Skip to comments.Did Americans in 1776 have British accents? (Suprising answer)
Posted on 10/09/2010 8:08:47 AM PDT by prisoner6
The typical English accent didn't develop until after the Revolutionary War, so Americans actually speak proper English. Here comes the science.
Reading David McCulloughs 1776, I found myself wondering: Did Americans in 1776 have British accents? If so, when did American accents diverge from British accents?
The answer surprised me.
Id always assumed that Americans used to have British accents, and that American accents diverged after the Revolutionary War, while British accents remained more or less the same.
Americans in 1776 did have British accents in that American accents and British accents hadnt yet diverged. Thats not too surprising.
Whats surprising, though, is that those accents were much closer to todays American accents than to todays British accents. While both have changed over time, its actually British accents that have changed much more drastically since then.
First, lets be clear: the terms British accent and American accent are oversimplifications; there were, and still are, many constantly-evolving regional British and American accents. What many Americans think of as the British accent is the standardized Received Pronunciation, also known as BBC English.
The biggest difference between most American and most British accents is rhotacism. While most American accents are rhotic, the standard British accent is non-rhotic. (Rhotic speakers pronounce the R sound in the word hard. Non-rhotic speakers do not.)
So, what happened?
In 1776, both American accents and British accents were largely rhotic. It was around this time that non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper class. This prestige non-rhotic speech was standardized, and has been spreading in Britain ever since.
Most American accents, however, remained rhotic.
There are a few fascinating exceptions: New York and Boston accents became non-rhotic, perhaps because of the regions British connections in the post-Revolutionary War era. Irish and Scottish accents are still rhotic.
If youd like to learn more, this passage in The Cambridge History of the English Language is a good place to start.
■American English, Rhotic and non-rhotic accents, Received Pronunciation - Wikipedia
■The Cambridge History of the English Language - Google Books
Are you Miss MarmelSTEEN or MarmelSHTEIN?
The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.
Proof that if you’re ugly and live in Spain, you’re also wet I guess.
Those are dipthongs ~
That word’s always brought such an interesting picture to mind...
American english is dominated by the schwa, as in "Whudduhyuh gunnuh do?" It's leveled out, dulled, compared to British english, and hence easier to fall into.
... just a theory.
Of course I did, wanted to see if you were awake...that’s all.
Right! And someone please explain a gecko with a cockney like accent somehow lending credence to an insurance co. hustler. Makes me want to run the other way, crikey!
C and cc always confuse me in Italian - I never know hard from soft, I always get it wrong. That being said, I stand by my castigation of Brits awful torturing of foreign words into English words. This is not about MISPRONUNCIATION. It is about strategically mangling the language. It’s pure British xenophobia.
There’s a proud academic tradition of anglicizing the pronunciation of Latin words.
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One of my favorite written accounts from the time is,
DIARY OF A TAR HEEL CONFEDERATE SOLDIER.
Even though the author was a Jewish kid living in North Carolina, with parents in New York, you can still get a sense of a Southern Accents in his written words.
Here are a few entries as a sample. The whole diary is great reading. Diaries like this were very rare from regular soldiers in the South.
December 3 - Katz and myself went to Petersburg to-day. We met with friends, and the consequence you can imagine. The headache we had next day was caused by too much whiskey.
December 21 - I went to the creek to wash my clothing and myself, and when I got back the water had frozen on my head so that I was obliged to hold my head by the fire so as to thaw it out. Wortheim’s eyes are so bad that he can hardly see. Sam Wilson broke his shoulder blade.
December 25. - There is nothing new up to to-day, Christmas. We moved our camp a little piece. Eigenbrun came to see us to-day from home, and brought me a splendid cake from Miss Clara Phile. This is certainly a hard Christmas for us - bitter cold, raining and snowing all the time, and we have no tents. The only shelter we have is a blanket spread over a few poles, and gather leaves and put them in that shelter for a bed.
“I think various American accents are converging to some extent. The southern accent seems to be merging with the midwestern accent in my area.”
I hate to say it but I have to agree with you, at least to a certain extent. In the big Texas cities, most of the kids are losing their regional accents and are sounding like someone from the upper midwest. For the most part, our small town and country kids are retaining theirs at least for now.
