Did America's "Founding Fathers" Have English Accents?

Although Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Henry, Franklin, et al. were presumably all born in the American colonies sometime around the 1730s-1740s, I’m wondering if the residual English accents of their own ancestors (i.e., parents’ and g-parents’ generation) had already been essentially ‘homogenized’ out of the prevailing regional American dialect that we know today. Or, is it even remotely possible that something of a weakened English accent was still in evidence in this era of early American history and that Washington and company would today sound somewhat English to us?

(Yes, I recognize the abundance of English and American dialects at that time, and now. Work with me on this, folks.)

They probably would have spoken a dialect that sounded English by the standards of that time. The way a language is spoken changes gradually over the course of generations: it would be nonsense to pinpoint a time when ‘British’ became ‘American’. Likewise, dialects in Britain have evolved independently from American dialects. Somewhere around the beginning of colonization, they were both still pronounced the same way, but this would not have sounded typically ‘American’ or ‘English’ even to us: rather what would seem like a cross of the two, or more likely something that could not be placed at all. Since they both started from the exact same language, the peculiarities for each type of speech only came about after the ‘split’.

If you mean “Did they sound like British English as it is spoken today?” the answer is definitely no. Amercan English has kept many features in vocabulary and pronunciation that have changed in England over the years.

This got a very good airing a while back - I did a search but can’t find the thread.

The Founding Fathers that came from VA generally came from either the Northern Neck (primarily Westmoreland County) and a few other Tidewater locales, or the Piedmont region (Jefferson and Madison in particular). The Northern Neck folks probably had the same accent that can be found there today - a sort of Cornish-inflected drawl (“hoos” for “house” is the example most often given). The Tidewater folks (Harrison, King Carter, etc.) probably didn’t have the same “mouth full of marbles” sound to the drawl. The Piedmont folks, too, probably sounded much the same as natives and old-timers in the region sound today - not the pronounced Southern drawl associated with the far Southwestern portion of the state, but a little bit of a twang.

From what I’ve read, Jefferson had such a quiet and weak voice that he was practically impossible to hear if you weren’t standing right next to him.

That’s very interesting. Can it be said that Americans today sound more like the English of the Founding Father’s day than the English of today?

It would be my bet (no cite) that the English kept other features that changed in American English, so it turns out pretty much even across the board. At any rate, the pronounciation of the “r” at the end of words or syllables is definitely a remnant from the language of the founding fathers.

Sure. I was thinking of, among other things, the pronunciation of words like “dance” and “can’t”.

There is an island in the Chesapeake Bay called Tangier Island. It was founded in the late 17th century, and the present residents are descendants of early settlers. They speak with a very distinctive accent that sounds sort of English, but almost like an Irish brogue to my ears. At least they spoke it when I visited about six years ago – I’ve been told that the recent arrival of cable TV has started to ‘mainstreamize’ the accents of their kids.

I have heard it postulated that this accent probably bears some resemblance to what the Founding Fathers sounded like.

The accent of people at large on the eastern shore of Maryland does indeed have certain pronunciations that sound like they could be traced pretty directly back to Elizabethan English – the aforementioned hoos for house is one – they seem to more subtly elongate the ow sound on some other words like around.

I always assumed these ‘English-sounding’ accents were less influenced by other, non-English speaking immigrants when compared with, say New York or Pittsburgh accents.

I believe this may be the thread to which plnner is referring.

I realize I phrased this very poorly. What I meant to ask was:
Who sounds more like the British of the 18th century? Today’s Americans or today’s British?

*"You seem pretty committed to the idea that George Washington had a British accent. Am I reading you correctly? What is the basis for your view?

The South of the Revolutionary years would have been pretty isolated from England. (It does, after all, take a while for a ship to traverse the Atlantic.) Plantation life would have further isolated its citizens. There was no TV or radio, of course, so it’s not like the colonists were hearing the mother tongue every day. Do you really think hearing a preacher once a week (who you presume would have a British accent) is going to make a difference? (I probably hear an Australian accent once a week, but it doesn’t affect my speech.) In fact, it seems to me more likely that the locals would have a modifying effect on the preacher’s accent. (I’m sure he would have been using “y’all” in no time.)

The isolation of the South, the African influence, and the fact that Southerners had been in the New World for nearly 170 years, all seem to argue in favor of the development, by the time of the Revolution, of a distinct accent. Do you disagree? On what basis?

(Thanks, by the way, for clearing up my confusion on whether G.W. was educated in England.)"*
Okay, problem is, I’m guessing the majority of Americans in, say, 1750 were only 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, rather than Mayflower descendants. If so, then how “blended” would their dialects have been?

