Americans loosing their English accents

I’ve heard that besides winning independence from England, we, as a country, purposely gave up our English accents as another way of differentiating ourselves from England.
If that’s true, is there any idea of how long it took? Was done in just a couple of generations, or was it slow and gradual? Thanks.

I have no evidence one way or the other, but I doubt it was a concious decision. Not all British people talked the same way, and to people who grew up as British citizens, it’s not “an English accent,” it’s “how we talk.” It’s not likely they made up an American accent and decided to talk like that instead. Probably it was a gradual thing, and slowly developed into different regional American accents.

Now that I think about it, I bet a lot of gradual evolution had already happened. People in America in the 1780s can’t have sounded exactly like people in Britain at that time. There had been British subjects living in America for a long time at that point. Some families were recent immigrants, but others had been there for generations.

How come, too, Canadians sound pretty much the same as Americans? If the reason to develop a different accent was to sound ‘less British’, why would Canadians (who were mostly loyal to the Crown) try and lose their accent too?

Well, I think the obvious answer is that the theory is utter bunk.

Americans in 1780 would have sounded very different from ANYTHING we would be familiar with today. And Britons would have sounded very different, too. And of course they all would have sounded different to one another. The “British accent” isn’t even one accent, would have been long different from American in 1776, and is quite different from today’s various British accents.

And anyway, who says Canadians sound like Americans? Depends what Canadians and what Americans you’re talking about. I’m Canadian, travel throughout the USA, and trust me, we sound different.

I live in the midwest and am amazed how close Ontarians sound to other (urbanized) U.S. midwesterners – that is, until they use the “ou” sound. Other than that, there’s barely a difference.

After the first colonizing by English settlers to the colonies, the next wave were largely Scots, Scots Irish, and Irish.

The first phase was largely between 1605 and 1670- mostly English, mostly from England and so a largely seventeenth century ‘accent pool’. After this time much of the ‘accent pool’ came from outwith England.

There is considerable overlap between Modern US accents and Modern Irish/Scots accents in vowel sounds, intonation and word usage.

And something I heard the other day to my surprise- I heard a woman of a certain age in a supermarket shouting loudly. I live in a very white area of Scotland. I have spent much of my working life with Afro-Caribbean women of a certain age (they are disproportionately represented on night staffs of Mental Health Hospitals.) I heard this woman initially as a having a Jamaican accent, and it was only after several seconds that I realised it was loud working class central lowlands Scots! Just an observation.

That, and Canadians mumble far less than Americans.

But Canadians from outside of Ontario do sound different… just as Americans from outside the midwest have other accents as well.

And it would have been one hell of a pool. A quick browse of the passengers of the Mayflower shows that although we think of it as setting sail from Plymouth, there’s birthplaces as far apart as Norfolk, Surrey, Lancashire and Yorkshire. These people at that time would have had a hard time simply understanding each other.

I thought I read somewhere that the “American Accent” is just basically 17th century English. English English and American English kind of evolved their separate ways, with the American accent still sounding more like 17th century English than modern English English.

I’ve heard this suggested before, too - but it doesn’t make sense, for the reason I gave above, that there was no single or dominant English accent.

I have no answer to anything, just a wee comment.

No American or Canadian accent I have ever heard (and my Grandmother had a Canadian accent) sounds anything like an English acccent.

But then no Kiwi, Aussie or South African accent does either.

America, Canada, South Africa, Australia and NZ (just the first few I could think of with English as a first language) were all colonies and all have very different accents.

I can’t imagine politics affected anything. Accents just develop from the people using them.

NZ and Aus had very different origins but many claim we have the same accent, to us it is miles different. Accents were not planned.

If they were we would sound even more different then those crims over the Tas :smiley:

My understanding of accents in England in those times is that there was greater commonality in speech over certain areas. If you listen to Norfolk and Devon accents there are great similarities. In my lifetime I have heard similar ‘country southern English’ accents disappear from adults in Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire- all being replaced by more estuary English. Young people in the Bristol, Somerset, Gloucestershire area have also lost their unique western accents and now speak with a much more estuary influenced accent. Similar changes have probably occurred with greater urbanization from 1700 onwards. I believe the same applies to midlands patterns of speech and North Western/Southern Yorkshire and North Eastern/Northern Yorkshire accents- greater differentiation with urbanization and the creation of newer city accents,m the country accents remaining more historically accurate. So it is likely that the emigrants to the USA spoke largely with similar accents in three distinctive pools- the whole of southern England outside London, and the North-West/Southern Yorkshire pool.

As noted above, these would have been overwhelmed by the Scots, Scots/Irish, welsh and Irish who followed in the next century in far greater numbers.


English was inherited from British colonization. The first wave of English-speaking immigrants was settled in North America in the 17th century. In that century, there were also speakers in North America of the Dutch, French, German, Native American, Spanish, Swedish, and Finnish languages.

Note: This page contains IPA phonetic symbols in Unicode. See IPA in Unicode.In many ways, compared to British English, American English is conservative in its phonology. It is sometimes claimed that certain rural areas in North America speak “Elizabethan English,” and there may be some truth to this, but the standard American English of the upper Midwest has a sound profile much closer to 17th century English than contemporary speech in England. The conservatism of American English is largely the result of the fact that it represents a mixture of various dialects from the British Isles. Dialect in North America is most distinctive on the East Coast of the continent; this is largely because these areas were in contact with England, and imitated prestigious varieties of British English at a time when those varieties were undergoing changes. The interior of the country was settled by people who were no longer closely connected to England, as they had no access to the ocean during a time when journeys to Britain were always by sea. As such the inland speech is much more homogeneous than the East Coast speech, and did not imitate the changes in speech from England.

