When did Americans Stop “Talking British?”

North AmericaAs the title of this post suggests, I often hear questions along the lines of, “when did Americans stop talking like British people?” Many readers, of course, know that history offers no such easy answers. But it’s a topic worth delving into.

Most scholars have roughly located “split off” point between American and British English as the mid-18th-Century. There are some clear exceptions. Eastern New England, New York City, and the Coastal South all seem to have maintained various degrees of contact with the “Old World,” and hence adopted some later British innovations. But as a whole, American English started going its own course around the time of the Revolutionary War.

How would these colonials have talked? Everything I’ve read suggests their accent would not have been radically different from today’s General American spectrum of accents.* More marked regional accents would have been different, however. It’s unlikely, for example, that most Southerners spoke with what we think of today as a Southern Accent.

That being said, it’s clear to me that British English has seen at least as much of a change than American English. So the more pertinent question is, when did Britons stop talking like Americans?

Let me answer this by turning to the Survey of English Dialects, a massive collection of (mostly rural) English dialects compiled in the 1950’s. I’ve perused through this collection for years now, and one thing that strikes me the most is how many “cousins” of American English there used to be in the UK.

For example, two obvious indicators of American English are rhoticity (pronouncing the r’s at the end of words) and the use of an unrounded vowel in words like “lot” and “cod” (“laht,” “cahd,” etc). And yet, if you look through the notes for SED recordings you’ll find both these features throughout a huge band of Southern England, extending from the West Country to Kent, with the latter feature (unrounded “lot”) extending further, up to Norfolk.

So in some sense, there are pockets of England where people didn’t really stop talking like “Americans” until the 20th-Century. That is, if you see American English as part of a larger continuum of Southern England-derived dialects*.

Regardless of the degree to which these older rural dialects are extinct now, the fact is not so much that the British stopped talking like Americans, so much as urban British dialects became the type of English spoken by a majority of the English populace. Particularly London.

In essence, something happened in Southern England that didn’t happen in America. Whereas the local dialects of New York City (the largest city in the US) have remained largely confined to a small portion of that metropolitan area, the dialects of London (the UK’s largest city) have been spreading their influence in various ways for hundreds of years.

In my opinion, these two countries went in very different linguistic directions because their populations went in different directions (both literally and figuratively).  England saw rapid industrialization in the 19th-Century, and with it a change in demographics from rural to urban.  The American people, despite great hubs of industrialization like New York and Chicago, remained a mostly rural population for a very long time.  The two types of English reflects their history.

Obviously, though, this is an incredibly complex topic. Anybody have any insights of their own?

*Perhaps debatable, but regardless …

**In Volume 1 of The Accents of English, John C. Wells notes one prominent difference: many people would have still had “raised” pronunciations of words like “kite” and “mouth” (similar to Irish accents today).

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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96 Responses to When did Americans Stop “Talking British?”

  1. dw says:

    Great post, Ben! Very stimulating and slightly provocative.

    It may be my bias as a native BrE speaker, but I feel that you are understating the ways in which AmE has changed since the split.

    There is T-voicing, the father-bother merger, the pre-R mergers (nearer-mirror, Mary-marry-merry, hurry-furry), the cot-caught merger (perhaps more than 50% of the US now?), /æ/-raising/nasalizing, and (possibly??) the weak vowel merger. And, for some people, further shifts like the NCVS. (It’s interesting that many of these changes can be seen as related to loss length distinctions).

    As for unrounded LOT, I think that this is an innovation, albeit one probably repeated several times: in rural southern England, the US, the Carribbean, etc.. The sources I have seen give a rounded /ɔ/ for late Middle English LOT: further evidence is that the NORTH set, which is historically identical to the LOT set with following /r/, is widely rounded even where LOT is unrounded. (Of course, the more rounded and close RP LOT vowel is an innovation in the opposite direction).

    To make things more specific, it’s not obvious to me that an accent such as Wells’s “GenAm” is markedly more conservative that Wells’s RP (save perhaps for the hoarse-horse merger, which is not present in Wells’s GenAm).

    As for your comments on the influence of London, I think them very insightful. England is, and has historically been for centuries, one of the most centralized countries in the world. The influence of London within England is probably equivalent to the combined influence of New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the USA. So it’s no surprise that southern England, at least, seems to follow London innovations very closely. (But Northern England does not do so to the same extent: indeed the accents of Northern England are on the whole far more conservative than those of southern England.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, DW! You are correct that I’m understating the degree to which American English has changed (and is changing). I might still argue that Britain wins in the “whose English changed more” competition: We Americans have had our mergers and splits, but I can’t think of any part of North America that has exhibited the radical phonemic overhaul experienced by traditional dialect areas of England over the past century. (That being said, I’ve slightly changed the wording in the original post, because we’re clearly talking about more “mainstream” dialects here.)

      I still have mixed feelings about unrounded “lot.” Because this vowel shifts significantly higher, lower, fronter and backer within a mere generation, my feeling is that a combination of both external forces and organic change accounts for it being “unrounded.” It’s also possible that LOT, even if rounded, was much closer to Cardinal 6 or 13 at the time of the split. As such, it’s easy to see how slight vowel shifting could have pushed it forward to the slightly fronted [ɑ] that we associate with GenAm/RP “father.” And this indeed could have happened independently in different places.

