How old is the "American Accent"?

Maybe it’s because I’ve watched 1776 one time too many. Maybe it’s because a Model UN conference I’m attending in November is running a simulation of the Second Continental Congress. Or maybe it’s because I’m at work running tech for a distance learning class on linguistics.

But I find myself wondering, just what did colonists sound like during the Revolution? Was there still a definite British tilt at that point, or was there starting to be an American accent as we know it today? I know there were new immigrants coming all the time, but what did the people whose families had been there for a few generations sound like?

Any linguists in the house who want to answer my burning question?

My understanding is that in the late 18th-century, the American colonists and the British didn’t sound hugely distinctive from one another, in a very general sense. All due caveats about the multiplicity of accents on both sides of the Atlantic are to be implied.

What’s happened, though, in the intervening three centuries, is that British usage and American usage diverged. Your mention of the “British lilt” is interesting – my understanding is also that at the time, the British didn’t have a British lilt, either. It was to come about later on.

See, I have absolutely no idea about this sort of thing. And by lilt, I mean more the way the vowels are pronounced, both from what can be considered “regular” British actors, and the affected “upper class” stereotypical British accent.

The pronunciation in both countries has changed since then, so that 18th-century pronunciation wouldn’t be the same as either country’s pronunciation today. It would sound a bit foreign to both.

A previous thread on this question linked to audio files of early 19th-century Americans who had survived into the era of Edison cylinders. The closest real evidence we can get.

There have been a few threads asking whether George Washington and Thomas Jefferson spoke with a Southern accent. They got lots of replies although that was years ago. The consensus was that they probably spoke with a variation of a Southern accent. Remember that there were other large immigrant groups like the Germans in the U.S. by then. 1776 sounds old to us but the U.S. had already been settled for well over 150 years by that point. English influence wasn’t as strong as we tend to believe by 1776. There were lots of different groups here including the ever-present native Americans.

Can anyone find those threads?

Umm… Uhhh… We’re caught in a loop.

Some of the older threads ended up with pronunciation based on generation jumping. That can be quite powerful. For example, I have a great-grandmother that I knew who was born in 1889 and knew plenty of Civil War soldiers. In turn, some of them knew people who fought during the Revolutionary War. I am only 35 years old and it only takes two leaps to make it back that far and three at the most to make it safe. One person cannot give a definitive answer but there are lots of people that can do powerful generation jumping to build evidence for this type of question.

There are very early recordings of older people that make it clear that there was a Southern accent in the early 1800’s when they grew up. It wouldn’t sound out of place even today.

Can someone find those threads please? There are actual recordings based on what I am talking about.

There is no “American accent”.

Other English-speaking people talk funny.
Regional accents, yeah, we gots those.

Here is one of them although there is another with links to generation jumping recordings that I can’t find:

It’s basically hopeless to date the beginning of any accent. All language change is gradual. American and British English have been diverging from the moment that English-speaking colonists landed in the New World. Both American and British English has been changing during that time. The speech of an British English-speaker is as different from the speech of a British English-speaker (at the same location) 300 years ago (or whatever) as the speech of an American English-speaker is from that of an American English-speaker (at the same location) 300 years ago.

I thought that there was some evidence that there was also a surprising degree of geographic stability of accents. I have a vague recollection that there seemed to be proof that the Cockney accent, for example, has existed for several centuries in a form that would be recognizable today.

Okay, a couple of years ago, I heard (or possibly read?) a story about a production of a Shakespeare play done in the original accent. Some googling hath found a transcript of a radio bit on this production.

Pretty interesting. This accent predates American independence, but there were English colonies in what’s now the US. I’d like to hear what this sounds like. I’d google more, but it’s bedtime.

I’m sure I remember reading (although I think it may have been in a Bill Bryson book, so accuracywise you’d better etc etc) that some East Coast US accents are pretty much unchanged from the 300-year-old English accents that the settlers had.

No, Bryson is simply wrong about that. All languages (and all dialects) are changing. There aren’t any accents that are the same as they were three hundred years ago.

And that’s precisely the sort of claim that David Crystal had in mind in his comments quoted by Kyla. His point is that different elements in ‘Shakespearian’ pronunciation resemble different elements in different modern accents. No one accent preserves them more than the others. As he has pointed out elsewhere - for example, in his book, Pronouncing Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 2005) - the idea that it sounds like accent X is simply because everyone thinks they recognise certain features in it, with everyone being biased towards recognising accents with which they happen to be familar.

As has been noted, there is no one American accent. But the differences between British and American English started basically the moment the colonists stepped on shore. There’s tons of stuff written by Brits back then bemoaning the changes the Americans were making to the language, particularly vocabulary-wise. Since the Brits and the Americans couldn’t talk face to face much, different dialects emerged.

Since the first colonists, both the British and Americans have radically changed the language in the intervening years. Most notable, the British have lost their r’s. Some American cities, notably NYC, Boston, Charleston, followed the British lead and became r-less due to interaction via trade with Englishmen, but most Americans are more conservative than most Brits when it comes to r.

An interesting thing happened in America, since people settled from all over England. All of these speakers speaking different dialects came together and a process of koineization occurred… at least according to some linguists; the development of American English is a hot topic of debate. So, the diversity that was apparent in England was mostly lost among the colonists, though the process occurred differently in different parts of the country. These differing processes along with different influences from non-English speakers explains a lot of the regional variation in the US.

I did some searching and sined up just to share this link with you. It’s not the audio from the transcript you provided, but another interview with David Crystal (the guy who did the production) and he reads lines from Shakespeare. Sounds very West Country :smiley:

I also found this on how to talk ‘Elizabethan’, but it doesn’t look too accurate.

The interview’s with actor Peter Forbes, in fact, but no less interesting for that.

It does sound very West Country: I wonder how much of that is down to the actor mapping the required pronunciations onto a familiar modern accent that has similar features?

It’s interesting, though, that until at least the First World War, similar “rural” accents were native much closer to London than they are today.