Did Pre-Radio Brits Struggle to Understand the Standard American Accent?

This is another one of those fields where humans like things to be in neat compartments (in this case called accent, dialect and language) where we can label them ‘same’ or ‘different’, but the real world presents us with a continuum of examples that don’t want to be compartmentalised.

To me, the best way I can describe hearing spoken Scots is that it’s like listening to an advanced lecture on a topic you know absolutely nothing about; the sentence structure is correct and you can understand that valid information is being conveyed in a tone that should make sense to you, but the words you’re hearing are all unfamiliar to you or are being used in contexts that make no sense.

Yeah, it requires concentration to try to parse the meaning and this typically takes too long and the speaker overtakes your capacity to keep up.

I can keep up with maybe 60 percent of the meaning when listening to a Scots speaker although again accent and dialect and individual pattern of speech can make that impossible. I once worked in a liquor & tobacco warehouse and we would get drivers coming in from the highlands - sometimes I had no trouble understanding, other times they might as well have been speaking Norwegian.

Dutch is the really weird one for me, because many of the sounds are familiar and the odd word here and there is the same, so there’s just enough in there to bait my perception into thinking I should be able to comprehend it, but this fails. Furthermore, many of the sounds that are different from my own language are different in a way that feels sort of ‘silly’ - pure coincidence I’m sure, but Dutch sounds, to my English ears, like English people making funny nonsense talk.

I had heard that Appalachians sound like Elizabethans, but when I Googled it, I came across this article by Ken Jennings (the Jeopardy guy), although I don’t know what makes him a language expert.

The great Shakespearean stage director Trevor Nunn opined a few years ago, after directing Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic theater, that he’d like to see Shakespeare done only in American accents from now on. “Today’s American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing,” he said. Specifically, it’s been claimed since the late 19th century that parts of Appalachia still speak in an accent that’s a virtual time capsule of Elizabethan English. Gadzooks! Hillbillies talking like Hamlet? Can this in truth be so?

Well, no. It might be romantic to think that isolated pockets of Appalachia are still talking like Sir Walter Raleigh, but there’s little evidence for it. It’s true that certain speech patterns in the “Southern Midland dialect” of the Appalachians have clearly been retained from different parts of the British Isles. The prefix “a-” before a verb (“I’m a-comin’!”) is from South England. Phrases like “might could” and “young’un” are Scotch-Irish borrowings. But Elizabethan vocabulary is very rare in Appalachian speech, and Shakespeare’s London was the part of Britain that influenced colonial American speech the least.

So what did Shakespeare’s English sound like, if not Appalachian? By studying internal evidence like rhymes and meter, as well as reading accounts from Elizabethan linguists, the British Library has come up with their best guess as to how the Bard actually spoke, and has recorded 75 minutes of Shakespeare in that accent. Take a listen.. It’s certainly not the posh BBC accent of modern Shakespearean actors. It seems peppered with bits of many British regional accents, and even some American ones. For example, the Elizabethans used a rhotic “r” sound at the end of words, the way American or Irish English does but Brits today don’t. But I don’t hear much Loretta Lynn in there.

I recall reading that a good example from Applachia was the song On Top of Old Smokey

“A thief he will rob you, ♫
and take what you have,
But a false-hearted lover,
will drive you to the grave…” ♪

The article pointed out that back when the lyrics were settled, “have” and “grave” had the same “A” sound and rhymed.

I think a regional accent has more to do with isolation, with lack of regular travel (or with modern media, exposure) to outside accents. The multiple regional accents of Britain, including even a cockney accent for a partcular area of London due to socio-economic isolation, go back to pre-industrial times. (And from comments I’ve seen about Bavarian accents or “l"Assang de Marsdseilles” Britain is not the only one.) I stayed at a hotel in Venice near Pont d’Angelo or d’Anzhoulo depending on whether it was written as it should be or how it was pronounced. People commented on Neflix show Narcos where some alleged Columbians had Mexican accents. And so on.

The story of Dick van Dyke and his cockney coach for Mary Poppins is legendary…

Indeed. Regional pride in Germany boosts local accents and dialects, not just in Bavaria. There’s a folk theatre in Hamburg putting on plays in Plattdeutsch - I once saw a bit of it on TV and could only follow the gist by thinking of the performers as people from the North East of England (which has a distinctively similar rhythm and intonation in sentences) trying to speak German.