How Americans and Brits came to sound so different

As a New Year’s present, my old high school friend Burl (and Ha’ole Makahiki Hou to you, too, Burl!) passes on a couple of links that he knew would interest me.

Here’s one, and here’s the other. The first one, headlined “When Did Americans Lose Their British Accents?,” is the more informative.

The main idea communicated by both is that General American (the way they talk in Nebraska) is in important ways closer to the way Brits spoke before 1776. For instance, their speech patterns were rhotic, meaning they pronounced their Rs back then. Sometime in Jane Austen’s (and Jack Aubrey‘s, had he existed) youth, upper-class Brits started dropping their Rs.

The coolest thing in the article is the way it explains why some Americans also went non-rhotic after that:

Around the turn of the 18th-19th century, not long after the revolution, non-rhotic speech took off in southern England, especially among the upper and upper-middle classes. It was a signifier of class and status. This posh accent was standardized as Received Pronunciation and taught widely by pronunciation tutors to people who wanted to learn to speak fashionably. Because the Received Pronunciation accent was regionally “neutral” and easy to understand, it spread across England and the empire through the armed forces, the civil service and, later, the BBC.

Across the pond, many former colonists also adopted and imitated Received Pronunciation to show off their status. This happened especially in the port cities that still had close trading ties with England — Boston, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. From the Southeastern coast, the RP sound spread through much of the South along with plantation culture and wealth.

After industrialization and the Civil War and well into the 20th century, political and economic power largely passed from the port cities and cotton regions to the manufacturing hubs of the Mid Atlantic and Midwest — New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, etc. The British elite had much less cultural and linguistic influence in these places, which were mostly populated by the Scots-Irish and other settlers from Northern Britain, and rhotic English was still spoken there. As industrialists in these cities became the self-made economic and political elites of the Industrial Era, Received Pronunciation lost its status and fizzled out in the U.S. The prevalent accent in the Rust Belt, though, got dubbed General American and spread across the states just as RP had in Britain…

So, assuming this is all correct, that’s why many Charlestonians and denizens of South Boston don’t pronounce Rs today — because of the affectations of their ancestors.

There’s a lot more to the differences between General American and Received Pronunciation, starting with vowel sounds, but I liked the way the rhotacism thing was explained.

Burl, by the way, has a fairly typical military brat’s speech pattern — which most Americans would regard as accentless. But he and I both, in our youths, enjoyed tinkering around with other people’s ways of speaking. We loved accents, the more outrageous the better.

Much of that plasticity is gone from my tongue today, but with practice I can get it back. If I warm up the proper mouth muscles on Sunday morning (I do this by reading the passage aloud over and over before Mass), I can do a Scripture reading in Spanish in an accent that gets me about 80 percent of the way (to my ear) to sounding like a native speaker, of some vague nationality. And during rehearsals for “Pride and Prejudice,” our diction coach asked me where I was from, and complimented me on my use of Received Pronunciation. But I’d been practicing for weeks by that time. If you ask me to do it at the drop of a hat, I’ll probably fall flat.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve gradually started sounding a bit more Southern than I once did — taking on the coloration of my surroundings.

But my speech is still rhotic.

6 thoughts on “How Americans and Brits came to sound so different

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Good find. My dad was is former Army, so I always heard “Oh-dark-thirty” rather than zero-dark-thirty, when he wanted to emphasize that the family would be getting up early next morning.

      He also employed “standby to standby” when he was attempting to get everyone ready to leave the house and there were stragglers.

      Incidentally, a “straggler” for him is someone who was not ready to leave fifteen minutes early. Even now, when I ask my dad to come pick me up or meet me somewhere at a certain time…it’s always 15 minutes before the agreed upon time.

  1. Ralph Hightower

    And Southerners tend to drop their “g” in the “ing”. I been caught many a time on that during Toastmasters.
    When I was in Iowa in 1994, the local Cedar Rapids television reporters sounded pretty much like Columbia; except for some “catch phrases” like “you bet” in Cedar Rapids.

    It’s the “Tom Brokaw” style of news reporting; typical Midwestern.

    1. Kathryn Fenner

      I think the Yankee way of saying “ing” has an “uh” at end. I’m not sure the southern way is incorrect, at all.


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