

    Do not drink the water.

    is a stronger warning or possibly a threat. I guess this difference applies to a lot of common contractions.

  4. I don't think that contractions have different meanings than uncontracted forms. What I think you're detecting here is that uncontracted forms are more formal than contracted forms, and formal language sounds more authoritarian than more informal language. That would be a matter of style/register/connotation, rather than a true difference in meaning. That is to say that it would never create a false sentence if you replaced one with the other--it might just create a sentence that sounds less suited to the formality or seriousness of the situation.

  5. A comment about glottal stop (& zhoen's comment): In parts of the US glottalization appears to be becoming more prominent (& changing in pronunciation.) In parts of New England (& quite possible elsewhere), the /t/ in 'mitten' is produced with no alveolar contact (tongue tip touching top gum ridge) at all! So it does, in certain words, sound more like the BrE glottal than it used to. This may be what's causing the teeth grinding.

  6. In my eastern North Carolina dialect of English, the word "water was pronounced very differently from the way it was pronounced elsewhere in America. I had to learn to say water the way others did when I went to college in "upstate" N.C. and then to graduate school in Illinois. I say this just to confirm that "water" is one of the more difficult words.

    In eastern N.C., we said it with the vowel of "war" as in what I think of as standard AE pronunciation (not like the vowel of "what") and then a kind of D (maybe it's an alveolar flap) for the consonant and a definite American R at the end.

    When I was an editor working on technical documentation and user manuals, we made a distinction between "can't" and "cannot" in instructions. "You can't" do something meant it was not possible; we avoided "you cannot" because it sounded too authoritarian.

  7. Ms Murphy's advise to "If you want the free stuff, say tap water in Britain and iced water in America. (If you don't want the ice, ask for iced water without the ice...)" may be fine for the US South, where she is from, but is would be laughed at on the West Coast. British travelers , please feel free to ask for "tap water", if that is really what you want. No one would ask for "iced water", especially, iced water without the ice!!

  8. The idea of asking for "iced water" seems tempting because it seems so sensible to make the problem word "water" clear by putting something in front of it that will make it more expected and therefore clearer. I can't decide if that seems like an odd phrasing or not, though... I guess I would only order things as iced when the default version would be hot, like coffee or tea. Another option might be to ask for "water with lemon", at least then reducing the possible things I might be saying to only drinks that might come with lemon, and, at least among people I eat out with, water with lemon is a very common thing to order. I guess you could get iced tea or something else with lemon, I will have to try it out and see.

    In NZ I have occasionally asked for water at someone's house (always an older person) and then been asked if I want it hot or cold, or, once or twice, just been given a mug of hot water. I have heard it suggested that people ask for it like that if they carry a teabag with them, but I have never seen anyone whip a teabag out of their pocket or hand bag and put it in their hot water... maybe there are just people who like to drink their water hot (seems strange to me, but anyway).

  9. tasmansea, I knew a bloke who would order tea "strong please" and then whip out 3 tea bags and shove them in the tea pot or cup. He was hard, he was. Kiwi, of course.

  10. Mr Gary, I am not from the South, but from the Northeast. 'Iced water without the ice' was, of course, said with tongue in cheek. Or typed with finger in palm, or whatever one says about writing.

  11. I would ask for "ice water"(never "iced," which strikes my California-born ear as overly fussy). Also "ice tea," although who could detect a dropped "d" when "ice" precedes "tea"?

    Oh, and with a slice of lemon. Please.

  12. I have a similar problem trying to get tap water in French restaurants. If I ask simply for “De l’eau si vous plais”, I don’t usually get understood and I suspect I sound like Homer Simpson ”Doh”! However “Une carafe de l’eau si vous plais.” normally brings results.

  13. What if I said "a glass of water please" in response to "what would you like to drink?" Would British waiters understand that? What else could they interpret it as?

  14. Oh, I just laughed out loud when I read this entry. Who knew such a simple word could mean so much?

    I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and I say water with an /a/ like in /war/ and a /t/ that sounds like a /d/. Wahder.

    And, like Nancy Friedman, I don't say "iced water/tea," I say, "ice water/tea." I supposed technically it is iced, but ... not verbally.

    (Aside: When thinking of words that mimic how I pronounce the /a/ in water, I thought of /law/ but that's a little different. I've been told I say /lawyer/ with a Southern accent, but, really... I say it like it's spelled. Law-yer. Not Loy-yer.)

  15. My family and I once toured Paris on one of those Chinese tour buses, where we were the only Chinese American family, the rest being Chinese British. Everybody's Chinese, as far as I could tell, sounded more or less the same and understandable, but when my brother and I spoke in English, we were asked to please repeat ourselves over and over, as they were so tickled pink by our American pronunciations---"water" and "butter," for example. So embarrassing to a teenager! :-)

  16. On the D-for-T issue: I've just been listening to a conference call on the US subprime mortgage market. I spent two minutes trying to figure out what "all day" mortgages were before I realised they were talking about Alt-A loans.