      One caveat I should also mention: the transcribers of the SED were not renowned for the phonetics prowess. It’s possible that for some dialects, what was recorded as [ɑ] was in fact just a lower rounded vowel than what is typically associated with RP and similar accents. I myself have made the mistake of listening to old recordings of U-RP speakers, and hearing [ɑ] for LOT when it’s actually just a vowel that is closer to Cardinal 13 than contemporary RP accents.

      • Danny Ryan says:

        What do mean by complete phonemic overhaul of the English varieties in England?
        As far as I can tell American English lost phonemic vowel length and many lexical categories were redistributed across the board. The redistribution is especially apparent where the American counterparts of the RP /Q A: O:/ vowels are concerned. I’m using X-SAMPA here instead of IPA, as I can’t get it to work.

        • trawicks says:

          I’m only talking about “Traditional Dialect” areas, i.e. areas in the UK where people speak with a dialect that verges on being a separate Germanic language. Scots is arguably one of these, but there used to be many similar types of English throughout the UK.

    • Sam Huddy says:

      The Cot-Caught Merger is actually nowhere near as widespread as you’d suspect from our media. Firstly, (I’d suspect) about 50% of our media personalities are from the west, which sounds more Canadian than American. And there’s a glut right now of Bostonians in movies and TV. Other dialects, like Southern and Northern, have different versions of the “caught” vowel but not a merger. And parts of the West don’t have the merger, either.

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  3. TT says:

    trawicks said:
    “I might still argue that Britain wins in the ‘whose English changed more’ competition…”

    So you think that English has changed more in Britain? Or that it’s more conservative there? To me, the “winner” of the competition would be the more conservative variety.

    dw referred to:
    “…/æ/-raising/nasalizing…”

    The only environment I can think of where /æ/ is nasalized in American English is before nasal consonants. But I thought this was the case in every (native) accent of English. As for raising, AFAIK, most Americans only have that before nasal consonants too. I would think having a higher allophone of /æ/ before nasals would also be true of all native accents of English. However, if by raising you just mean pronouncing TRAP as [æ] instead of [a], then most Americans probably do have raising. But I thought [æ] was the more conservative pronunciation (well, sort of). The only people I can think of who might have raising of /æ/ in all environments are those in the NCVS region, as the raising of /æ/ is part of that shift, but they are a minority (about 30 million (or less) out of over 300 million from the estimates I’ve seen).

    • trawicks says:

      I think DW definitely means nasalizing of /æ/ in non-prenasal positions (as with NCVS). I might add that the DEGREE of pre-nasal raising is fairly unusual in America: In much of New England, for example, “canny” can be nearly homophonous with RP “kearney.”

      • TT says:

        Well, then, I have to say I’ve never heard this nasalization of /æ/ in non-prenasal positions in the Inland North or anywhere else in America.

    • dw says:

      The only environment I can think of where /æ/ is nasalized in American English is before nasal consonants. But I thought this was the case in every (native) accent of English.

      I don’t think my (RP-ish) accent has a nasal target in a word like “pan”. There may be some bleeding of nasality from the /n/ into the vowel, but

      * I don’t think it nasalizes the entire duration of the vowel
      * Any nasalization is the result of purely mechanical failure: I’m pretty sure my brain tells it to make the sound non-nasal.

      For example, my vowel in the French word “pain” ([pæ̃]) seems to me to be completely different (and far more nasal) from my vowel in the English word “pan” ([pʰæn]).

      But I thought [æ] was the more conservative pronunciation (well, sort of).

      It was [a] in late Middle English (and remains so in Northern England, Scotland, and the Caribbean).

      • TT says:

        dw:
        “I don’t think my (RP-ish) accent has a nasal target in a word like “pan”…”

        I was thinking that having nasalized vowels before nasal consonants was almost a universal for some reason.

        “It was [a] in late Middle English (and remains so in Northern England, Scotland, and the Caribbean).”

        Yeah, I thought about that after I said that, hence the “well, sort of” at the end there :) What I was trying to say was that [a] in London, some other parts of the South East and RP is an innovation, because it was [æ] (or even [ɛ]) in those accents. My accent has the [æ] realization that those accents used to have. I’m not saying that makes it superior (it does though ;)).

      • TT says:

        “For example, my vowel in the French word “pain” ([pæ̃]) seems to me to be completely different (and far more nasal) from my vowel in the English word “pan” ([pʰæn]).”

        Are you saying there are different degrees of nasalization? I’ve honestly always thought of it as an all-or-nothing thing, i.e., either the velum is lowered or it is not lowered. Maybe I’ve missed something.

        • dw says:

          I’m saying that, when I articulate French “pain”, I can feel my velum lowering as soon as I articulate the vowel.

          When I articulate English “pan”, the velum has to lower for the /n/. It’s possible that the lowering happens slightly early, nasalizing the last few milliseconds of the vowel: I can’t really tell.

        • m.m. says:

          Well, if the wiki article is to believed, they can be “produced partially or fully with a lowered velum in a natural process of assimilation and are therefore technically nasal”.

          Whatever nasalization in english, it doesn’t seem at all on par with french nasalization. [My "pain" and "pan" are completely different as well.] And usually when the average person speaks of nasalization, they usually mean NCVS style raising of [æ].

        • TT says:

          Fair enough, but I personally make a distinction between raising and nasalization. But what other people want to do or say is their business. I don’t really care.
          I don’t hear any nasalization of /æ/, other than before nasals, in the NCVS area, but I definitely hear raising of /æ/.