My little 5 and 6 yo grandsons have good Southern accents but we live just east of the Houston area in the far exurbs. My 7 yo granddaughter who lives in the city, not so much, but her accent is still not totally “Yankeefied”.
“And we have the recordings to prove it???”
Better. We have at least one person old enough to tell us in person, but don’t expect Helen Thomas to jump on FR to chime in.
Whereas, southerners must not be. ;-)
I watched a program a while back that I had found on a UK torrent site. It was about captured British soldiers during WWI. German doctors had recorded their voices in what was a study on culture and regional language differences. The producers of this program decided to try to locate relatives of some of these men and compare the language from then and now. Most relatives were still living in the area their WWI ancestor had been from. They played the recordings for the relatives, and asked them if they recognized the pronunciation of some of the words and phrases. In most cases, the pronunciation and use of those same words or phrases differed from the way the present-day family members said them. It was pretty interesting to see how much the language in their region had changed since WWI.
The actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales (Mrs. Fawlty) were so appalled by young British actors not understanding how English was spoken in the 1930s (something you should know if you’re doing Noel Coward!), they created a recording facility where young actors can go and hear voices from the 1920s, 30s, etc. Perhaps even earlier so actors can do Shaw properly (although I realize he’s a dirty word here!) Sounds a little like what you are talking about.
later read ping
I’ll hunt the book down. Your examples are wonderful. Have you seen John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage? Although it’s about Union soldiers it’s wonderful to hear Audie Murphy’s soft Texas twang and Bill Mauldon’s accent (not sure where he was from). Lovely movie, like a Brady photograph.
You are speaking of Ocracoke Island residents. They and the people of Manteo also have the old accents that are today unique to the Outer Banks. The outer banks has been invaded by Yankees the last two decades and isn’t like it was when I was growing up. We called it Nags Head, not Outer Banks. It is near impossible to get a t-shirt there now that does not say Outer Banks. There were two great documentaries on the DOC channel on Direct TV recently that interviewed Ocracoke people and then Western North Carolinians about speech patterns and words unique to their area. If you see it again, watch it.
Is that a Cockney accent? It sounds a little Australian to me. One of my closest friends is a Cockney but he sounds nothing like the gecko. On the other hand, my friend is kinda old and his Cockney is much more old-fashioned. Wonderful to hear him say, “Ya dossey cow!”
Trace from Germans in Red River Valley of MN.
My wife is from Rhode Island, I’m from Georgia. If my grandmother had been healthy enough to attend the wedding we would have had to translate if she & my sister-in-law had tried to have a conversation.
After we married and moved to Georgia, while driving out in the country one day I stopped to ask directions from a young black boy. After we finished talking I got back in the car whereupon my wife asked me,
“What language were you speaking?”
“English”, I replied.
“Both of you?”
“I did not understad a word that either of you were speaking!”
If you really listen you can trace the change of accent from the Center of Boston or as a friend of mine used to say Massachusetts ends at Worcester.
And "biscuit" colored (darker of skin) according to the British solders. And more inclined to bath.
Americans were already a mix of British, Dutch, Irish, African and Native American. Not surprising, the people who came over from Great Britain were mostly males. Few of them had the money to order a wife from merry ol' England. They had to find mates among the available females, which meant from the Dutch families if you were high class enough, from transported female convicts (many which were Irish) or from free blacks or a local "Tame Indian".
That was in the cities, out on the frontier your choices were even sparser.
Well Bawney might not be a pirate, but he is an "Admiral of the Windward Passage"*... /g (*obscure 17th century insult reference)
Well Bawney might not be a pirate, but he is an "Admiral of the Windward Passage"*... /g
*(obscure 18th century insult reference)
I see...yes, it is an opening, descending diphthong. And all this time I thought “woah-man” was a southerners unconscious verbal attempt, to to scare off a potential mate.
Nah, it just proves that American pronunciation is the easier, more natural and thus correct version, while RP Brit pronunciation is contrived, unnatural and more difficult, thus incorrect... /grin
Frank ole buddy, I was just joshing with ya. I really did agree with your post.
Nixon destroyed those, then realized to his horror he had screwed up... /g
You hear it, but I bet they don't. I know people from Belfast, Ireland, who swear they can tell the difference in accent from neighborhood to neighborhood and sometimes even street to street. I can tell the difference from parts of Scotland, and different parts of Ireland, but that's about it.
