Ask not when America lost its British accent — ask when Brits acquired it

Have you ever watched one of those cheesy basic-cable docudramas set in colonial times? Me neither. But I’ve seen a lot of promos for them. And it always makes me smile that George Washington, John Hancock and the gang are so often portrayed as having posh British accents.

It makes sense. People on this side of the Atlantic weren’t oo far removed from people in Britain

In fact, many were themselves Brits fresh off the boat. So you could see how they might do lots of crazy British things, like fancify their Rs and eat kidney pie.

I never questioned those highfalutin historical accents at all – I figured they were somewhere close to the truth – until I got a copy of Patricia T. O’Conner’s Origins of the Specious.  Just a few pages into the introduction, I read this:

“I’m sometimes asked, ‘When did we Americans lose our British accent?’ Answer: We didn’t lose it. The British once spoke pretty much as we do. What we think of as the plummy British accent is a fairly recent happening.”

In the following chapter she explains how this happened. The Englishmen and –women of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sounded a lot like the Americans of today. What we think of as a British accent (and the many variations within that could be construed as separate accents) didn’t develop until after the American Revolution.

Then, shortly after we broke away, a fashion started forming among educated folks in English who thought it sounded jolly good to start doing things like dropping their R sounds in words like “far” and “church” and adding other little fancy-sounding flourishes to their speech.

A lot of the Americans who had the closest ties with England – you know, people in New England – picked up the habit. Which is why parking a car too far in Harvard yard is a punchline-worthy activity.

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