          “My “pain” and “pan” are completely different as well.”

          Well, yeah. There is no /n/ at the end of “pain” + your /æ/ in “pan” is probably somewhat raised and diphthongized if you’re American + /p/ in “pain” isn’t aspirated, if you’ve learned not to do that. Voilà! :)

        • TT says:

          BTW, do you work for CVS?

        • m.m. says:

          I meant strictly with vowel quality. If i use [æ], or raised/diphthonged vowel, I can feel the difference between either of those non nasilized vowels and [æ̃] in my face.

          Haha, no, I don’t work for CVS. You’re the first to mention that I think. It’s a small tip off to the type of accent I have.

    • dw says:

      I would think having a higher allophone of /æ/ before nasals would also be true of all native accents of English.

      Not at all. My /æ/ in “man” is, as far as I can tell, qualitatively identical to my /æ/ in, say, “mad”. I don’t think I ever change the tongue position of a vowel just because it precedes a nasal.

      • TT says:

        I was thinking that was common in most languages for some strange reason. I just thought nasals caused raising in preceding vowels. Maybe that’s because I have (slight) raising of /æ/ in “man” and strong raising of /ɛ/ in “men”. In fact, this raising is so strong that I merge the famous pair “pen”/”pin”.

        “I don’t think I ever change the tongue position of a vowel just because it precedes a nasal.”

        Well, I don’t think most people are aware of all of the allophones of their phonemes.

        • dw says:

          I just thought nasals caused raising in preceding vowels.

          The French word “fin” is derived from Latin “finis”, which had /i/. However, in contemporary French, “fin” is pronounced [ɛ᷈ ~ æ̃]. Here, nasalization has had a substantial lowering effect.

          Well, I don’t think most people are aware of all of the allophones of their phonemes.

          Of course. Perhaps I should have said, “Introspecting as hard as I can into my own speech, I don’t detect any raised pre-nasal allophones”.

        • dw says:

          [follow on from my previous reply]

          …whereas the Portuguese cognate “fim” is pronounced [fĩ] with no lowering.

        • Ttowngirl says:

          I have seriously spent the last 10 minutes saying, “mirror, pan/pat, and man/mad” just because of this post. I’m was raised in the Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest. Here’s how it breaks down. I don’t say mere and mirror the same way. If it doesn’t have two distinct r sounds, it just doesn’t sound right. The a in man and mad for me are pretty much the same, but not for pan and pat. Then I tried to trick my mouth by starting to say pat but ending with an n. That just sounded weird like I was being some pretentious hoity toity. Thanks to all of you in this post for the giggles this morning. I’ve always loved linguistics. Must be all the years I studied German and Spanish and had to take phonetics and look at different versions of that mouth diagram with the vowels and letters superimposed on it and learning words like alveolar and labio dental. Ha ha.

        • Ttowngirl says:

          “I’m was raised…” egads. Started to stay “I’m from,” but didn’t edit it all the way. I apologize for anyone’s bleeding eyes or ears.

    • Uty says:

      Dear Avi, I hope I am not going against blog ettiuetqe by rambling about a subject that is not directly related to the original post. My apologies to the site owner if this is not appropriate, and these will be my last remarks on non violent resistance. (So Avi, incase you respond to this, I will not be making further comments, but not out of rudeness)I was extremly puzzled by your remark that non-violent resisters necessarily live outside society and your example of Gandhi as a ‘mitboded’ was even more puzzling.I can’t imagine someone who lived more within society than Gandhi. He raised a family, represented the Indian community in South Africa in its struggles for rights before the British empire as their attorney.Later in India he was constantly active in organizing communes, in encouraging domestic production of goods (he himself learned to make shoes) as well of course as constanly being in contact with the British leaders and other foreign bodiesBut his power lay in the fact that he was not alone in his commitment to satyagraha. One man who refuses to fight does not have much impact. But he managed to convince millions of people to commit to satyagraha with him. Were all these non violent resisters ‘mitbodedim’?Also the less famous non violent resisters that I know today in Israel seem to live rather ordinary lives in society along side their non violent activismI was doubly puzzled by your mention of Mandela in this context. Firstly since he was NOT a non violent resister. He and the ANC embarked on a bloody fight for rightsSecondly here too, I could not understand what you meant by ‘mitboded'(a (former)president with all the responsibilities of head of state surely finds little time alone?)But as he was a supporter of violence, I don’t think he is a very fitting example for your argument anyways.So finally in an attempt to reconect to Eyal’s post-I totally agree with him that bringing more weapons into the area will ultimatly lead to a deterioration in the current situation.

  4. Ed says:

    I find it strange how Australian English, despite being on the other side of the world, can sound very similar to south-eastern varieties and I (British) have even mistaken one for the other on occasions. No one would ever be in any doubt whether a speaker were British or [North] American.

    The period when British English changed might have been between the American Revolution and the large-scale settlement of Australia. Otherwise you’d expect Australians to speak like Americans as well.

    • William (Foss) Richardson says:

      I’ve often thought Australian is basically a mix of Kentish/Cockney spoken through gritted teeth to avoid swallowing flies! Oh, mixed with Celtic fringe Irish/Scottish, but not Welsh?

      America had many German and Scandinavian immigrants, I’ve often wondered at the American accents of my Norwegian relatives, some of this is probably the effect of modern Yank (sic) but I also think that American English developed as a simplification/change caused by accomodating Teutonic English accents.