Lighten up, Francis!
Can’t you tell he was just joking with you? Didn’t you see the smiley?
But you had to go out there to find them.
Then there was the Collins family. They had so many girls (in Kentucky, et al ~ dozens actually) some of them were married off to Oneida Indian warriors ~ who were probably white guys anyway.
Anyone finding a Collins in their ancestry out on the frontier should check out the Collins-Ritchy book. That will save you thousands of hours of fruitless wandering in the genealogical records. Most of that stuff is here!
Just go get some of the old recordings from Ancient Amazon and listen. How do they know what any accent sounded like in 1776?
I put on my very best Hindu accent and flip them right back to their “naaatiiiive” best they left school with. Lots of fun. BTW, all the kids around here can do the Hindu/Pak schtick, and probably most of them understand both spoken Korean and Spanish.
My part of the world......yes, we are rather guttural.
Makes it easy to speak German - should one be so inclined!
True. I grew up in Dallas but moved out when I was a teen. I went back about 15 years later and came to a complete stop in a North Dallas shopping center and just stood there listening to people speak. It was like another country rather than a city I had grown up in. Freaky! Another example was my college roommate. She and I had similar accents in college - hers from Ft. Worth and mine not so long out of Dallas and then with recent influences from hicksville. I visited her a few years later in Houston and she was speaking more big city uppity.
The loss of the Southron accent is most likely due to media trying to have everyone sound like they are midwest (not Chicaaago) and the prejudicial assumption that if “y’all tawk like ‘at” you must be stupid, racist... any number of things. But when you hear a valley, or mall accent— to a southerner they sound extremely stupid, airheaded...”y’know”?
I think they intend him to be Cockney. Word forms like
“innit?” are definitely cockney. Then phrases like “wha’ ever else streyeks yor fancy” But you’re right they do like to confuse aussies accents with cockney. The East Enders show helped to keep it alive. See my other post with a link to the Fast Show “We’re Cockneys” pretty funny stuff there.
Liked your comment about old letters, true in our family— if we read them as they’re written with our current accent it gives a pretty good rendition.
Tell that to my wife. We have occasional pronunciation or mispronunciation battles if you prefer. She'll sneer at some of my American pronunciations, and I get back by asking who put all those extra consonants and vowels in words that don't need them. Nobody really wins.
It is your part of the world up there? We loved it there. The owners of the B&B were just delightful, as was the Yorkshire Pudding at the local pub. What blew my mind tho - our host looked SO MUCH like my 100% Norwegian grandfather! Could have passed for TWINS. Evidently that area is exactly where the Vikings landed/ one spot, anyway.
Because of my accent, or lack thereof, and where I live (DFW), people have always asked me where I was raised. When I ask why, it’s because they think I’m from Ohio. Incidentally, I was born and raised in Arlington, Texas. I have honestly never been to Ohio. However, my paternal grandfather was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He and his heritage is the only Northern, or Yankee, heritage I have. Everyone else, for at least 7 generations is American and from the South.
Maybe I’m rare, but on all sides of my tree, including my paternal grandfather’s line, the immigrant ancestor came to America before The Revolution (and in some cases, long beforehand).
Sorry I couldn't keep up with the thread. We are in the process of finishing a move from our house to an apartment and I was...umm...detained.
This article and the discussion is very interesting to me. I have worked in radio, sound and music for over 30 years so perhaps that is the reason.
Is there a connection between the written and spoken word?
Documents from the Revolutionary period appear to be difficult for the average person today to comprehend. However the Founding Fathers wrote these documents (presumably - my take) for the common man.
Did they write as they spoke? If so, and if the language devolved, is it no wonder so many today do not grasp the documents of our foundation?
From Washington’s rules of civility.
>>7th Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest.<<
Lots of good common language of the day (Not to mention manners we should all aspire to)
Boston certainly has the soft R sound. Back in revolutionary times almost half the population was German speaking, what influence did this have on our speech? I have been researching a book on the Revolutionary and post revolutionary period. There Scots immigrants were described as having a thick Scottish accent. My source book was printed in 1850 based on a 40 year collection of anecdotes.