I often discuss Received Pronunciation, the British accent which was long the standard of educated speech in England. Although Americans have a hard time understanding how an accent spoken by so few people could be the ‘standard,’ we in fact had something of our own ‘RP’ in the late 19th- and early 20th-Centuries. It simply never caught on the way RP did.
What I’m referring to is the speech of the East Coast Aristocracy, a small group of elites from powerful old-money families. You can get a good idea of how they spoke from this interview from Eleanor Roosevelt from the 1950′s:
My impression of Mrs. Roosevelt’s accent, first and foremost, is that it is quite like older types of Received Pronunciation. Her speech is entirely non-rhotic (r-less), with the vowel in words like ‘nurse’ a long mid-central vowel, often with some lip rounding and/or fronting (ə ~ ɵ ~ ø). She pronounces ‘again’ so it sounds like ‘a gain‘ and ‘been’ as if it were ‘bean‘ (although she goes with the American pronunciation of ‘category’). She preserves the ‘trap-bath’ split (note the broad vowel for ‘ask’ at 1:40 and ‘last’ at 9:12). Astute readers will no doubt find many other pronunciations of note.
So why did our own ‘RP’ never catch on the way British RP did? First, we never had a real aristocracy, only a de facto one. We never had a house of lords, schools reserved for the nobility, or an interconnected, nationwide land-owning class. In other words, there was never a systematic way for an ‘elite’ accent to transmit itself throughout the country.
And about that country; ours is huge. British RP had geographic limitations in its corner. The entirety of the UK is less than 100,000 square miles; the US is nearly 38 times that size. By the time ‘American aristocratic speech’ could be classified as a discrete phenomenon, moneyed elites had already sprung up in far-flung places such as Chicago and San Francisco. And that’s not even acknowledging the separate tradition of the Southern Gentry.
And so, rather than being a dominant if minority-spoken accent, American aristocratic English is little more than a historical curiosity. Still, it makes you wonder: If the US had stayed within the boundaries of the original thirteen colonies, would America have ended up with a ‘upper-class’ accent like the one that emerged in the UK?