  5. William (Foss) Richardson says:

    Is the American inability to correctly ;) pronounce T down to a mix of Irish/Dutch/German immigrants?

    In southern English, as opposed to Southern American English, rather than change the T to D it was/is far more common simply to glottal stop/drop it.

    What you’re really saying is that the languages have evolved in different ways.

    I think the fact that the UK is far more densely populated and cities in the US are more like Island states in a distant sea of rural localist accents explains some of the differences.

    • TT says:

      “Is the American inability to correctly ;) pronounce T down to a mix of Irish/Dutch/German immigrants?”

      I think it’s just a natural development. There didn’t need to be any immigrants for it to happen. A voiceless sound becoming voiced between voiced sounds has been a very common sound change in many languages throughout history. cf. Latin MUTUM > mudo Spanish and Portuguese or Latin LACUM > lago Spanish and Portuguese

      • dw says:

        Yes. You might also add the development of the voiced fricatives in Middle English: e.g. from /f/ to /v/ in “over” (formerly Old English ofer).

        • TT says:

          It’s nice to see an example from a different branch.

        • Andrej Bjelaković says:

          @ dw OE ‘ofer’ also had a voiced sound between the vowels, i.e. [v]. Back then [f] and [v] were alophones of the same phoneme, with [v] occuring intervocalically. In spelling you always had ‘f’ though.

        • Danny Ryan says:

          We could say that the allophonic distribution of [f] ~ [v] in Old English became phonemic /f/ : /v/ in Middle English.

      • Danny Ryan says:

        Flapping the /t/ intervocalically is also a feature of the Saxon Low German dialects of Northern Germany where ‘better’ is /bE:46/ (using X-SAMPA here for lack of unicode compatibility and IPA, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X-SAMPA). These dialects share direct common ancestry with English.

    • Danny Ryan says:

      “I think the fact that the UK is far more densely populated and cities in the US are more like Island states in a distant sea of rural localist accents explains some of the differences”

      Of course the English dialects had a much longer period to allow for diversification and dialectal splits. Also English was probably dialectally split since the times of first settlement in the 4th and 5th centuries as settlers from the continent established three geographically separate colonies and they may have come from different areas, too.

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    An house, an hill. The haiche, aich (H) marks a difference too, I think.

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  8. Danny Ryan says:

    Has anyone got a rough reconstruction of the phonology of South-Eastern English English around 1625? This would probably be the base dialect for the first generation of settlers in North America, I would suspect.

    • dw says:

      You could extract one from Dobson: English Pronunciation 1500-1700 (OUP), of which I have a copy :) I think it’s out of print, though.

      Alternatively, there’s this. (hopefullly Google Books will work for you).

  9. Danny Ryan says:

    Thank for this. I’ll see if I can find it online.

  10. Tom Sugnet says:

    Unrounded vowel in ”all, call, wrong, song, long” is the older pronunciation (the rounded one being a recent phenomenon), and it is used in the conservative Western US accents, and in the innovative accents of the Inland North (due to Northern Cities Vowel Shift)

    look here:
    http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/research/gsound/Eng/Database/Phonetics/Englishes/ByWord/Word_001_all.htm

    • dw says:

      @Tom:

      You’ve taken a grain of historical truth but have built a misleading narrative around it.

      If you go back far enough in the history of English, you can indeed find [a] in “call” or “long”.

      But (except possibly for some English and Scots “traditional dialect”) no current pronunciations of “call” or “long” with an unrounded vowel derive directly from these earlier realizations.

      Take “call”. In this (and many other words with orthographic A before nonprevocalic L), early Middle English [al] was vocalized to later Middle English [au], which was then shifted around the time of the Great Vowel Shift to [ɒː ].

      This rounded vowel is preserved in most British speech and most Eastern accents of the US that have cot != caught. The places in North America that have an unrounded vowel in “call” (and also in “caught”, “thought”, etc.) have taken the rounded vowel and unrounded it. There is no direct historical connection between these realizations and Early Middle English [al] — in fact this can be readily appreciated when you think that, in Early Middle English, [a] was the TRAP vowel. But the North American accents that have an unrounded vowel in “call”, even if it’s [a], don’t use this vowel for TRAP.

  11. HAFIZ FAISAL says:

    I try to talk about british but some time my words are not be perfect so this way am not talk clearly can you help me

  12. Greg says:

    I think it would be interesting to see where Canadian English figures into this. It could be sort of the “missing-link” since it remained closely tied to British media into the 1940s but was also influenced by the Americans to the south.

    • Glen says:

      Well, as a total non-expert and a Canadian, I’ve always supposed Canadian English (from Ontario westward) pretty much got started with the migration of loyalist (to the British crown) settlers from the United States at the time of the American Revolution. I think that’s why it sounds so American. Then Scottish and English immigrants added their influence to the basically American speech. In the Maritime provinces the history is more complicated but similar. Newfoundland had a different history and its accents reflect that. I would welcome replies, especially knowledgeable ones.