I also doubt the “Founding Fathers’” speech patterns were greatly influenced by the slave dialects Spoke talks about. Nor did they probably sound like poor southern plantars. And didn’t the great waves of Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants not arrive until the early-to-middle 1700s (or much later, in the case of the Irish). I’m not sure how German factors into all this either.

The other link–from three years ago–doesn’t really answer the question. Just lots of guesswork. People speaking authoritatively while producing zero cites. Kinda like me.

Well you’d have to define “British of the 18th Century” first, as it consisted of a very wide range of dialects that were wider even than the differences between current American and British dialects.

Americans of the time probably sounded more like a cross-bred mixture of them all, coming from all parts of Britain and beyond.

Since we have no sound recordings from the era and no one can provide a definitive cite as to just what any of the Founding Fathers sounded like we have to work toward a pretty broad generalization. As has been pointed out, Washington came from Westmoreland County, spent his early years in Fredericksburg, and but for some trips to the Northwest Terrortories of his day and Barbados (IIRC), never spent an appreciable amount of time anywhere other than Eastern Virginia. My point is that he probably didn’t pick up any accents peculiar to the colonies, nor was he probably influenced by the other languages he was exposed to having spent so little time in the other areas (unlike Jefferson, who spent several years in France, spoke several other languages, and was a Francophile in general). Even today Westmoreland County is a pretty isolated place with very little in-migration and except for television and radio there’s been precious little outside influence. I don’t suspect the sound of the regional dialect has changed much over the past 200 and some years. So if you want to know what Washington probably sounded like you can call and speak to my father-in-law, who’s family has lived in Westmoreland since before Washington’s ancestors settled there. Just be sure and speak up, he’s really hard of hearing.

Do you mean “between” or “among” current American and British dialects?

Well, I’ll raise again the point here to which I alluded in the other thread (Did George Washington Have a Southern Accent?):

George Washington and Robert E. Lee were born 5 miles from each other, and 75 years apart Oddly, Lee is widely presumed to have had a broad Southern accent and Washington is not. Why?

Virginia was settled in 1607. The American colonies had existed for c. 170 years by the time of the American Revolution. That’s plenty of time for distinct American accents (including a Southern accent) to emerge.

Most people have no trouble accepting that by the time of the Civil War a “Southern accent” existed. This fact is borne out by phonetic spellings in the writings of Confederate soldiers.

If you believe Southern colonists still had “British accents” in 1776, but had “Southern accents” by the time of the Civil War, then you have to believe that in the 170 years from the founding of Jamestown to the Revolution there was no appreciable change in accent, but that in the 80 years between the end of the Revolution and the beginning of the Civil War, a Southern accent magically emerged. That defies logic.

It also defies evidence raised in the other thread (including, for example, Washington’s distinctly Southern phonetic spelling of “ginseng” as “ginsang.”)

The language was influenced by other, non-English colonists as well (unlike Australia and New Zealand, which still sound recognizably British). Regional accents were impacted by Scots-Irish in Georgia and the Carolinas, Africans in varying degrees throughout the colonies (esp. the Carolina barrier islands), Germans and Irish in Pennsylvania, Swedes in New Jersey, Dutch in New York, etc. In parts of Tennessee (a county of North Carolina around the time of the Revolution), an isolated community of mountain folk called the Melungions maintained its Portugese and Elizabethan English influences with minimal impact from other colonists.

My suspicion is that the wealthier “Founding Father” types spoke very much like the Englishmen that they considered themselves to be up until about 1770.

One thing that needs to be remembered is that the English didn’t have an English accent at that time!

And another thing to be remembered, that England has a far more diverse range of accents than the US and several of them are probably more different from each other as they are from some US accents.

Did America’s “Founding Fathers” Have English Accents?

I’m amazed that I have recently read something on this…David McCullough’s tome “John Adams” implyed that the New England accent was well set and quite destinct from the British, and even destinctivly New Englandish apart from other American dialects as near south as Virginia. And by reading the differing writing styles in the correspondances between Adams and Jefferson, it becomes quite apparent.
I guess with most of the early revolutionaries being second and third generation and beyond removed from British english influences, local dialects developed

I understand your argument, Spoke, but I think your numbers are a mite fuzzy. Settlement in Virginia was miniscule by even 1610-1620 and population density was still exceptionally low in the early 1630s. Remember that the linguistically formative years of Washington, et al. were probably in the mid-1740s or so. So, we’re looking at a meaningful span of maybe 100 years max., or roughly four generations.

I suppose four generations is enough time for the mellowing of a British accent, given the confluence of Scots-Irish, Scots, and the wealth of English/British dialects. But, if you can accept this, then can you also accept that the accelerating settlement and populations density of Virginia (especially by non-English) accelerated the blending of the British dialect. IOW, perhaps the effect wasn’t linear, meaning that the dialects may have been stronger in earlier years, and then quickly mellowed as the population blended it.