Did George Washington have a southern accent?

I just got through watching the A&E movie “The Crossing,” featuring Jeff Daniels as George Washington. Of course, Mr. Daniels gave his usual delivery, without any discernable accent.

Here’s the thing. George Washington was from Virginia. For that matter, so were Thomas Jefferson and various others of our founding fathers. Yet, in the dozens of portrayals of these gentlemen on television and in film, I have never once seen them portrayed as having a southern accent.

Now bear with me here. The Jamestown colony was founded in Virginia in 1609. It seems to me that by the time the Revolution rolled around 167 years later, there would have been ample time for the southern colonies to have developed the accent and dialect for which they are now known.

So what’s the scoop? Are we being victimized by some dark Yankee conspiracy to de-southernize George, Tom and the boys?

Are there any contemporary accounts which might reveal whether, at the time of the Revolution, the southern accent was already prevalent? Anyone?

Well, there are lots of variations on the ‘southern’ accent. Doubtless George Washington did not speak midwestern standard (the language spoken on television and movies). I imagine that his accent was closest to the upper-crust ‘southern-aristocrat’ accent - something very similar to a British accent, but with more twang. Or something.

If you’re a native Georgian, I know YOU’VE got a southern accent! :wink: As for George, I think it’s hard to say what kind of accents anyone had over 200 years ago. I’m sure they’ve evolved. My WAG would be that a “southern” accent as we know it did not exist at that time, and that there would have been some remnant of the British accent. BTW, I haven’t noticed a southern accent on my visits to Northern Virginia.

Actually, based on writings (e.g. misspellings) from the day, it has been determined that, IIRC, the British and those living in the U.S. colonies had accents that were similar to each other, but different from how most of us speak today, on either side of the Atlantic. This had been discussed in a couple of threads several months ago. I’ll see if I can find the link now that we have a decent search engine.

George’s older brother (older half brother) was educated in England, wasn’t he? George wasn’t prepared to inherit - i.e. educated in England, too. But it would seem logical that his family still spoke in the Brit accent of the day.

So which Brit accent of the day would that be?

A drawl?

Oh, I’m gonna keep using these #%@&* codes 'til I get 'em right.

Sycorax mentions

Them folks wadd’n born round heya.

Of course, neither was George. He was born down south of here, in what is called the Northern Neck. I assure you, the people who live there ** now ** have southern accents. I am sure that they had a pattern of speaking which was distinct from that of Philadelphians, or Bostonians of the time. God only knows what they sounded like in New York, in 1776.


“This institution will be based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Thomas Jefferson (on the University of Virginia)
Wow, it’s taking ** a lot ** longer than we thought!

Tris - ain’t nobody born round heya. I’n not even sure this is living.

Thanks for the response y’all!Yes, Sycorax, being a native of rural Georgia, I do have a southern accent. :wink:

Jois wrote:

First of all, Jois, I don’t know whether G.W. was educated in England. Even if he were, though, I can’t buy the premise that he must therefore have had a British accent. I myself was educated among all manner of New York and New Jersey natives, yet there is no trace of Brooklynese in my voice. (My Georgia twang remains intact!) I think your accent generally is established by where you were raised, and not by where you may have attended school in your teen years.

I also can’t agree that all colonists of the time would have spoken some variation of a British accent. As I pointed out in my original post, the colonists had been in residence in America for nearly 200 years at the time of the Revolution. That seems to me ample time to develop a distinct accent. The ingredients of the southern accent (which I believe comes from an amalgamation of English, Scottish and African influences), had long been in place by the time of the Revolution.

My personal suspicion is that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, et al. probably did speak in at least some precursor of a southern accent. I would be very interested to learn whether there was any contemporary writings about regional dialects. Strainger, please let me know if you locate any more info on this topic.

Thanks again for the interest in the topic.

I wish I could find a cite, but I do recall Southerners (Pro-French Republicans) commenting on how New Englanders (Federalist Anglophiles) spoke in a fashion similar to that of Englishmen. These comments were made in the pro-Madison, warhawk press prior to the War of 1812, and were meant as insults.

This isn’t suprising, the Northerners were more cosmopolitan and had greater contact with English visitors, traders and sailors. Life on the plantations was more isolated and more likely to produce distinct dialects. Influences there would be from the Carribean, New Orleans and Africa, as much as from England.

Only the West was more isolated, and you can clearly see dialect reflected in their writings; (“Yep, I reckon them thar injuns are a might riled.”) The Southern writers we are familiar with from the 18th century were all educated aristocrats who would never let their dialect be reflected in their writing. Not until the Civil War, in the letters written home by less formally educated Southerners, do you see the dialect in writing. Lee and other Aristocrats still kept it out of their writing.