  13. anton says:

    Having been to both sides of the atlantic. To me there is a lot of similarity between American English, its spelling and its emphasised Rs to Elizabethan English. Americans also use the correct Anglo-Saxon word for Autumn which is Fall whereas the English have taken on the French word. English has moved on especially in the 1930s where sounds were softened and we were taught to speak with our mouths closed so that the words were sweet and that pronunciation although has died out has remnants in the English spoken to date. Not to mention the Irish and Scottish influence in the Americas as well as the other migrants. For example when I went to see some American speakers who were of Anglo-Saxon descent, I was shocked with the amount of gestures and body movement that the English and north-west Europeans avoid. There are some dialectal English sounds in the Americas though whether that is from migration is another question. Anyway that my 2 cent piece :)

  14. Olga says:

    The question in the article is just another proof of how the views of most people are adopted from the media. Just like assuming to know the history just by watching historical movies or history channels they assume knowing about accents just by watching news channels like BBC. That’s true that “American” accent is predominantly associated with rhoticity, as much as the “British” one is referred to as “non-rhotic”. Most of the fellow English-learners with whom I’ve ever had a chance to discuss accents in English, if they hear a regular Brit talking not exactly the way they know from BBC, they to a great extent will claim that person to be “American” for no logical reason. On the other hand, once I came across an interesting comment for a Youtube video about an American expat working in Russia. The commenter stated that his accent was no American and he sounded like a Brit who had lived in the US for long. While I was sure that he instead sounded “pretty American though not in a “CNN way”. I searched about him and I found out he was from the Southern US which makes sense considering that little “twang” that appeared to be kind of “British” for the commenter.
    Some southern American accents were referred to as non-rhotic in the past. While at the same time the accent of the North (New England mostly) seems to have always been rhotic. The distinction is basically made between the accents of the US North-Eastern and US South-Eastern shores where the founding colonies began their US history. I’m no expert at it, but between them there can be time difference and an ethnic difference that might influence the accents. Some linguists claim that Standard American accent is based on the accent spoken in England back in the early modern times, form the 16th to the 17th centuries when the New-English colonies were founded. Moreover, the possible original rhoticity of English could have the origin in the Middle English which was much based on the Saxon dialect spoken on the British Isles. Southern “non-rhotic” accent might generate a little later influenced by the British fashion to distinguish from the “Yankee talk” and sound more “European”. There’s a hypothesis that RP was deliberately invented on the request from the British business class in the 19th century who wanted to integrate in the elite so they needed to talk in a “posh” way. So this whole accent was a sort of social program while originally British nobility might speak almost in the same way as the rest.

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  16. Wen says:

    I’m pretty sure pronouncing “hot” as “haht” is an Early Modern English innovation, not a retention. That said, it seems the innovation happened in the Old Country, not in the colonies, and it didn’t affect all English dialects. Early colonists probably picked this feature up from dialects that underwent the development. Even today some Irishmen say “haht” instead of “hot”.

    • dw says:

      But I don’t believe that any Irish accents lose the length distinction whereby the vowel of “hot” or “lot” is distinctively short. In nearly all North American accents, the vowel of “hot” is long.

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  18. Barry says:

    Speaking as an admittedly non-expert, but experiencially I can speak from things I noticed living in Texas, Los Angeles, London, Northern Ireland, and in having traveled extensively in the UK and Ireland. What it seems I hear in some of the Scots-Irish and Irish accents, had possibly a large influence on the “American Accent”, esp. in late 1800s-early 1900s industrialized cities — and the history of the American Railroad (lots of Irish workers). My mothers side of the family is 7th generation American of Scots Irish origin, and occaisonally I would hear my grandmother say things I had heard in Ireland, albeit slightly morphed etc.

    Also the midwest had huge influence from Scandinavia. I can hear the tones and musical shapes (I am professional musician) When I went to Sweden the students who knew English (most of them) spoke with an almost perfect Illinois/Indiana accent!

    Thanks for fascinating posts and comments. Just a curious onlooker who has always been fascinated ….. Barry

    • Jack Caleb says:

      We don’t sound anything like that in Illinois and Indiana. Most of the scandinavian immigrants were in Northern Midwest. I don’t see any similarities at all.

      • Jack Caleb says:

        Then again maybe I’m thinking of the fargo accent. I’m not sure how much of the upper midwest sounds that way. I know someone from Michigan that sounds nothing like that.

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  20. Adam says:

    If you listen to recordings of rural English and Americans born in the 19th century (and there are plenty around online) you’ll find them remarkably similar in vowel pronunciation and rhoticity. North or South, it doesn’t matter. You’ll find long pronounded ‘lang’ in both North and South England.

    Of course, there are local differences and a plethora of exceptions and isolates, urban accents. Also any US readers should note that non-rhotic pronunciation isn’t a North/South difference in the states, it’s more of a coastal feature.

  21. Phil says:

    Am I missing something? Wasn’t the question, When did Americans stop “talking British?” The whole of the article then seems to focus on pronunciation, and not accents! Accents and pronunciation are two totally different things, and should not be classed as one and the same! In that respect, the American “accent” has drastically drifted away from that of the British, and not the other way around!

    Yes, over the years British speech patterns have changed and rhoticity is now place common place with the “upper classes” and advocates of The Queens English, but once again, this is pronunciation issue, and NOT accent. If you compare someone from Cornwall in the south west of England (with their heavily pronounced R’s and un-rounded vowels) with someone from America, they will, no doubt, say the same words but will sound very different. Not due to rhoticity, but due to the accent change. If this wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two! To say that colonial Americans of over two hundred years ago sounded the same as present day Americans is just ridiculous. If anything, they would’ve sounded similar to people from the south west of England, but with slight nuances of difference.
    So if you remove the British “upper class” and TV broadcasters from the equation, you will find that the English/ British accent has changed very little over the centuries.

