American accent closer to "original" british accent?

Please bear with this potential train-wreck of an explanation.

A while ago, I heard a discussion (probably on a public radio station of some sort) about Shakespeare plays and how they usually involve actors speaking in modern British (London) accents, even when the actors are American. A linguistics-type person commented that if we wanted to be accurate, the American accent is closer to what the English used to sound like back in Shakespeare’s day than the way English is spoken nowadays in Great Britain. He, the linguistics person, said that modern Brit-English has gone though some other language influences, and he mentioned German being the main one.

Now, I can see how that’s possible, as American-English has probably had less exterior influence due to less contact with other similar languages so maybe it’s changed less over the years (lingusitics evolution?). So I posed this question to a couple of friends in Europe to see if they’d heard of this. A friend in London said that there was likely some truth to this, but a friend in Munich looked at me like I’d just landed. Does anyone know the validity or absurdity of this theory? Hvae you even heard of it at all?

You can tell a lot about accent and speech patterns from writings of the day, because spelling was not standardized, and often, people spelled phonetically.

Accent and speech also depended a lot on your social class. There has always been more cultured English spoken by the nobility, and a bit cruder-sounding English, or “Cockney” spoken by the lower classes. Shakespear was writing/preforming for a common audience, and most likely, his actors had common accents as well, since acting was not a “respectable” profession back in his day. Probably when playing a lady or lord, the actor would ape a cultured accent, but his normal speech was most likely the Cockney slang.

The way I have always heard the explanation of what the common man’s English sounded like in Shakespear’s day is that it would sound much like an Appalachian hillbilly faking an English accent.

It’s true enough. I recommend Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue: The English Language for a cursory but easy-to-read discussion of this.

Original “British” accent? Ok, is the accent you have in mind the accent of the English midlands where Bill S. was born, or as others have suggested, London Cockney? You can’t realistically worry about a “British” accent, as accents would then have been even more localised than they are now.
Things like German being an influence would have happened before Shakespeare, surely, so I am not sure why that should matter.

You hear this all the time from linguists. Also, that American English preserves more "outdated’ words than British English: fall for autumn, is one example usually given. It’s also commonly understood that groups leaving the Motherland tend to preserve the language closer to it’s original, while it changes more dramatically back home. The best example of this is Icelandic. It’s pretty much the same language as Old Norse, which is nowadays very difficult for Danes or Norwegians to understand.

But don’t confuse this with the idea that American English is UNCHANGED from Elizabethan times. Just that it probably has changed less than British English.

There was a PBS series about 20 yrs ago that may have been based on the book “Mother Tongue”. If you can get a hold of it, it’s pretty interesting.


No. Cockney is a London district dialect with an extremely narrow geographical range.

It’s completely inaccurate to divide English into simple “cultured” and “lower-class” categories. English in Shakespeare’s time (and even now) has many regional dialects. For instance, Shakespeare himself was born in Warwickshire, so probably spoke with a hybrid between Midland and rural southern English.

Much as many Americans wet themselves in the hope that current US English has closer ‘roots’ to Elizabethan English than current UK English, we simply can’t tell, because UK English of that period was so un-standardised.

Two Great Questions in one

  1. Why do American actors use accents for some foreign plays and not others? I’m still waiting for a production of Hamlet that uses Danish accents, and Julius Caesar with Italian accents. But no, Shakespeare usually sounds “British” in this country. Occasionally I’ll see Cyrano de Bergerac done in English with a French accent, which makes me giggle.

  2. Re: Elizabethan proununcation: English pronunciation in 1600 London probably sounded something inbetween a modern London sound and the speech of contemporary Americans. With no audio tapes to go by, we have to make some assumptions based on rhyming poetry, verse, misspelled words in documents, etc.

For example, from Shakespeare’s plays, we can guess that they pronounced the word “advertisement” in the current British way (emphasis on the second syllable, not the third).

Please read the book MOTHER TONGUE - ENGLISH AND HOW IT GOT THAT WAY by Bill Bryson, which describes how English pronunciation changed at the whims of fashion. For example, Bryson says that the distinctive “broad a” (dahnce and bahth) did not become the fashionable pronunciation in southern England until the eighteenth century.

Bill Bryson always says that, based on rhymes and puns, that the words “knees”, “grease”, “grass” and “grace” all rhymed, more or less, and that “clean” rhymed with “lane”. So it today’s actors really want to sound like Shakespeare, then *nobody" would be able to understand them!

The best reconstruction that we can make of how Shakespeare himself spoke doesn’t sound exactly like either a modern British or a modern American accent. It doesn’t sound exactly like a modern Irish accent either, though that’s another common sloppy description of it. It sounds different from any current accent of English (and a little hard to understand, actually). All current dialects of English have changed quite a bit over the past 400 years. It’s also not true, incidentally, that the Appalachian dialect is closer to the English of Shakespeare’s time than other dialects.

I don’t know why German would have influenced British English more than American English. Given that the largest ethnic group in the U.S. is German (Irish is second and English is third), you would think that it would be the other way around. I also don’t know why you would think that American English has had less contact with foreign languages than British English.