Most North American speech is rhotic, as English was everywhere in the 17th century. Rhoticity was further supported by Hiberno-English and Scottish English. In most varieties of North American English, the sound corresponding to the letter “R” is a retroflex semivowel rather than a trill or a tap. The loss of syllable-final r in North America is confined mostly to the accents of eastern New England, New York City and surrounding areas, and the coastal portions of the South. In England, lost ‘r’ was often changed into [ə] (schwa), giving rise to a new class of falling diphthongs. Furthermore, the ‘er’ sound of (stressed) fur or (unstressed) butter, which is represented in IPA as stressed [ɝ] or unstressed [ɚ] is realized in American English as a monophthongal r-colored vowel. This does not happen in the non-rhotic varieties of North American speech.

Other British English changes in which most North American dialects do not participate include:

The shift of [æ] to [ɑ] (the so-called “broad A”) before [f], [s], [θ], [ð], [z], [v] alone or preceded by [n]. This is the difference between the British and American pronunciation of bath and dance. In the United States, only linguistically conservative eastern-New-England speakers took up this innovation.
The shift of intervocalic [t] to glottal stop [ʔ], as in /bɒʔəl/ for bottle. This change is not universal for British English (and in fact is not considered to be part of Received Pronunciation), but it does not occur in most North American dialects. Newfoundland English is a notable exception.
On the other hand, North American English has undergone some sound changes not found in Britain, at least not in standard varieties. Many of these are instances of phonemic differentiation and include:

The merger of [ɑ] and [ɒ], making father and bother rhyme. This change is nearly universal in North American English, occurring almost everywhere except for parts of eastern New England, like the Boston accent.
The replacement of the lot vowel with the strut vowel in what, was,of, from, everybody, nobody, somebody, anybody, because, and in some dialects want.
The merger of [ɒ] and [ɔ]. This is the so-called cot-caught merger, where cot and caught are homophones. This change has occurred in eastern New England, in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, and from the Great Plains westward.
Tense-lax neutralization before intervocalic /r/. Which (if any) vowels are affected varies between dialects.
The merger of [ʊɹ] and [ɝ] after palatals in some words, so that cure, pure, mature and sure rhyme with fir in some speech registers for some speakers.
Dropping of [j] after [n], [d], [t], [s], [z], and [l], so that new, duke, Tuesday, suit, resume, lute are pronounced /nuː/, /duːk/, /tuːzdeɪ/, /suːt/, /ɹɪzuːm/, /luːt/.
Æ-tensing in environments that vary widely from accent to accent. In some accents, particularly those from Philadelphia to New York City, [æ] and [eə] can even contrast sometimes, as in Yes, I can [kæn] vs. tin can [keən].
The flapping of intervocalic [t] and [d] to alveolar tap [ɾ] before non-initial reduced vowels. The words ladder and latter are mostly or entirely homophonous, possibly distinguished only by the length of preceding vowel. For some speakers, the merger is incomplete and ‘t’ before a reduced vowel is sometimes not tapped following [eɪ] or [ɪ] when it represents underlying ‘t’; thus greater and grader, and unbitten and unbidden are distinguished. Others distinguish the sounds if they are preceded by the diphthongs [ɑɪ] or [ɑʊ]; these speakers tend to pronounce writer with [əɪ] and rider with [ɑɪ]. This is called Canadian raising; it is general in Canadian English, and occurs in some northerly versions of American English as well.
The dropping of [t]s that occur between [n] and an unstressed vowel, making winter and winner sound the same. This does not occur when the t after the n belongs to a second stress syllable, as in entail.
The pin-pen merger, by which [ɛ] is raised to [ɪ] before nasal consonants, making pairs like pen/pin homophonous. This merger originated in Southern American English but is now widespread in the Midwest and West as well.
Some mergers found in most varieties of both American and British English include:

The horse-hoarse merger of the vowels [ɔ] and [oʊ] before ‘r’, making pairs like horse/hoarse, corps/core, for/four, morning/mourning etc. homophones.
The wine-whine merger making pairs like wine/whine, wet/whet, Wales/whales, wear/where etc. homophones. Many older varieties of southern and western American English still keep these distinct, but the merger appears to be spreading.

Let’s not forget the influx of Immigrants from other nations, like the Germanies, whose accents & vocabularies added to our own.

I think that non-English speaking immigrants may have added words and inflexions to the language but I am not sure about accents. Accents tend to be conservative and inward looking, whereas usages are more open to influence.

It is impossible to do anything deliberately and consciously with the accents of an entire population. They go whichever way they’re going.

As other’s have pointed out, the US was populated by many immigrants from many places. The resulting American accent is a child of many different accents.

(And the United States won independence from Britain, not England.)

On more than one occasion I’ve found myself mistaking an Irish accent for an American one. I once had an Irish lecturer and I spent 6 months thinking he was American. It just suddenly it struck me one day that he had an Irish accent and I couldn’t figure out why I’d never realised before.

We understand Robert E. Lee to have had what we would today consider to be a Southern accent. That is confirmed by contemporary accounts and some sound recordings of his peers.

Why wouldn’t we consider George Washington to have had a similar accent? He was born only seventy years earlier, in the same part of the country.

Part of the problem would be one of reference groups. People of Washington’s generation and class largely saw themselves as British overseas and looked back to the manners and customs (including accents and other language usages) of English courtly circles. There was much to-ing and fro-ing of people between the two groups and reading the social histories of the times, the mother country was consciously aped in custom, usage and probably accent. For someone born seventy years later, this would not have been the case.

And how absent radio and sound recordings centuries ago could someone have to do anything deliberately and consciously with the accents of an entire population? How could anyone have spread the word to use a specific accent to a population if they couldn’t hear how they should speak?