Origins of the English Accent

To All,

I heard from my overly learned ex-wife (while she was still my over bearing wife) a story that I’ve been unable to confirm about the origins of the English Accent.

The story goes that back around the time of the American Revolution (and before) the English accent didn’t really exist…basically they sounded generally like us, and, more accurately, we like them.

At some point after that time the “Upper Class” decided they didn’t want to sound like the “common folk.” So to achieve that end the most upper of them began to affect a way of speaking that sounded “superior” to the huddled masses. Eventually, the huddled masses, always wanting to at least sound above the station of their birth began mimicing this way of speaking and so the superior-sounding accent spread and became the general accent we find today…with variations springing up by natural processes (Cockney, Liverpudlian, etc)

Please let me know if you have the straight dope.


I don’t have the SD. But I heard a similar theory… (Probably here) that around the time of the WoI the two sides sounded the same, and that Since that time England’s has changed and America’s has remained more like what it was.

But every fiber of my being finds it hard to imagine that my ancestors sounded American! :eek:

  1. Be suspicious of any theory that suggests a large group of people deliberately modified their accent. Doesn’t happen. There a many stories (“See, this Spanish king had a lisp…”) but in fact, languages change constantly but organically.

  2. There are some features of American English that are more conservative than British English. That is, they are closer to the way people used to speak in England 500 years ago than (mainstream) British English. Post-vocalic [r], for instance, as in “water.”

  3. There are some features of British English that are more conservative than American English. That is, they are closer to the way people used to speak in England 500 years ago than (mainstream) American English. Intervocalic [t], for instance, as in “water.”

So US “waddur” and British “watah” are both continuations of earlier “water.”

This works at all sorts of levels: grammar, vocabulary, etc. People like to believe that one dialect or another is the least changed (and therefore the best), but in fact there is no such thing. If you made a complete list of phonological, grammatical, syntactical, morphological, lexemic, and other features for every dialect, and compared them with what is known of London ca. 1600, you might find a candidate that genuinely is the most conservative, but I don’t think anyone has done so because by and large it’s a waste of time. Language changes.

I wonder if the American accent is the more “natural” accent used for English. Whenever I hear a European who is very fluent in English speak the language, it seems to sound more American/Canadian than British; especially those in the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.

A lot of that has to do with how they learned the language. Lots of Europeans learn English through exposure to english language media, and the bulk of enlish language media is produced in the US.

I’ve noticed that lots of Indians speak english with an “English-ish” accent, a combination of both an Indian accent and an English accent.

The (possibly UL) that I heard was that the British court was trying to emulate the trendy French court, who spoke English with a weak trailing R, and the trend spread from the court to the gentry, and then the commoners. But probably bull as well.

I’ve often wondered how anything at all is known about how English was pronounced 400 years ago. Is there a short answer to that question?

Anecdotal. Depends on schooling and cultural exposure. When I travelled in Italy all the Italians working for the airlines speaking excellent English had a British accent. I have met many Indians and Middle Easterners speaking British-accented English. I also think that there is more American television available in Europe than British television, just because there is more American television. Just saying you can’t generalize on this.

As far as accents in the US, accents vary widely throughout the original 13 colonies (compare Richmond to Boston to Baltimore) not to mention the rest of the country–notwithstanding Dr. Drake’s info, I honestly don’t know how much we know about how the first Americans sounded, much less how it compares to contemporary Britons.

Educated guesses can be made by examining written poetry, rhyming songs and other devices such as riddles where the same sound can be interpreted as two completely different strings of words, with two different meanings.

Short of a time machine, it’s hard to be 100% sure, but variant spellings and rhyming poetry help a lot, as does a knowledge of etymology, modern dialectal variants, foreigners commenting on the language, and the English comments on / representations of other languages. That’s why I picked 1600 in my example, more data from 1600 than, say, 1200.

Keep in mind that there isn’t, nor has there even been an English accent. There have always been many, and we should expect them to have been more numerous 300 years ago than today. One can trace some elements of the various American accents to the region in Britain where a plurality of immigrants came from. So, no, your ex-wife doesn’t know what she’s talking about. How glad are you to hear that? :slight_smile:

It’s also no accident that South African, Australian, and New Zealand accents have many similarities, given the time of settlement was roughly the same (and much later than the settlement of N. America by British immigrants).

Yet you have no problem spelling fibre the American way?

Because I’m an Internet-American. And Under 30.