Washington almost surely had a southern accent, but he was well traveled (within the colonies) and spent almost all of the war in the North. This would probably have moderated his accent, especially if he was trying to garner the respect of the New Englanders that made up much of his army. His accent might well have changed depending on who he was talking to. This is the case with most of my English and Irish ex-pat. friends.

Oh, “The Crossing”.

Good movie, maybe even good military history, not to be confused with good social history. I have a feeling someone pitched the idea like this: “It will be just like ‘Patton’ except with Geo. Washington!”

My favorite part is where Washington tells Gen. Knox, “Move your fat ass, Henry!” in front of the men. This kind of comment back then would surely have resulted in a glove slap and pistols at dawn.

Here is related thread regarding British and American dialect about 200 years ago. I probably would’ve had better luck with the search engine if I had spelled “Yosemite” correctly in that thread.

I thought Canadian was the basis of the official language of TV?


Good post, Ursa Major. Thanks for your input. One point you made bears special consideration. You wrote:

So by the Civil War, at least, there was a fully-developed southern accent, as evidenced by the letters written home by soldiers.

In my view this reinforces the idea that the southern accent, in some form, must have already been in place by the time of the Revolution. Otherwise, you would have to believe that in the 167 years between initial colonization and the Revolution, southerners continued to speak in essentially British tones, but then in the “four score and seven years” between the Revolution and the Civil War, the southern accent magically emerged.

It is more logical to believe that the southern accent developed gradually, and that it would have been in place, in some form, by the time of the Revolution.

BTW, thank you Strainger, for the link and the additional info.

Oh yes, Ursa Major, I want to address one other statement you made. You wrote:

Two points:

First, you suggest that Washington would have needed to lessen his accent to gain the respect of troops from New England. This implies that some stigma would have attached to a southern accent at the time of the Revolution. I’m not sure that is the case. My own view is that the stigma which presently (or until recently) attached to southern accents is the product of stereotypes in the mass media. (We’ll call it the “Beverly Hillbillies Effect”.) I am not sure a New Englander at the time of the Revolution would have made the same sort of assumptions, upon hearing a southern accent, that folks tend to make today.

Your point about an accent varying, depending upon the audience, is well-taken. My own accent is considerably less pronounced when I converse with northerners, but as thick as molasses when I chat with the home folks. The change in my accent when speaking to non-southerners does not arise out of any sense of shame or embarrassment, but is to make myself understood. I simply find that if I speak to northerners in full dialect, I wind up having to repeat myself a lot.

Thanks again for your comments.

I didn’t see the movie, but am responding to Ursa Major’s comment:

My favorite part is where Washington tells Gen. Knox, “Move your fat ass, Henry!” in front of the men. This kind of comment back then would surely have resulted in a glove slap and pistols at dawn.

Actually, Ursa, according to Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis, the incident you quoted did take place. Davis cites Patriots by A. J. Langguth as his source and “Shift that fat ass, Harry, But slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat” as the exact quote." Acording to Langguth (via Davis), this is how Knox himself recorded the incident after the War. As for the idea that such a comment would provoke a duel – surely not. Knox and Washington were friends and fellow soldiers. Friendly insults of this type were surely as common then as now.


Full of 'satiable curtiosity

At the Battle of Monmouth, Washington caught Lee in a cock-up. The language he used is said to have turned the air blue for miles around; witnesses say that he went on for five minutes without once repeating himself, and that strong men fainted at the sound of it.

Even allowing for exaggeration, it appears that the Father of our Country had quite a talent for invective.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

The lecture given at Mt Vernon says that George’s elder brother/half brother was educated in England.

George who was not due to inherit the property was not educated in England.

Accents are had to shake or take on - Local church preachers and tutors may well have been imported from the old country and reinforced the Washingtons’ accents.

Oh, I’m gonna keep using these #%@&* codes 'til I get 'em right.


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.)

Here’s another quick point:

It seems to be generally accepted that Robert E. Lee would have had a southern accent. Presumably, he would have picked up as a child. Well, he was born in 1807, so there must have been a southern accent prevalent in the early part of the 19th century, right?

If the accent was already in place by the early part of the 19th century, then why not the latter part of the 18th century (Washington’s era)?

Makes sense to me. And it seems far-fetched to believe that in the relatively short time span between the Revolution and the Civil War southerners would have gone from speaking in near-British tones (as some here suggest) to the full-blown southern dialect we see reflected in Confederate soldiers’ correspondence.

Well, before I painted myself into a corner with slow drying paint, I called Mt. Vernon and asked–and the answer is “probaby 75% Southern but no where near as Southern as a Richmond accent and 25% English.”

They can’t get any closer than this, know he was generally soft spoken and that’s that.

Oh, I’m gonna keep using these #%@&* codes 'til I get 'em right.