    • dw says:

      The vast majority of English people (not just the “upper class”) are non-rhotic.

      • Phil says:

        The vast majority of English people are definitely NOT non–rhotic. Have you ever been to Devon, Cornwall, Sommerset, Gloucestershire, Bristol, East Anglia, Yorkshire to name but a few? They most definitely do not talk “BBC English” as it is sometimes called!

        • boynamedsue says:

          Phil, not sure what accent is made of, if not pronunciation.

          I tend to second dw, I’m English and rhoticism is more or less dead outside of the southwest and a small pocket round Bolton. I’d also say his analysis is pretty sound, in terms of pronunciation English accents have changed more since the 18th century than American ones.

          Prosody is a different question, and a very hard one to assess, I’d suggest both have changed rather radically.

        • Yorkshire rhotic? I don’t hear any rhotic in either the West or East Riding dialects and the North Riding as completely flat. Are you sure you’re not thinking of parts of Lancashire ie north Manchester, Burnely, Blackburn or Wigan?

        • dw says:

          East Anglia and Yorkshire are non-rhotic. The south-west is generally rhotic, but even if every single person in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Bristol were rhotic (which is far from being the case), that would still constitute less than 5% of England’s population.

        • dw says:

          You write as if there were only two types of accent in England: “BBC English”, and rhotic. But the vast majority of local, non-upper-class accents are non-rhotic. This includes the accents of every large city (London, Birmingham, Manchester, etc) as well as Yorkshire, East Anglia, and others.

    • janine clark says:

      Reading this brought back a Catholic school memory for me. I’m thinking I was 4th grade, we were learning about Paul Revere’s famous ride and quote “The British are coming!” to which I asked ‘wasn’t everybody British?’. For this I was sent to Mother Superior’s office for the remainder of the week for ‘smart-mouth’. This is endlessly facinating to me. Did the colonists wake up one day and decide to not use that accent. Of course not but still there is the Austrailian accents. To this day I can tell where somebody learned English as a second language by hearing them!

    • John T. says:

      “Accents and pronunciation are two totally different things, and should not be classed as one and the same!”

      Actually they are indeed the same thing – at least, in the way most people define “accent”.

      And the idea that British pronunciation has hardly changed over the centuries is absurd. No part of the English-speaking world has remained static in pronunciation. All have undergone huge changes.

  22. Phil says:

    I’ll grant it is a hard subject to describe, but to me, accent is VERY different to pronunciation. Let’s take “BBC English” as it’s called, (which has no discernable accent, and has no bearing on how the rest of the country sounds, but has “correct” pronunciation) does anybody really identify with that pattern of speech? We all know that the common misconception outside of the UK is that we all talk as if we have “a plumb in our mouths”. This most definitely is not the case for the vast majority, as “BBC English” is quite foreign to most UK residents and is (so say) only used so the country as a whole can “understand” what is being said. Take the English upper classes, cockneys and the Welsh out of the equation, and what you are left with, are, by and large a “rhotic speaking people”.
    Once again, as I said before. Lets use the Cornish, or Bristolians as an example (and there are a multitude of locations I could use).. Both have a heavy usage of R’s in the language, as do the Americans. If you put the two in a room together, they would sound very different! Not because they say things in a different manner (as I pointed out, they have very similar speech patterns etc) but because of their accents. The overwhelmingly obvious question in all of this (for me) is not when did the Americans “stop talking British” (as we pretty much pronounce words the same) more when did the accents change.
    In addition, to say rhoticism is dead outside of the south west is a bit OTT. The north of England and Scotland are quite heavily rhotic. To say DW’s analysis is sound, well, I’m not sure I agree with you. I think his analysis is bases on media sound bites, and what has been shipped around the world. Let’s face it, the country as a whole does not talk like the cast of Eastenders or the News at ten!
    To be blunt, and to run with things I have read online, the American accent (not speech patterns) has come about due to a heavy influence from the north of Europe, mainly Norway. I would welcome your input on this.

  23. go for aesthetic appeal says:

    british english has evolved faster than american english. other than the more affluent elites still remain in britain, could such difference also have anything to do the population density? just like urban accent is expected to evolve faster than rural accent becoz of the increased social interaction, which is expected to speed up the accent refinement to become aesthetically more pleasant to ears?

  24. Without question British English has changed more over the last two hundred years than American English. Having said that as in America, accents change from region to region, but in Britain they change within 10 to 30 miles, depending on where you live.

    It was the German speaking Hanoverian royalty who first took to the throne in the 18th century who had a considerable influence on the way Londoners spoke. Up until then and indeed up to the mid 20th century in East London, many words were more northern English sounding, but the Hanoverian’s spoke English with a north German accent. The accent sounded very pretentious, but in the circles of the upper echelon it became fashionable and was copied. The fashion took hold and spread throughout London and after WWII it started to spread throughout the south eastern quadrant of England, eradicating almost entirely the rural sounding dialects of the region by the end of the 20th century.

    However to many people in the northern half of England and all Scotland, apart from a number of social climbers, the Hanoverian influenced accent never really took hold and even today many northern English regard southern English as pompous sounding.