For what plays do American actors use foreign accents? I can’t think of any offhand. Shakespeare’s plays were originally done not only without any attempt at foreign accents but also with no attempt at historically correct clothing or anything thing else historically correct. Costumes and props were very minimal in the theaters of Shakespeare’s time.

I knew even as I wrote that, that I was being too simplistic. My apologies. The point I was trying to make was that even within the city of London, social class had much to do with accent. I can recall reading many times in letters where people would say that somone appeared to be “of gentle birth” by their speech, or sounded like they came from the lower classes. A lady’s maid often spoke quite differently than the lady she served. If she tried to adopt the mannerisms and speech of the upper classes, she might be looked upon by her neighbors as giving herself “airs.”

Fashion and fads also had a lot to do with speech mannerisms. at certain points, it was fashionable for the upper class to pronounce words differently. (For example, in the 1660’s, “certain” was pronounced as “sartin” and “servant” as “sarvant.”) This was a way of accentuating their seperation from the lower classes.

City dwellers, of course, spoke differently than those from “the country.” I remember reading one letter in which the sender urged her cousin (who had come to London to find a husband) to rid herself of her “county” accent by taking on a tutor, or be looked upon as somewhat of a greenhorn fool in the City. It’s entirely possible that Shakespeare at least attempted to adopt a London accent after his arrival, rather than mark himself as an outsider.

Agreed (and sorrry about the snarkiness). The “country” accent she’s talking about would be rural southern English, which has a massive extent with only slight regional variation.

This article by Andrew Gurr, the eminent Shakespeare scholar, reviews the various attempts which have been made to reconstruct ‘Shakespearean’ pronunciation.

Gurr is more impressed by the limitations of this approach.

He also touches on the question of Shakespeare’s own accent.

Remember that a high proportion of the population of London in this period had, like Shakespeare, been born elsewhere and would return home at a later date.

Only if you ignore the fact that his plays were regularly performed at court and that most Shakespeare historians now agree that the Bankside theatres drew a wide cross-section of London inhabitants. If anything, many of his plays were intended to come across as specifically courtly, in much the same way that costume dramas of today try to be ‘classy’.

I remember our distress and bewilderment at our English teacher insisting that Keats spoke with a broad Cockney accent.

Try reading Ode to a Nightingale in broad sarf Lahndahn and you’ll understand…

I can second the recommendation of The Mother Tongue, although I wouldn’t take everything Bryson says in it as gospel; I think the PBS series, though, was The Story of English. There was a quite good, if sometimes boring, companion book to the series. Unfortunately, I loaned it to a friend years ago; naturally, I haven’t seen it since.

There is a new (1993) edition. It is available at Amazon, among other places.

Thanks! to everyone who replied (and to those who viewed the question, scratched their pretty heads and backed away slowly). It’s comforting to know that I wasn’t imagining the whole thing. Andrew Kurr may have been the person I had heard. And I will add the Billy Bryson book (humor, hyperbole and all) to my reading list, and perhaps track down the PBS series.

(As for reading Keats in a broad Cockney accent, I may have to pass on that one as I don’t want to insult a whole segment of people who speak that way.)

Some of us may swoon at the sound of UK English, but I don’t think I’m wetting myself nannering, We’re closer to “your” roots and you are…. :slight_smile:

Actually, raygirvan’s point was a good one, in that certain Americans (particularly, it must be said, past generations of American Shakespeare scholars) did have an inferiority complex about the culture of the Old World. Asserting that American English was ‘closer’ to Elizabethan English was one way of suggesting that American claims to that cultural heritage were at least as valid as those of the English. As Gurr rather subtlely implies, interpretations of such matters can be twisted by one’s own cultural biases.

Whoever it was that you heard, InTransit, they cannot have known that much about the subject if they were claiming that British English has diverged from American English because of the influence of German. This sounds like a garbled version of the often debunked myth that, at some point, the English court imitated the German pronunciation of one of the Hanoverian monarchs. If so, this ‘linguistics-type person’ was using one misconception as an explanation for another one.

However, I’m sorry about phrasing it as I did. Shakespearian scholarship was one area I had in mind. Also, a couple of years back, British TV showed a US-sourced History of English documentary - title forgotten - with much the same subtext, implying that certain constructions such as the strong terminal r of US English (but not of RP British English) somehow carried the stamp of authenticity and tradition.

I wasn’t aware there was a (debunked) myth about this. Obviously I am quite new in the linguistics game. Of course, my German friend jokingly claims that English is really a variant of German, as all other languages are.

As has been noted above, surmises about pronunciation in earlier times can be made by looking at the guesses people made at how to spell various words. When Halley’s Comet neared the earth in the 1980s, there was a good deal of discussion about how to pronounce “Halley”. Ted Koppell of NightLine “discovered” that Sir Edmund Halley’s most direct descendants pronounced their name “Hawley”. This was the way Queen Anne had spelled his name in a letter to him.

Alistair Cooke has observed more than once that many of the instances in which Americans and Englishmen differ on how to pronounce a word are examples of pronunciation having changed in England. The proof he cites for this are court records from the American Colonies. In those days before dictionaries, courtroom reporters would have to make their own best guess at how to spell a word with which they were unfamiliar. Time and again it has been found that these guesses amount to a phonetic rendering of how the word in question is still pronounced in the U.S.