History: Did the American Founding Fathers Have English Accents? The Answer is Actually Rather Complicated

800px-Flag_of_the_United_Kingdom.svg

I came across this on Stumbleupon and it answers a question I’ve always wondered: Did the Founding Fathers have English Accents?

The answer is more complicated that you think.

According to Nick Patrick:

Reading David McCullough’s 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.

I’d 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 hadn’t yet diverged. That’s not too surprising.

What’s surprising, though, is that those accents were much closer to today’s American accents than to today’s British accents. While both have changed over time, it’s actually British accents that have changed much more drastically since then.

First, let’s 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.

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 region’s British connections in the post-Revolutionary War era. Irish and Scottish accents are still rhotic.

Source: Nick Patrick

Comments

  1. avatarKC says

    Fascinating! I’ve always wondered about this, and have always assumed that yes, for a time, “British” accents were being spoken by our first countrymen. It was only inevitable that it would change. Shame, really, I just love English accents, especially from around the Midlands and Northwest. I could listen to them for hours!

    • avatar says

      Rhotic accents still exist in some forms. Look for ‘West Country accent’.

      I think it’s sensible to conclude there are many accents that still thrive here which are still quite close to those accents of old.

      Consider also that back then there were many regional accents, just as there are now– and these were taken to America. Of course by the late 1700s children were growing up listening to a wide variety of English accents; and indeed, languages.

  2. avatar says

    If this is the kind of thing that interests you, Bill Bryson has written a couple of language books – “Mother Tongue” about the development of the English language, and “Made In America” about the development of American English. Both are very accessible and packed with fascinating info – I highly recommend both!

  3. avatar says

    I am pretty sure that in a recent history documentary this was taken even further and apparantly South Carolina is about as close as you can get to the accents of founding fathers.

  4. avatarAlex G says

    Accents vary depending on historical origins… natural migration of populations mark at most a 100 mile border per generation. In fact, a study conducted around 50 years ago in Britain (in about a dozen market towns chosen from a line drawn straight across the middle of the country) showed that 75% of male heirs could trace their family back at least 3 generations in the same town.

    Big events, major upheaval, disasters, and migrations do change that of course, but where it gets really interesting is where you see (or more specifically ‘hear’) geographically paired accents.

    Elements of North/West Ireland will closely match to some parts of Boston, Mass. since there are populations from one that settled in the other (perhaps the last stop on the cross-atlantic crossing? (incidentally, this accent always sounds slightly alien to me).

    The accent and linguistic components of west Wales can bounce down the coast to South West, then on to Britanny in France (where some signs are readable in the local dialect of Breton and look like the complex Welsh language), the last landfalls of Portugal, Spain, and in to the mediterranean sea ports. I’ve heard the same patois use of language in naval workers in Kenya and India… thousands of miles apart but on a key trade route going back hundreds of years or more. The language travels along with the boats and traders are obliged (financially) to find a way to communicate.

    Early America was a melting pot, your accent is a product of those many languages merging while the Irish, English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portugese merged, in the same way as English accent(s) are the product of invasions by the Normans (French who were actually naturalised Vikings), Saxons (Germans who were naturalised Vikings), Danish (low country Vikings) and French.

    The language most likely to be spoken by our kings for around 300 years after 1066 was French… but French was a more unusual feature of deep Welsh or Scottish history, for example, and much rarer.

    Different parts of Britain have different accents because of the limits of natural migration – Yorkshire in the north east of England, with its far more dominant viking heritage, has different styles of town names (with their roots in viking / old english) whereas in the South East, names are inspired by saxon and norman history and language. The town of Battle (so named after the site of the Battle of Hastings) features Senlac hill, which grimly translates from French as ‘Blood lake’.

    The very essense of Britshness, and American language, is that we are both mongrel races, made by the generations of forebears speaking a thousand languages.

  5. avatarSharon says

    I read an article about Hugh Laurie and how there were certain words he tried to avoid using on his TV show “House” because they had and “r” in them. “New York” being one.

  6. avatar says

    Do you think it might have sound more Scottish then? After all, not only is Scots a rhotic dialect, here is clinching proof that Scots is the most civilised of the English tongues :P – see, there’s my tongue being all rhotic. Rhotic, rhotic, rrrrrrrhotic.

  7. avatartitch says

    Well, you learn something new every day! Fascinating. But one thing that annoys me: When you say ‘British’ accent do you mean British as in ‘English’? What is a ‘British’ accent? Welsh and Scots are also British. The old BBC or ‘posh’ accent you used to hear is an English accent.
    It does annoy me that foreigners, mostly Americans refer to the Scots as Scots, the Welsh as Welsh, the Irish as Irish and us English as British. There is an England, you know. We do exist. We are English, so please refer to us as such. It offends me as much as it offends you when someone calls you lot ‘yanks’.

  8. avatarLeon says

    This really more Etymology than history
    etymology
    noun
    the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
    “the decline of etymology as a linguistic discipline”
    the origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning.
    plural noun: etymologies
    “the etymology of the word ‘devil’”
    synonyms: derivation, word history, development, origin

  9. avatarjoseph says

    People from the bunhill area of London were nonconformists many of whom moved to the new world, so the form of English would sound like Wesley or Blake.

  10. avatarMonique says

    True enough, Titch. I agree! I will admit that I was never offended being called simply a Yank when I lived in the UK (or England, more specifically), regardless of how it was intended. Guess I’m just proud to be recognized as an American, regardless of the term used, so it just rolled off my back. I truly loved living in the UK . It became my home. It was a blessing to to be given the opportunity to live there and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss it and the people I met.

  11. avatarPenelope Shaffer says

    There is an island off the coast of South Carolina, Tangier Island, where, according the the PBS series, THE STORY OF ENGLISH, those Tangier Island residents speak the form of English closely related to what the original English settlers sounded like when they first hit American shores. Fascinating ten-part series on the English language and how it evolved and is still evolving today.

  12. avatar says

    I think Tangier Island is technically Virginia but here is a video of them speaking. I am English and for your pain or pleasure their accent to me is American. However the inflected words that sounded English to me were from Cornwall in the West of England.

Leave a Reply