    To add further complexity to all that, with a few exemptions, the northern English lost their rounded vowels between 130 to 160 years ago, particularly in the towns and cities. It’s up for debate whether this was due to fashion or simply natural progression, but today northern English is very guttural and and at times harsh. Words like bath, fast, last and after, all use a very quick “A”. unlike the long “A” used in the south of England ie “baarth” for bath. Also in northern England words like, mud and up are more akin to the way they are spoken in southern Ireland. Likewise words in northern England ie”No” are pronounced “nuh” not “niew” or “naw” and words such as car, far and bar are pronounced “Kaar” and Faar .

    What has not been mentioned enough here is the massive influence Ireland has had on the American accent, particularly southern Irish. Even today the northern states and Canada have a very close relationship to the way the Irish speak, as outside Dublin the Irish accent has not changed anything like as much as English or even Scottish.

  25. Unable to edit, but I should have said “up until the 21st century”, not “up until the 20th century”. My bad as you would say in America!

    • Ttowngirl says:

      I must admit as an American encroaching on 50 years of age, I detest that expression and will never use it. But English by generation is a new conversation entirely. :-)

  26. Go for aesthetic appeal says:

    First of all, I m not in the linguistic field. The following is only my opinion based on observation and exposure thru schools, media and hearsay. Also my view couldbe much limited by the fact that English is not my native tongue.

    I just had a quick check on urbanization history. Bcoz of industrial revolution, urban population in Britain went from <20% to close to 80% within 100 years (1800-1900) whereas by 1900 the urban population in America was only around 30%. The big difference in the rate of urbanization might be a key factor for the different rate of accent refinement between British and American. urban accent is expected to evolve faster due to increased social interaction. Social interaction offers learning oppotunity for social behavior improvement so as to be better perceived. Also, being in the old world, British urban population is expected to enjoy a more established more closely knitted social communities and people flow between different places should also be facilitated by a more developed railway system within a much smaller country than America. Besides, the American urban population density could be much lower and its affluent social circle yet to be established.

    being pretentious is driven by the aspiration to be better perceived yet unfortunately lacking enough empathy and right tact to carry out such aspiration appropriately. Many people must have had the experience of trying too hard to impress but ending up not being oneself and poorly perceived. It is probably an inevitable part of the refinement process. The affluent socialites are the ones with more leisure, resources as well as greater inclination for social refinement so their speech/ accent is expected to evolve faster than that of the working class. it is also natural for accent to diffuse from the affluent to the less privileged as man subconsciously would mimic and seek inspiration from the better off to improve oneself.

    Could the harsh British northern accent be due to the working class population there as well as being more distant away from London the cultural centre where the affluent congregate?

    • I’m not sure if that could be the only reason. During the industrial revolution, much of London was affected as badly as anywhere in the north of England and much of the capitals population lived in abject poverty. Also the north of England was far more prosperous than the south west of England, yet the south western English population never developed a harsh guttural accent.

      I think you may be close to something on that thesis though, but it was possibly as much to do with genetic make up as enduring a hard living. Traditionally the northern English were arguably always tougher than the southern English, hence in WWI the northern pals brigades were more often selected to be the front line in battle and unlike the southern English, they also rebelled against the Norman invasion with some success until the “Harrying of the North” starved them into submission. This toughness, was possibly a combination of both genetics and living life on a land that was on average much less fertile than southern England (with a few exceptions ie The East Riding of Yorkshire) but it certainly goes back much further than the Industrial Revolution.

      • Jamie says:

        Genetics ? More Norse (Viking) and Celtic component in the North, hence tougher ? As opposed to the more ‘mellow’ Norman French, Saxon, and Dutch-Flemish component in the South ?

    • dw says:

      There’s nothing objectively “harsh” about the accents of the north of England.

      Many studies have been done about the aesthetic judgments speakers of a language tend to make about each other’s accents. Such studies have consistently shown that these attitudes are based on social or cultural factors, not on anything about the actual sounds speakers make. Just as burping is considered polite in China but rude in England, a Mancunian accent might be considered harsh in Surrey but soft in, say, the USA.

      It may well be true that many in the south of England perceive northern accents as “harsh”. However, such a perception is probably due to the longstanding portrayal in English culture of the north of England as a relatively harsh place, perhaps in terms of economic opportunities or climate.

      I can say that, growing up in the Midlands and south of England, I probably shared the perception of northern accents as “harsh”. Now, having lived in California for 15 years, they actually sound quite soft and melodious to me.

      • Having spent the first 36 of my 59 years in West Yorkshire and also having lived in Southern Ireland and Australia, I would still say the northern English accent sounds harsher than southern English. Indeed I still have a Yorkshire accent myself, albeit nowadays a more neutral version, but I suppose it depends on your interpretation of harsh. For instance, many people would agree that German sounds harsher than Italian or New York sounds harsher than Californian, but I as you suggest it all depends on your perspective.

  27. Go for aesthetic appeal says:

    Other than population density, I tend to believe climate affect accent too but haven’t been able to find much relevant info.

    One thing I have been quite curious about is Obama’s accent. I thought he grew up in a white family but why does his accent sound different from the mainstream accent?

    • MichaelW says:

      There was a post about Obama’s accent on this blog a while back; search for “Obama” at the top of the page and it will be the first result.

      • go for aesthetic appeal says:

        thank you. i read that already. i did a google check rightafter and that post tops the list. according to that post, obama’s accent is within the mainstream.

        my another query is about relation between accent and biology(eg refinement of hearing and speaking system).

  28. Phil says:

    DW – You write as if there is only one accent in England! The accents in this country are many, and varied… I can’t say that I agree the whole of the country are non-rhotic.

