How George Washington Spoke (Brief Thoughts)

George WashingtonIt’s the Fourth of July, the day when we Americans celebrate our nation’s independence from Britain. To celebrate (sort of), I am going to watch the HBO miniseries John Adams.

At the time of the series’ release, I was intrigued by a quote from actor David Morse, who portrays George Washington. Discussing the accent he used for Washington in an interview with The Onion AV Club, he explained:

The accent back then was probably nothing like what we think of as a Southern accent now or a New England accent now, so we tried to find the root of the accents. For Washington, it was a little bit of Cornwall, that western country English accent with a trace of farmer.

Here is a brief clip of Morse as Washington (He starts speaking at :38).

I enjoy Morse’s accent here, regardless of its strict accuracy. He gives us a hint of West Country (particularly those hard r’s), while maintaining the sense that Washington’s language was part of an earlier step in the evolution of American speech*.

Would there have been a West Country influence on the speech of colonial Virginia? The question is somewhat irrelevant, since most of 17th- and 18th-Century Southern England would probably sound rather ‘West Country’ to a contemporary Englishman. Outside of East Anglia, rhoticity would have been widespread, while the vowel in ‘kite’ would have had a more ‘raised’ pronunciation. Both features are typical of West Country English today. And these features were no doubt brought to the New World.

There is plenty of contemporary evidence that Virginia (or at least parts of Virginia) once had something of a ‘brogue’-like accent. Isolated islands off the coast still betray the influence of a West-Country like progenitor (note my earlier discussion of the accent of Tangier Island). Then there is Virginia’s ‘Tidewater raising,’ a similar situation to Canadian Raising whereby the vowel in words like ‘mouth’ is raised before voiceless consonants (so that ’bout’ may sound a bit like ‘boat’).

None of this is new, but it’s interesting to see an actor adopt an accent that reflects this history. I certainly prefer to the ‘Mid-Atlantic’ British-ish speech typical of so many actors portraying Washington!

*I should really give credit to John Adams’ dialect coach, Catherine Charlton.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched 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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11 Responses to How George Washington Spoke (Brief Thoughts)

  1. Bettie Taylor says:

    “The question is somewhat irrelevant, since most of 17th- and 18th-Century Southern England would probably sound rather ‘West Country’ to a contemporary Englishman. Outside of East Anglia, rhoticity would have been widespread, while the vowel in ‘kite’ would have had a more ‘raised’ pronunciation.”

    Or maybe most of England in general would have sounded rather “West Country”. How do we know that East Anglia didn’t have a rhotic accent at that time?

    • trawicks says:

      My sentence is a tad misleading, there. I’m talking strictly about non-rhoticity: East Anglia (and a few surrounding areas) was really the only large region of England that probably had a large contingent of rural non-rhotic speakers.

      • Bettie Taylor says:

        How do we know this?

        • trawicks says:

          We don’t, 100%! The idea that East Anglia was one of the first bastions of non-rhoticity is not mine, however. University of Toronto’s Carol Percy summarizes a fairly common view on this overview of Early Modern English consonants:

          “-then, in some dialects (ancestors of RP, rural East Anglia), /r/ lost much more widely
          -postvocalically (car or park)
          -sporadically from C15th; widespread by C18th”

          Alexander Ellis’ late 19th-Century survey of British dialects offers some highly circumstantial evidence to support this, with East Anglia and more northerly parts of the East Coast forming the only part of the country that could be described as fully non-rhotic (at least in rural areas). That would suggest that r-lessesless had more of a head start there than in other parts of Southern England, confirmed by the SED in the 1950s: even then, East Anglia was one of the only parts of the South with large areas of invariably non-rhotic rural speech.

  2. Bettie Taylor says:

    BTW David Morse sounds like Liam Neeson in that clip to me

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  4. Lee West says:

    I think Washington would of been something not all too far from Worcestershire, England. Worcestershire, although in the West Midlands is to this day is technically part of the West Country dialect and is still rhotic in the south of the County. The Birmingham/Black Country influx is spreading in Worcestershire but to me it is the older boys of rural Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire who carry very similar tones to modern American (GA). Forward to 4.00 exactly and listen also to the narration…

  5. Lee West says:

    Sorry… Episode 3, A Muse of Fire, part 3/7. ( 4.00mins)

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