  17. my english co-worker advised me that perhaps the problem isn't with understanding the request, but with the request itself. because low to mid priced restaurants make a good percentage of their profit from clients buying drinks they may be unaccustomed to serving tap water for free.

  18. Usually in the US, if you ask for water, you will receive iced water.
    Now if you ask for tea in the American South, thats a whole different situation all together. :-)

  19. One of my husband's friends (originally from the epi-Los-Angeles area, but has lived in many states since) turns, in her personal dialect, almost any word with an internal t or tt into a glottal stop (sometimes with flap).

    It was really disconcerting when I first met her. Wri-*-en, go-*-en, etc. However, it did let me explain the water problem to him quickly, as I said that when we order it in the UK we sound like Kelly to them. :->

  20. Oh, and in re water in the US: I tend to acquire vowels and other accent bits from people I spend several weeks with. In my childhood I would spend several weeks of the summer on the southern New Jersey coast with cousins ... and come back asking for 'wooder' and 'melk' and extra 'pellows' for my bed. Drove my mother up the wall until I finally resettled each year. :->

  21. I have to admit, I wrote iced water very deliberately, knowing that it would raise some protests. Though I try not to be obnoxiously prescriptivist, ice water and ice tea are among my many not-so-well-hidden pet peeves.

    Connor, my experience disagrees with that of your English colleagues. My English friends ask for and get, with regularity, tap water (particularly [BrE]jugs/[AmE] pitchers of tap water) and receive it with no gripes. Of course, they've usually ordered wine as well, and it's fairly typical to want water with one's wine.

  22. For the one asking for water in France, un verre d'eau or une carafe d'eau will get you what you want, pronouncing it like Homer Simpson "d'oh" is perfect. It is probably the "l'" that is confusing them. You don't use "le" with quantity things such as a bottle of___, a glass of _______ etc. Never thought I'd be writing french in a BrEng/AmEng site.

  23. my daughter wants to know where I got wuhder for water--she says wadder (though I suspect it's actually a flap instead of a d)

  24. my daughter wants to know where I got wuhder for water--she says wadder (though I suspect it's actually a flap instead of a d)

  25. One thing about this whole issue is the different types of water now. Most Americans don't want Tap water, as it is considered less filtered with occasionally a chlorine taste...they want bottled or filtered water, but occasionally if you ask for bottled water, you will get something like Perrier, which is generally called sparkling water, or Seltzer...

  26. When ordering that water in France, you might also have success with "de l'eau platte." Still (as in "nonetheless," rather than as in "still" water), it may get you *bottled* still (not bubbly) water, as distinguished from "de l'eau minérale" (mineral water).

    And speaking of getting your water in French, many may be too young to know the word "ewer" for a water pitcher. I find varying etymologies for it, but I originally learned it as from "eauière," or "water vessel" in French.

    (Compare "ewiere," "evier," and "euer" as alternative OF, ME, or OE origins.)

  27. I really enjoyed this post, and it clears up a few ideas I've had on the subject (interesting also to note the differences between northern and southern states). But by far my favourite sentence in this whole post is the last one! Very funny, and true!

  28. If I am eating out and for whatever reason don't want an alcoholic drink, I often order sparkling water, which I tend to call "fizzy water".

    My 3-year-old grandson misheard this, and now refers to "Busy water", which I think is very splendid indeed.... he was having "Busy ribena" yesterday!

  29. So basically, depending on where you were educated, and how strict the teachers were with pronunciation and training based off of the spelling of the words, will dictate what the speaker will say. The United states has many geographically isolating properties that seperate people from eachother, and common dialects in one city will vary from another city as well. Wether you are talking about the "t", the "d", the "a" or the "r", you will get different approximations on all of these variations depending on who you come in contact with. This is the evolution of language. I have had the privilage of traveling to many different cities in many states and countries and have noticed not only a difference between the countries, but a standing difference between RA speakers and common street speakers. What it comes down to is localization and education. Some places in the united states have the same pronunciation as the brittish, some places don not. Some places in brittain have the same pronunciation as AmE and some do not.

  30. Anonymous

    Some places in brittain have the same pronunciation as AmE and some do not.

    No place in Britain pronounces water with the typical American 'flap'.

    The problem for a British waiter is that the customer's request is unpredictable — for the fundamental reason is that it's something that's not there. But even when the thing referred to is part of the conversation, flaps can still be a problem. I remember a lecture by a visiting American where the word literature was barely recognisable, even though it was central to the topic of the lecture. And when he introduced the word utterance ...

    If pronounced vigorously, flapped water sounds to us like warder. If pronounced casually, it doesn't sound (to us) like anything English.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)