  29. AUDIO NOIR says:

    I lived in Urmston, Manchester for 2 years (I’m from L.A.) and i definitely found accents throughout the U.K. that people there hated or thought ugly or harsh didn’t bother me at all so local prejudices always play a huge part in how an accent is percieved.

    Another thing that really surprised me was that I was expecting many people throughtout the U.K. to dislike my accent. Quite to the contrary over and over again my accent was characterized as “cool” and the women certainly seemed to like it a great deal (which I found odd since my accent is meaningless in my own country).

    I think, though, that many aspects of American accents developed independently within the U.S. for reasons not at all related to Europe. Pronouncing “hundred” as “hunnerd”, for example (which is how it’s most commonly pronounce now throughout the U.S.) has no precedent anywhere in the U.K. Another very good example is pronouncing “can’t” as “cain’t” or “pretty” as “perdy” (which are no longer just “Southernisms” and becoming increasingly common) also is not found anywhere outside the U.S.

    As for when the great divergence began I’d say it’s impossible to know and that, again, isolation from Great Britain despite continuous migration from the British Isles and elsewhere and many attributes that are more related to abstract causes like weather or topography were sometimes rapid, sometimes gradual. Needless to say George Washington certainly sounded more “British” than Richard Nixon.

    As well, a friend of mine from Argentina said when he first heard an English accent (after having learned American English as is usual in Latin America) he didn’t even realize it was the same language. Spanish varies by country and region also but nowhere near like English does despite having as many speakers as a first language.

    Though we can mostly still understand each other this reality really hit home when I saw an interview with the band ‘Garbage’. Their singer Shirley Manson is Scottish and the rest of the band are from Wisconsin and even as an English speaker I was really struck by how dramatic the difference was.

    Even when I lived in the U.K. when me and my English GF (from Blackburn in Lancashire) visited the continent people who spoke little or very broken English could almost always hear a big difference. Though they could not tell where she was from they all seemed to instantly know I was Yankee.

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  31. Jamie says:

    I would reckon, and historical scholarship somewhat supports this as well, that the vast majority of Anglo settlers in the US between the 162os and the 1770s were from the more peripheral areas of the United Kingdom :- Northern England and the Borderlands, the West Country, South-West and Cornwall, East Anglia (especially Norfolk), Scotland, and Ulster (Northern Ireland). Almost all of the local accents from these regions even today are rhotic and sound different from the “mainstream British” accent centred around suburban, middle class, South-South East England. ( The Home Counties + southern England + suburban/rural southern Midlands (Oxfordshire etc.) ).

    • John T. says:

      Until the 19th century most of England used rhotic pronunciation – it wasn’t the regional identifier it is now. That it survives in peripheral areas in the 21st century is not necessarily a clue as to where Americans came from. (I actually vaguely recall reading that most English immigrants were from the south or east.)

  32. janine clark says:

    So very interesting! Having been facinated by accents since childhood due to living at the Grand Canyon I heard an endless stream. I never have learned a language other than my native Southwestern English I did learn to differeniate the different accents from all over the world. Sometimes well enough to distinguish dialect and region. I don’t quite think Brits stopped speaking with a British accent. For that I query Austrailia’s accents. Sometimes I struggle to distinguish which is which. Neither Canada nor the USA kept an English accent but it is a strong component of the Austrailian spoken language. By the way Californias don’t sound Canadaian to me. There a lot of Canadiaians learning to speak like Americans primarly due to the influence of Hollywood especially the west coast of Canada. On Hollywood’s influence I could go on and on. But I won’t! P.S. I had a distinguished linguist once tell me that native Southwesrten Americans have no accent at all! Which would be the reason when I travel people have always asked what part of the U.S. I’m from.

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  34. Rashkavar says:

    One thing failed to point out that’s of significant importance in the history of New-world dialects in general – there’s a lot more linguistic mixing going on than usual. With all this new land, it wasn’t just English – or even British – people moving to the colonies. The land-claim system in the British Colonies (from Georgia all the way up to the Canadas) was one of the most open opportunities for land in history (despite the grievance about claiming land too quickly that helped the American revolution along). Ships transporting settlers tended to be quite large, so it was common for countrymen to stick together. Thus, German, Polish, Italian, and other communities formed, both in isolated rural villages and small enclaves within the big cities (the historic cause for the “little Italy” and similar labels for city districts). As the region was a british colony, English was the primary language for communication between the communities, but there were enough numbers to support these isolated languages for at least a couple of generations. Before long, the german settlements were mainly speaking English, but with a german accent – same with Poles, Greeks, Italians, whatever. (This might also be the origin of all those wonderful little ephitets like kraut, pollack, wop, etc. which are, as far as I know, not used in Europe). As communities mixed, you’d have babies learning to speak English from a German and an Englishman, or any other combination. Over time, all the odd accents derived from other languages made their own little imprints in the language.

    One of the better places to see this is actually in Central America – the way they pronounce some Spanish words down there is far more Mayan than it is Spaniard. Spain’s colonization program wasn’t quite as accepting of foreigners, so the mix is more between the native populations and pre-colonial Spanish, meaning some of the influences are a lot easier to detect.

    I would suggest that the pre-Revolution colonials would largely speak with a very distinct accent from their respective countries of origin.

    Also, I fail to see how the greater urbanization in England would cause the linguistic drift. There’s enough sounds in American English that aren’t present in British English that there’s got to be some degree of introduction of novel sounds.

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