*When Did America Toss Its British Accent?

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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4 Responses to “*When Did America Toss Its British Accent?”

  1. THANK YOU! I've been wondering this all day. All the other articles I found got fancy and annoying about how there is "no such thing" as an American accent; but I just wanted a simple answer. So, thanks!

  2. To say we spoke alike is, I'm afraid a leap too far. Throughout most of the UK, regional accents still persist that are very unlike the recorded pronunciation of the upper middle and upper classes. The south west (the stereotype pirate accent is based off of it) is rhotic and uses the 't' at the end of words, as do others and all of these accents from Yorkshire to Geordie, Lancy to Scouse all sound different, but far removed from American accents (though almost as far from to) and were stronger before mass communications.
    I imagine the colonies developed their own accents over time as more people came in but what that sounded like is anybodys guess, perhaps it was less distinct then, maybe it depended on which town you lived in and where your folks cams from?
    Worth mentioning that I have a mild to influenced Mancunian accent, though a slightly archaic one (meaning it sound more like Lancashire than modern Manc) as a result of my nanna's influence.

  3. Partly what is said here is true. LONDON and the South-East maybe consciously chaged it's accent, not England. In the north of England and Scotland huge traces of Viking dialect is still used, brummie (midlands) is new due to the industrial revolution. Ireland hasn't long decided to speak English. Very complex. It is the South-West and West of England, Cornwall to Bristol through to south Hereford and Worcester in the South West-Midlands that the root of the General American accent likely derives from. All are still rhotic. You can still hear the tones and dialect within the West Country of England today that most resembles the pronunciation in general modern American, especially in the remote rural areas of those regions among the older generations. It's deemed an unfashionable accent, farmer speech.

  4. I agree, however, I think the rhotic 'r' sounds we hear in today's average American dialect are harsher and have more emphasis than they did.